Song of the Galley-slaves

(notes by John Radcliffe)


This poem was first published in July 1891 in the Contemporary Review within the text of “The Finest Story in the World”. It is listed in ORG as No. 498.

It is collected in

  • Many Inventions (1893)
  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols v and xxxiv
  • The Burwash Edition vols v and xxvii.
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 855.

The poem

Peter Havholm writes in his notes on “The Finest Story in the World” :

The narrator meets a young bank clerk, Charlie Mears, who longs to be a writer and seeks his advice. Charlie seems a commonplace and not particularly imaginative young man, but – partly written and partly in conversation – he produces strangely powerful accounts of sea voyages in the ancient world, by a Viking adventurer on a voyage to America, and by a Greek galley slave. He gives vivid details, including fragments of script which turn out to be corrupt Greek. The narrator becomes convinced that – rather than creating these stories – Charlie is remembering past lives, and that it is such recollections that feed the mysterious processes of creative ‘imagination’.


Notes on the text

[line 9] oar thresh: the sound of the oars as they hit the water, like threshers beating the grain out of wheat or barley.


©John Radcliffe 2018 All rights reserved