Poetry Using Previous Plays on Words

John Binns, in his Democratic Press, gave his fancy free rein in constructing chains of metaphors describing Sir James Yeo (whose last name just might have been pronounced “ewe”) the chief British naval officer on Lake Ontario.  One of his metaphors involved a broom, as did Irving’s Admiral Van Tromp, who, with a broom nailed to his masthead swept the English channel.  Another series of metaphors involved sheep, naming Yeo (ewe?) an English battering ram, always shearing off, away from a battle.  Some of his readers were much taken with the play, and one produced this poem, “The Knight of the Ragged Fleece”:

We be three poor freebooters
Lately come from sea,
And tho’ we are not sharpshooters
We’ve been in jeopardy.
We broke loose from our tether
And ventured out to roam,
Led on by our bellwether–
Ah! wou’d we’d staid at home!
For soon the Yankee Doodle dogs,
A snappish, mongrel race,
Fiercer than any French bull frogs,
Came out and gave us chace.
We scampered off like lightening,
Manoeuvring as we flew
But still the curs kept frightening
And worrying off our crew.
Of eight that ventured out to sea
Parting from our best bower,
We are alas! the only three
The curs did not devour.
And we have been most sadly mauled
Especially behind;
Oh! if we had been overhauled
They would have slipped our wind.
Our bellwether has lost his horns
And cannot buck again:
Oh! had we never wet our corns
Except upon the main.
For here upon a little Lake
It’s hard to run away
Like rogues we’re fastened to a stake
For curs to bite and bay.”

On October 19, 1813,  another poem appeared, also using the sheep metaphor for Sir James Yeo, but also using to advantage the name of Commodore Chauncey’s ship, the Pike.  Here is “The Sheep and the Pike”:

Once a sheep of the best English breed
With a Wolf’s+ skin to cover his fleece
Who had washed in the Thames and the Tweed;
His fine qualities still to increase
Took a plunge in Ontario’s waters
And as if it had been a Scots Loch
He gamboled about with his quarters
At the head of a Scots-English flock.
A Pike, with his maritime school
Of the genuine American sort,
Who chanced to be playing at pool
Was disturbed by the sheep in his sport:
Annoyed at their frisking about
And befouling the Lake’s limpid flood,
He ordered them all to clear outOn pain of his shedding their blood.
The sheep swore like vengeance, odrot’em
If fishes should cause them to stop
And damning the pikes to the bottom
Asserting their right to the top.
Both parties their signs now display,
And it soon appeared who would prevail–
Pisces hoisted his fins for the fray,
While Aries’ sign was–his tail–
But they could not escape from the pike
Who five of them took dead as mutton
Tho’ the sheep in wolf’s skin did not strike–
Being less of a Belcher* than glutton.
One sheep which they called Salamander
Unable to stand the fins fire
Ran a shore like a very Fin-lander–
The rest, each deprived of a limb,
Made the best of their way to the fold
Determined never to swim
Where pikes their water sports hold.

+ Sir James Yeo’s ship was the Wolf
* The name of a famous English boxer
# The term used by boxers for one who stands a great deal of beating

Another Philadelphia paper, the Aurora, participated in the battle between the Wolf and the Pike.  This poem, called “The Wolf and the Pike,” was followed by a note from the editor that “The music for this song will be for sale at G. Willig’s music store, No. 24, south Fourth street, this evening.”

Wolf once met a Pike,
And vow’d that she would eat her,
Did you e’er dream the like?
That little Pike should beat her.
Says Wolf, “I’m tired of beef and veal,
And fish is finer feeding,”
But little Pike with fins of steel,
Set her foul mouth to bleeding.
When Wolf first felt her wound,
She scamper’d up from table,
And ran upon dry ground,
As fast as she was able.
Says she, “This was a cursed dish
For Wolf to think of ever,
And Pike, from this day, is a fish
I ne’er will taste–no never.”
But Pike, who from the deep
With scorn beheld her canting,
Now feigns to be asleep,
And for more sport is panting.
If savage Wolf invade her bed,
Her limpid bed of waters,
The finny Pike will strike her dead,
Unless she cry for quarters.

There was yet another poem, originally published in the Columbian (and reprinted in the National Intelligencer of October 19, 1813) in which “Yeo” is rhymed with “foe”.  The poem in introduced with these comments:  “The late manoeuvering of sir James L. Yeo, it is said, has revived the popularity of an old ballad among our hearty tars on Lake Ontario; so that never a grog tie passes over, nor morning, noon and night, when in merry mood, but the forecastle resounds with the well known song–”

When first we hear the boatswain bray,
With a voice like thunder roaring,
All hands, my lads, get under way,
See the signal for unmooring:
To save the joyous breeze,
Our hand pikes then we seize,
In hopes to meet the foe;
Our capstan here,
Our windlass there,
We man to the tune of Yeo, Yeo,
Yeo, Yeo; Yeo, Yeo;
And its all to the tune of Yeo, Yeo.

Another poem, published in the Baltimore Patriot on September 29, 1813, rhymed “Yeo” with “so.”  This is “On Master Yeo’s giving lessons to Commodore Chauncey”:

To instruct how to rule,
He ‘took Isaac to school,’
And sure never a lad could learn faster:
In a fortnight or so
By the skill of Yeo,
He thought nothing of--flogging his master.

The author of a  poem in the Louisville Western Courier, printed December 27, 1813, did not put Yeo in a rhyming position:

One Warrior said, & who’ll gainsay!
That ‘He who fights and runs away,
May live to fight another day.’
But gallant Yeo doth surpass
The valiant Hero Hudibrass;
For Sir James holds, that is right,
To run away before you fight;
Since he who doth the battle stay,
May never have to run away!

Commodore Perry’s victory on Lake Erie gave these poets a great occasion to celebrate.  Here it must be noted that porter was a red wine from Portugal, and that perry was a drink made with fermented pears.  At this time David Porter, of the U.S.S. Essex, was still in the Pacific Ocean.


The sea boys of Britain, so fond of good grog,
With Yankee rum never are cloy’d;
Our whiskey they swear makes the stiffest of grog,
But our Porter they wish to avoid
And so they kept swigging, and swaggering about
To keep themselves manful and merry;
Till finding their cider and spirits all out,
They’re dead drunk at last with our Perry.

–from the Mercantile Advertiser, September 15, 1813


The British tars, we know, will drink
Of grog until they’re merry.
That’s sailor-like–but only think–
They stagger under Perry.

–the Mercantile Advertiser, October 21, 1813

One more poem I will insert irrelevantly here, from an English paper, reprinted by the Aurora on November 9, 1814.

Sweetly slumb’ring on the ocean,
Seamen fear no danger nigh;
Some folks slumber I’ve a notion,
When the Yankee ships pass by.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden