History: John Paul Jones Sails to Whitehaven

The prompt for National Poetry Month today was “history.” I chose an historical event from today – the American revolutionary war naval captain John Paul Jones’s sailing to Whitehaven to bring the war to British waters. He initially failed and then succeed at Whitehaven. He is best known in American history for a later battle in the American revolution – the battle with the British ship Serapis. The Serapis was sure of its victory and the captain called for Jones’s surrender, to which he cried the line American school children cry on playgrounds (at least in my childhood): “I have not yet begun to fight!” He fought on, won the Serapis, and entered the history books.

History: John Paul Jones Sails to Whitehaven

Sailing toward Whitehaven,
he remembers his mother,
but can hardly recall the journey
from Scotland
to the docks of England,
to sail the Friendship across
the wide and relentless Atlantic.

He remembers how his boy’s hands
hardened on the ropes
how his face caught the sea spray
sailing the merchant ships
to the Indies.

He remembers the feel of the sword
running through the mutineer.
He remembers the flight to the colonies.
He remembers finding rebellion in Boston
and revolution in Philadelphia.

He remembers some change
in him, from merchant to leiutenant
as he carried the fierce bright hope of liberty
with him on the Providence in 1776.

And now aboard the small sloop the Ranger,
having sailed from Brest,
across the Irish sea,
toward Carrickfergus,
he is taking revolution
to the waters Britain,
to burn King George’s port,
to take the Earl of Selkirk
to win ransom for the patriots
in the tyrant’s prisons.

He does not know, now, remembering,
waiting for Whitehaven, that he will fail
and then win.

That he will take the Drake,
after the second attempt,
back to France.

He does not know, that a fleet
awaits his commanding.

He does not know
That he will sail
the 900-ton Bonhomme Richard
(slow and deadly, slow and deadly)
to battle with the British ship Serapis.

That one long moonlit night
they will lash together,
his surrender certain,
and that he will cry out a snarling refusal
(“I have not yet begun to fight!”),
and that he will have the final
dawn hour of victory.

Now he knows only that he sails to Whitehaven
and remembers his mother.
Copyright Kay Winter

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