You will not find Ivor Watson’s poems in any of the anthologies of nineteenth century American verse. For the few who are aware of his work he has always been viewed as a very minor poet, overshadowed by the likes of Longfellow, Whitman and Dickinson. The greatness and public admiration that he so desired always eluded him. In fairness, we cannot attribute this lack of celebrity to the fact that he died when still in his twenties; after all, it didn’t do John Keats any harm (except for the dying bit). To be brutally honest the real reason was that he was just not a very good poet.
Having been born into one of the wealthier families of New England, Ivor had the freedom to indulge his various passions to the full. One of these was a desire to take to the skies. He had been inspired in this by reading of the exploits of Mr John Wise, a famous balloonist of the time. In 1850 Ivor purchased Wise’s newly published book, the snappily entitled:
‘A System of Aeronautics, Comprehending Its Earliest Investigations, and Modern Practice and Art. Designed as a History for the Common Reader, and Guide to the Student of the Art, in Three Parts’.
Armed with this tome Ivor felt empowered to go out and buy a very expensive hot air balloon. This was a state of the art piece of modern technology and had been produced strictly to Wise’s specifications. And so, in the Spring of 1851, he set out to explore the heavens. What could possibly go wrong?
When all the gas escaped and the balloon floundered off the coast of Maine, to his credit, Ivor didn’t panic. Wise’s design ensured that if, for any reason, the balloon should become deflated when aloft it would collapse to form a parachute. This would ensure that the occupant of the basket descended to the earth in a reasonably dignified manner and without injury. That was the good news. The bad news was that he had landed upon the rocky shores of Hopeless.
We will now go forward in time and space. It was a year or so later that Mr Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was intrigued to take receipt of a small package, wrapped in oilskin, that his wife Frances had discovered, washed up on a beach. Inside was a small hand-written notebook. Within its pages were the ink-smudged last words ever written by Ivor Watson, which included his final poem. This Longfellow dismissed out of hand as being opium-addled nonsense but he was quite taken by the meter Ivor had employed (which is, I am reliably informed, trochaic tetrameter) and decided to use it himself some day.
By great coincidence the notebook is now in the possession of Rufus Lypiatt, landlord of the Squid and Teapot, having been inadvertently left there in a carpet-bag by Mr W.S.Gilbert, who had acquired it from Longfellow when he visited him in 1871.
Here, then, are the final words of Ivor Watson:
Tuesday April 15 1851 written from the comfort of my room in The Squid and Teapot.
I am thankful to have landed safely upon this island, though its austere bareness immediately troubled me for reasons which, at first, I could not comprehend. The basket of my ruined balloon still sits in the desolation of a long abandoned chapel. I will return there in the morning and see what might be done. It strikes me as being exceedingly strange that a house of God should have once existed in such a desolate spot.
When darkness descended upon the land I was loathe to venture far from the chapel, feeling that if evil was truly abroad its agents would be less likely to cause me harm if I stood upon consecrated ground. In the wan light of a full moon I witnessed certain creatures passing but in truth they resembled no fauna I have seen illustrated in any publication. I have always been led to believe that only denizens of the sea propel themselves with tentacles.
As the night drew on I began to fear that these horrors would indeed attack me. They came ever nearer, seeming to have no fear or respect for what was once the house of our Lord. As I was about to abandon all hope of deliverance I spied the figure of a man on a nearby hill. Although he carried a large burden on his back he scrambled over the rocks with great agility. The beasts, if creatures of flesh and blood they were, seemed to trouble him not. As he neared them they eschewed his very presence and thankfully retreated. I confess, I wondered who might wield such power over them and fretted that this might be yet another demon in human guise.
This fellow was certainly human but, in truth, his stench was untenable. Alas, it is the price I had to pay for his companionship and protection, for I believe that his reek, which is that of human filth, keeps the very demons of the pit at bay. I guessed him to be a collector of night soil. We have such men in Portland who patrol with pony and cart. Their business is conducted when gentlefolk are abed so this is the first of his type I have met. Despite the stench he is a good sort and accompanied me to this nearby hostelry.
Wednesday April 16 1851
Dear God, is there no respite from the demons that haunt this island? Disturbed from sleep last night, I swear I saw a tiny, almost fish-like figure scuttle through my room wearing pewter stilts that resembled spoons. I did but wonder if I had died and gone to Hell. Even the name of this inn screams of my worst nightmares. Squids and teapots are unlikely bedfellows in the waking world.
But at least now I have breakfasted and feel in better spirits. I prepare to make my way back in daylight to see if anything may be done with my late lamented air balloon.
Wednesday April 16 from the chapel ruins.
Good fortune has smiled upon me. As I made my way along I chanced upon some men of God seeking a place to build an abbey. Although papists, they seemed cheered by my description of the ruined chapel. We ventured here together and praise be, they have helped me secure my escape from this accursed island.
By prudently caulking my basket with moss and mud, then lining it with the fabric of my balloon, part of which will furnish me with a fine sail, I am now ready to put to sea and feel confident that this very evening I will be dining with my parents in Portland. However, before I may leave I have two tasks to complete. Firstly, I will write a poem to commemorate my journey. This should be in some heroic meter. I recall my Finnish nanny, dear Kaija, used to chant to me snatches of the epic tale from her native land ,The Kalevala. I always loved its rhythm. My other task before setting off is to wrap this notebook securely in oilskin, to protect it from the ravages of saltwater.
An excerpt from
The Song of Ivor Watson
On the rugged shores of Hopeless,
By the angry, murky water,
Wet and shiv’ring in the darkness,
I stood waiting for the morning
Hoping I’d survive ‘til sun up.
Then before me, not too distant
On the headland stood a stranger
With a bucket strapped upon him.
Oh the air was foul and fetid
In those places where he wandered,
Wandered with his lidded bucket,
O’er the rocks so slick and jagged.
“Tell me stranger” I beseeched him,
Trying not to retch and splutter,
“Tell me where I might find shelter,
Safely from the ghosts and goblins,
Those who gibber, scream and cackle
In the darkness, where my nightmares
Tentacled and fanged and slimy
Haunt me when I do not slumber.”
“Get you to the The Squid and Teapot”
Answered then the pungent stranger,
“There the company is pleasant,
There you’ll drink strong ale and porter.
Maybe try the local moonshine.
Local moonshine, giggling water”
In the safety of my chamber
Food and shelter soon refreshed me,
Drove away those nightmare visions
Spawned from fear and desperation
In the ruins of the chapel.
Exorcised those frightful demons.
Those who slithered in the darkness,
Those who shunned the gentle sunlight.
Nurs’ry monsters of my childhood.
So unto my bed I wander’d
Seeking sweet repose and comfort.
Then my eyes beheld a figure
Swathed in moonlight, small, misshapen
Spoons for legs and eyes a-glowing
Dancing on my bedside table
Capering within the moonlight
Even here the hell-spawn lingered.
Even here my nightmares taunt me.
Was it too much giggling water?
(The rest was an inky blur and completely unreadable. This, dear reader, is no great loss to literature)
Illustration by Clifford Cumber