The Wet Litany

These notes, edited by Alastair Wilson, are based on P W Inwood’s notes for the ORG. The verse and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Traffics and Discoveries as published and frequently reprinted between 1904 and 1950.


First published with “Their Lawful Occasions” inTraffics and Discoverfies (1904) and collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol 7 and vol 34
  • Burwash Edition vol 7 and vol 27
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney

Peter Bellamy’s rendition is to be found here.

The Poem

“This poem is a magnificent evocation of the seaman’s chief dread (but it should be observed that his fears have been greatly lessened by the invention of radar)”. So wrote Admiral Brock  ] in the Old Readers’ Guide.  Fog remains a great menace, because, despite a vastly more sophisticated radar and its associated automated plotting systems which can tell you your position, the relative position of every other object on the surface of the sea or in the air around you, their course and speed, and closest point of approach, the Mark I Eyeball and the human brain remain the best assurances of safety at sea. And the Mark I Eyeball becomes useless in fog.

Notes on the text

[Verse 1, Line 7] Hear the Channel Fleet at sea: At this time there was, in strict terms, no ‘Channel Fleet’. There was a ‘Channel Squadron’, but the only ‘Fleet’ was the Mediterranean Fleet. A ‘Fleet’ comprised a balanced force of all types of vessels: at this time, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats. The Channel Squadron consisted only of battleships and cruisers, but smaller ships were under the command of the admirals at the Nore (The mouth of the Thames and Medway), Portsmouth, and Plymouth. The Mediterranean Fleet, at the end of the 19th Century, was regarded as the primary fleet, though Germany’s rise as a maritime power was about to change that perception. Other stations worldwide had ‘Squadrons’, smaller units, rarely more than ten ships, and with usually nothing larger than a cruiser as the flagship and ship of force. But of course, ‘Fleet’ scans, which ‘Squadron’ would not, and most people would refer to ‘the Channel Fleet’ anyway.

Admiral Brock wrote:

“[the Channel Fleet] no longer exists. The Atlantic and Channel Fleets were merged in 1912 by Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty to form the First Fleet, of four battle squadrons in full commission” (i.e. 32 battleships, in the proper sense of armoured capital ships, the strongest units of the fleet). “After the war” (World War I) “the main fleet at home was the Atlantic Fleet, until its name was altered to Home Fleet in 1932 (supposedly to help wipe out the memory of the Invergordon Mutiny – which many think was a shameful example of responsibility and odium being transferred from where it belonged to the unlucky men on the spot).”

It is of interest, though perhaps not relevant here, that Admiral Brock still felt so strongly about the aftermath of the affair as to let his feelings as a naval officer show in a strictly literary context. The Invergordon Mutiny was a prime example of Government mishandling of a sensitive issue, without understanding the likely consequences. In the aftermath, scapegoats were found, and ‘spin’ employed to blur the issues. [A.W.]

[Verse 1 Line 8]  libera nos Domin:   (Translation, “free us, Lord”). “Libera nos” is found in the Latin Bible, at Joshua 10.6; Judges 10.15; Esther 14.19, 15.3; Psalm 78.9; Jeremiah 2.27; Matthew 6.13 (the end of the Lord’s Prayer: Libera nos a malo means “deliver us from evil”). The specific combination “libera nos Domine” is not found, but we have “Domine libera nos” at Psalm 78.9; “Domine, libera animam meam” (Lord, free my soul”) at Psalms 114.4, 119.2; and “libera me Domine” (free me, Lord) at Job 17.3. “Libera nos domine” is then frequent in later prayers of the Latin Church, particularly litanies (hence the poem’s title). [D.H.]

[Verse 2, line 1] engines’ bated pulse: “Every vessel shall, in a fog, mist, falling snow, or heavy rain storms go at a moderate speed, having careful regard to the existing circumstances and conditions.” (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.)” Admiral Brock cited the above in 1958-60, and the rules applicable in 1902-04 probably said the same. The current Regulations, introduced in 1972, say: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions” (Rule 6).

[lines 5 & 6] When the intolerable blast / marks each blindfold minute passed: “In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows: (a) A power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes one prolonged blast.” (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (1972) – Rule 35.)

This is a reference to the ‘One Long Blast’ sounded on the siren or foghorn every minute (usually, but as indicated, the interval must be not more than two minutes) in fog, to give warning of one vessel’s presence to another. When you’re on the bridge, usually directly in front of, and fairly close to, the siren, it certainly can be intolerable (and trying to sleep, if your bunk is anywhere near the bridge, becomes difficult!)

[Verse 3, lines 1 & 2] When the fog-buoy’s squattering flight / guides us through the haggard night:. A fog-buoy was a marker float, towed on the end of a fine wire or rope, from the stern of each ship (except the last) of a line in close company, in fog. In Victorian and Edwardian days, according to Admiral Brock, it was a small cask or barrel. In line ahead (each ship following in the wake of another) the standard distance apart was 2 ½ cables, or 500 yards. If the visibility was less than that distance, then the ship ahead streamed (= let out) a fog-buoy to a distance of 500 yards, and the ship astern kept the buoy abreast its bridge. Thus you knew that you were the right distance astern of your next ahead.

squatter: means to plunge through water, and the adjective ‘squattering’ is exact – by virtue of its most unsuitable shape for being towed the buoy would proceed in a series of leaps and splashes, jerking, jinking, tunnelling through the waves. By the 1950s a more suitable buoy had been evolved, consisting of a cross of wood, about 4 feet long, and 3 feet wide, in the form of a crucifix, towed, as it were, from the short, head, end. The cross arms were to prevent it from turning over, while at the foot end was a scoop, made of galvanized sheet iron/steel, which threw up a plume of water, readily visible. But the fog-buoy would not “guide you through the haggard night” in fog – you really would be unlikely to see it even if it was alongside you, no more than 25 yards away: darkness plus fog means adopting some other formation.

[line 3] When the warning bugle blows: From about 1860 to 1960, in ships carrying a Royal Marine detachment (all battleships and most cruisers), orders of a general nature (as opposed to seamanship orders) were passed by means of a bugle-call, rather than using the Boatswain’s call, or pipe. In this case, the order being passed is to close all watertight doors within the ship (see the comment later on “Man and arm watertight doors”, in the text of the story). Normally, at sea, watertight doors below the waterline would be shut, though the odd one, in frequent use, might be left open, but watertight doors at or above the waterline would mostly be left open, to facilitate movement about the ship. At the onset of fog, (or when manoeuvring in close company, or on making an uncertain landfall) a higher state of preparedness would be assumed, initiated by bugle-call, and all watertight doors throughout the ship would be shut.

[line 4] When the lettered doorways close: This refers to the watertight doors. Each bulkhead was lettered from forward, A through to Z as required, so that a door could be identified as, e.g. ‘Lower deck D port’. (In HMS Warrior at Portsmouth, which dates from 1860, you can see the original letters painted on some of the bulkheads.) A similar system remains in use today.

[line 5] our brittle townships: an allusion to the fact that a ship’s company in a battleship might consist of as many persons as were in a small town, and that they and their ship constituted a self-contained unit like a town, with tradesmen who could provide any service.

[Verse 4, lines 1 & 2] When the unseen leadsmen lean, etc: When in pilotage waters, in the days before echo-sounders to give the depth of water, depth was found with the lead (which was a 7lb. lump of that metal) on the end of the lead-line, which was marked at intervals. The leadsman, standing in ‘the chains’, a platform projecting from the ship’s side near the bows, swung the lead backwards and forwards until it had got sufficient momentum to carry forward, describing an arc as it fell into the sea some yards ahead of the ship. The skill of the leadsman lay in keeping the lead line just taut, as it became vertical with the lead itself just resting on the seabed, and reading off the mark at the waterline, as the ship passed the position where the lead had entered the water. The lead had a depression in the end which could be ‘armed’ with tallow. On recovery, the tallow would have bits of sea-bed adhering to it: sand, shells, mud, etc., and this could help to give an indication of the bottom, because the nature of the seabed is also recorded on a marine chart, as well as the depth of water.

[lines 3 & 4] When their lessened count they tell/to a bridge invisible: The “lessened count” indicates that the ship is passing into shallower water and potential danger. And this really is a thick fog – the distance from the bridge to the chains would be no more than 150 feet, so to be invisible (as opposed to dimly seen) meant that this was a really thick fog. Some 1950 years ago, St. Paul’s ship was warned of danger in the same way: “And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms,,,” (Acts 27, 28).

[Verse 5, line 2] our next ahead: Admiral Brock wrote:

“In 1922, the distance apart of ships in column in close order was laid down as 1½ cables (300 yards) for destroyers and below, 2½ cables (500 yards) for cruisers and battleships, and 3½ cables (700 yards) for battle-cruisers, but I believe it has been varied, before and since”. Today, it is 500 yards for ships less than 450 feet in length, and 1,000 yards for anything bigger.

[lines 3 & 4] When her siren’s frightened whine / Shows her sheering out of line: One short blast on the siren means “I am directing my course to starboard”: two blasts, to port. So, one short blast, out of the regular sequence of long blasts, means, in effect, “Follow me round to starboard”.

[line 4]  sheering:  As per OED, ‘sheer, v.2’, “sheer” can refer to a ship swerving either in obedience to the helm, or not in obedience to the helm. The former seems right here: as Mr Wilson explains, the next-ahead ship has spotted a danger that causes the helmsman to swerve her course. [D.H.]

[ lines 5 & 6] When her passage undiscerned / We must turn where she has turned: It’s all very well knowing that the ship in front is turning, but if you are to keep the line, and not turn inside or outside her turn, you want to know the exact moment she put her rudder over. If you are following in a ship’s wake, you can see a ‘kick’ in it, where the rudder is put over, and so, as you pass through it, you put your rudder over at that moment, and then, in theory, you will finish up in formation astern of her, neither to one side, nor the other, with the fog-buoy squattering along where it was before.

[P.W.I./ A.W.]

 ©P.W.Inwood and Alastair Wilson 2004, All Rights Reserved