Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday's Poetry: "Master and Man" A Titanic Tale

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Today's poem, "Master and Man" by legendary newspaperman and Hollywood screenwriter, Ben Hecht, was written a mere two days after the Titanic sank on the night of April 14-15, one century ago this month.  Hecht used but a few lines to highlight the bravery of the ship's captain, Edward John Smith, who functioned as a good sailor to the very end and went down with his ship.   In those same few lines he also contrasted Captain Smith's valor with the cowardice of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic.  Ismay, a passenger on the ill-fated ship, became known as "the coward of the Titanic" after he pushed his way into one of the lifeboats before all of the women and children had been admitted to the rescue vessels.

Another hideously wealthy passenger on the Titanic that night was New York millionaire, John Jacob Astor, the man who had built the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City just fifteen years earlier.  While some movie accounts show Astor gallantly setting in a deck chair listening to the orchestra play as the Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the icy Atlantic, in truth he, too, tried to save himself.  He ushered his young pregnant wife to a lifeboat and then asked 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller if he might accompany her in the lifeboat because of her "delicate" condition.  Lightoller told him to stand aside and let the women and children get in the boats.  Astor did as he was told and subsequently drowned.   His body was found floating in the frigid Atlantic one week later.

A third wealthy passenger, Margaret "Molly" Brown of Denver, Colorado, was placed in Lifeboat #6.  That lifeboat, as well as many others that night, left the Titanic with many of its seats empty.  Molly Brown reportedly raised hell with the ship's officer who was in charge of Lifeboat #6, demanding that they return and look for survivors.  The young officer resisted because he feared the lifeboat would be sucked under by the sinking ship's suction - or that it would be overrun with survivors.

Molly Brown tried to be a heroine, John Jacob Astor did the right thing, albeit reluctantly, and J. Bruce Ismay did what those born to privilege all too often do - he looked out for himself first.  John Richard Fry, a young father of two, was Ismay's valet and personal attendant.  He was also on the Titanic staying in a first-class accommodation next door to his boss.  Mr. Fry died when the ship went down.

Part of the lore of the Titanic is that Captain Smith was goaded into plowing through the ice field at night by Ismay so that the ship could arrive early in New York and be seen in an even more favorable light.  Another tale told by survivors is that Ismay made Captain Smith keep up speed even after the ship hit the iceberg, an act which caused the liner to sink faster.  If he had taken it more slowly, rescue ships might have made it to the Titanic in time to save more or all of the passengers.

Here is Ben Hecht's take on Captain Smith and J. Bruce Ismay.  It was published in the Chicago Journal on April 17th, 1912, and in the Chicago Daily Socialist one day after that.

Master and Man
by Ben Hecht

The Captain stood where a
Captain should
For the Law of the Sea is grim;
The Owner romped while the ship was swamped
And no law bothered him.
The Captain stood where the Captain should
When a Captain's ship goes down
But the Owner led when the women fled,
For an Owner must not drown.
The Captain sank as a man of Rank,
While the Owner turned away;
The Captain's grave was his bridge and brave,
He earned his seaman's pay.
To hold your place in the ghastly face of Death on the Sea at Night
Is a Seaman's job, but to flee with the mob
Is an Owner's Noble Right.

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