‘The Song of the Wreck’ by Charles Dickens is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a specific and structured rhyme scheme that remains consistent throughout. The lines conform to a pattern of abacdcd, alternating their end sounds as the poem progresses. ‘The Song of the Wreck’ is perfectly structured in its rhyme scheme, lending the poem a sense of unity and predictability that contrasts with the dramatic subject matter.
In an effort to enhance this unity even further, Dickens has also chosen to make use of alteration in the first words of many of the lines. For example, in the fourth and fifth stanzas almost all of the lines begin with a word starting with “t.”
Summary of The Song of the Wreck
‘The Song of the Wreck’ by Charles Dickens describes the outcome of a shipwreck and the fate of an innocent child found amongst the survivors.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that a period of terrible seas caused a ship to wreck on some uncharted land. There were a number of survivors and one in particular, a child, was to become the main subject of the poem.
One of the seamen takes a liking to the boy and makes sure he is never alone. Eventually this man dies and entrusts the child to another. They carry on in this way for a time, before, sick, tired, and starving, the men consider leaving the child behind. By the time morning comes and they must make a decision, God has taken the child’s life.
Analysis of The Song of the Wreck
The wind blew high, the waters raved,
A ship drove on the land,
A hundred human creatures saved
Kneel’d down upon the sand.
Threescore were drown’d, threescore were thrown
Upon the black rocks wild,
And thus among them, left alone,
They found one helpless child.
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker begins by describing the setting in which the bulk of the narrative will be playing out. If one does not consider the title before reading this piece, there will be a certain amount of uncertainty concerning where exactly this poem is taking place. That is, until the speaker gets to end of the first stanza and the nature of the accident and the wreck of the ship has become clear.
In the first lines Dickens’ speaker describes the brutal weather conditions the ship was sailing through before and during its crash. There was a “high” wind and tumultuous or “rav[ing]” waters. These two elements combined “drove” the ship to land.
When the ship was finally settled and the lost souls were counted, it turned out that “Threescore were drown’d” and “threescore were thrown / Upon the black rocks.” The word “threescore” refers to the number sixty, meaning that 120 people made their way to shore, either under their own power or through the power of the sea. In amongst all of the dead and lost, “They,” presumably referring to the surviving crew members, “found one helpless child.”
A seaman rough, to shipwreck bred,
Stood out from all the rest,
And gently laid the lonely head
Upon his honest breast.
And travelling o’er the desert wide
It was a solemn joy,
To see them, ever side by side,
The sailor and the boy.
In the second set of eight lines the speaker gives additional detail to the crew members and “seamen” who were part of this wreck. There was one man in particular who came forward to take care of the boy. Dickens contrasts the hard life the “seaman” had lived with the gentle act of picking up and caring for the boy.
This simple act brought the seaman and the boy together. From this point on they were never separated and the rest of the crew, including Dickens’ speaker, felt it was a “solemn joy” to see the two “side by side.”
In famine, sickness, hunger, thirst,
The two were still but one,
Until the strong man droop’d the first
And felt his labors done.
Then to a trusty friend he spake,
‘Across the desert wide,
Oh, take this poor boy for my sake!’
And kiss’d the child and died.
The next set of lines speaks on all that hardships the crew was made to contend with after the wreck. Although they landed somewhat safely upon the shore, they were not out of danger. They faced “famine, sickness, hunger, thirst,” but through all of this “The two were still but one.” Nothing could part the boy and the seaman.
Unfortunately for the kind seaman, his life could not continue. He was too ill and malnourished and died after kissing the child one last time. The man spoke before his death, entrusting the child’s welfare to his friend.
Toiling along in weary plight
Through heavy jungle, mire,
These two came later every night
To warm them at the fire.
Until the captain said one day
‘O seaman, good and kind,
To save thyself now come away,
And leave the boy behind!’
In the second to last stanza the speaker continues his description of the horrors they all had to face as they walked through the “heavy jungle.” The group “Toil[ed]” and fought their way across their shipwrecked land. No part of their journey was easy. At one point, as they were all becoming desperate, and the boy and his new companion were warming themselves at the fire, the “captain said” that it was time for them all to save themselves and “leave the boy behind.”
It becomes clear that the crew, or at least a portion of the men, believe the boy to be dragging them down. He was moving slower than the group and they could make more ground, more quickly, without him.
The child was slumbering near the blaze:
‘O captain, let him rest
Until it sinks, when God’s own ways
Shall teach us what is best!’
They watch’d the whiten’d, ashy heap,
They touch’d the child in vain;
They did not leave him there asleep,
He never woke again.
In the final stanza the crew is listening to the plan the captain has proposed. They are all considering what would happen if they snuck off in the morning and didn’t wake the boy from his spot sleeping next to fire.
The men want “God” to show them the way and tell them whether they should save the boy or save themselves. By morning, when the crew touched the boy it was all “in vain.” The child died during the night, “He never woke again.” The men did not have to make a final decision, God made it for them.