Last month’s post deconstructed the refrain of the popular sea chantey “Blow the Man Down” (a version from Gordon’s Inferno Collection) and established the sexual undertone of the narrative to come. In one argument that I venture, the notion of “blowing” a man down might relate to the sexual act of fellatio and it is the focus of this next blog post to solidify this reading as it is located in this particular version of a popular sea chantey. Though this next installment analyzing “Blow the Man Down” will read more as a stream-of-consciousness commentary concerning the initial meeting of the two main characters of the song, I will center the main discussion on the connection between the sexualized characterizations and desires of the two main characters and how their initial interactions and conversations contribute to what might be considered akin to a Greek Tragedy. Through the following discussion, the reader will encounter an interesting shift of power, back and forth, between the two characters; an almost playful, erotic battle-royale in which the sailor character ultimately goes through the stages of the Greek Emotional Cycle. The reader will watch as the sailor and the maid linguistically volley for a position of power where the sailor character is ultimately blinded by his hubris, paving the way for the milkmaid to usurp his potion of power and thwart his plan for sexual dominance. In this post, I will establish how the very first parts of the chantey illustrate a battle between the milkmaid and the sailor that ultimately leads to the sailor’s downfall. The milkmaid should be understood as the nemesis of the sailor (though he does not know this at first) and the sailor is meant to be seen as the character who succumbs to his own hubris, in the face of his nemesis, ultimately leading to his downfall. The beginning lines of the narrative read in the following way:
As I was walking down Paradise Street
A pretty young damsel, I happened to meet
I said where are you ging (sic) my pretty maid
I’m going a-milking, kind sir she said
Then I smiled at this damsel, so beauteous to see
And said-pretty maiden will you milk me
Oh no Sir she answered, oh no sir not I
If I was to milk you I’d milk you too dry.
When the chantey opens, the sailor describes how he is walking, rather casually, down a famous street for sailors employed during the Great Age of Sail. Paradise Street, as described by Stan Hugill in his Shanties from the Seven Seas, “was to the sailor another earthly Paradise, where after a long voyage he would stroll ashore, no man his master, money in his pockets to burn, and heading for one of the ‘dives’ would sort out, or rather be sorted out by, a fancy woman, who would help him spend his hard-earned wages in double-quick time.”[i] From the beginning, the stage is set for the sailor to imagine himself king of the streets: superior, above reproach, and deserving of pleasure. When the reader is first introduced to sailor character, he must be newly granted shore-leave and able to carouse about in port, looking for the pleasures and outlets that pepper the port towns of the age. When he “happens” upon the “young damsel,” in the streets, he is primed to not only engage her as though he is the one in a position of power and authority, but he is also primed to expect that the maid will provide him with the pleasure he seeks.[ii] He begins the song succumbing to his own hubris; for, his immediate assumption, the moment he encounters the milkmaid, is that she will do for him whatever he insists because he is a sailor and her favours are due to him on his shore leave. His first address to the maid “where are you ging my pretty maid” is the first example of his hubris because this question that he poses to her holds within it the sailor’s assumption of the maid (and her pleasures) already belonging to him. The sailor refers to the milkmaid as “my pretty maid,” which underscores his ownership of her through his use of “my.” He categorizes her (therefore shaping and controlling her identity) through his description as a “pretty maid” and through that address both assumes that he owns this woman and also that he is able to or has the permission to address this woman. What the sailor does not realize is that the woman he engages with is no less than what the Greeks would refer to as a character’s nemesis and his initial address to her places him down a path where he is not only pitted against her, but he is ultimately defeated by her. This initial question, posed by the sailor, is a representation of the Greek ate’, which is an event that precipitates a character’s downfall; his addressing the milkmaid places the sailor on the path to his eventual undoing. The reader will ultimately see how the milkmaid emerges as the better of the two characters, thereby making the sailor character a lesson to all other sailors who sing the chantey before the mast.
The sailor’s initial question also solicits some kind of response from the milkmaid. She is required, by modes of conversational decorum, to at least acknowledge the address of the sailor. In her response to the sailor’s first address, the maid replies with a simple “I’m going a-milking, kind sir she said.” When the maid immediately responds, the reader is alerted to a classic exchange noted in folklore research, highlighted by Simon J. Bronner in his discussion of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.” He contends that, in looking at the narrative of a song like “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” “The argument in song sets up a question for audience members as to which character will triumph. More a courtship argument between man and woman, the song raises several oppositions that are left unmediated between the bollocky, barnacled, unattractive male and the demure, sweet, pretty maiden: old and young, wild and tame, rebellious and submissive, settled and wandering, home and away, land and water.”[iii] His contention aligns the version of “Blow the Man Down” under discussion with similar sea songs, chanteys, and ballads which include call and response engagements between male and female characters. Bronner aligns songs like “Barnacle Bill” and other songs organized based on a dialogue as “dialogue songs.”[iv] In this version of “Blow the Man Down,” as opposed to “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” the reader is provided with a hint of the maid’s superiority and her eventual besting of the sailor which is different from narratives like the ones found in hyper-masculine narratives of sailors whether located in ballads, chanteys, or sea songs. The milkmaid accomplishes this through the juxtaposition between the sailor’s use of the term “ging” and the maid’s correction, in the line immediately after the sailor’s, where she tells him where she is “going.” The proper use and spelling of the term, from the mouth of the maid, raises her to a level above the base sailor addressing her; however, the sailor fails to register the maid’s transgressive superiority. In this exchange, the stage is set for the sailor to respond not only in kind to the maid but also with a re-doubled strength, fueled and blinded by his pride.
From the very beginning, though the sailor believes that he is in total control of the situation, the maid subtly undermines his power, chipping away at his mettle and paving the way for his ultimate undoing. She manages this through such sophisticated attacks as correcting the sailor’s speech (as discussed above) or coquettishly volleying his questions back to him, unabashed. The maid does, however, surmount a larger, more aggressive attack on the sailor in the next lines of the chantey. It is clear that the sailor does not register her power or her understated hints at superiority when he “smiled at this damsel, so beauteous to see/And said-pretty maiden will you milk me?” The sailor’s smile represents his dismissal or his oversight of the maid’s elusive hint at her power and his hubris drives him to advance a further attack in this war of wills. When he asks if the milkmaid will milk him, he is clearly toying with the woman and debasing her, expecting to derive some kind of response from her. His question is loaded with sexual innuendo, hoping that the “pretty maiden” will do to the smiling sailor’s penis what she does daily when she is employed at milking the cows. The sailor, here, coyly asks the damsel if she will masturbate him. It would seem, from these lines, that the sailor maintains his authority over the shy and silent maiden; however, she immediately responds to his lascivious request and vanquishes him or, at the very least, rises to his challenge. She replies simply with “Oh no Sir she answered, oh no sir not I/If I was to milk you I’d milk you too dry.” From her response, the maid takes control of the engagement and levels a warning or her own. In uttering the phrase that she does, she dually relays to the sailor that she understands his request (tacitly admitting her experience with such a request) and also wields a near challenge to her sailor suitor cum adversary. Her answer to the sailor’s question implies that she has had the experience of “milking” sailors (or men) before and that when she has engaged in this way with men she has taken them much further than they, perhaps, desire. She admits that she would not only milk him dry but would milk him too dry, indicating that she has the capacity to take all that the sailor has to offer and then some. It is not clear, from the line, the intended tone of the maid’s reply, but the reader can interpret either one of the following possibilities: either the maid utters “Oh no Sir she answered, oh no sir not I” with a coquettish, knowing grin on her face or with a reproachful, knowing intonation expressing her knowledge of what will happen to the sailor. Either way, the phrase itself implies that she not only knows what she is capable of doing to the sailor and how it will impact him, but that she also knows that the sailor is too arrogant to take “no” for an answer. There is a level of pleasure here for the maid and the pleasure is derived from the knowledge of what she is about to unleash on the unwitting sailor.
The sailor’s hubris shows itself again in the stanza that follows the maid’s reply. He says “I gave her five shillings, she took me in tow/And away to her stateroom we quickly did go.” Even though the maid is clear that she has a sexual capacity that could spell the end of the sailor (or, at the very least, take everything from him to the point that he is dry) this sailor character arrogantly and defiantly seems to desire the chance to prove her wrong. An analysis of the subsequent lines will be a part of the next installment of posts; however, it is worth noting, in the spirit of presenting this chantey as a representation of the Greek Emotional Cycle, that the sailor does not rise victorious in this encounter. Even with the maid’s warning tendered to him, the sailor is blinded by his quest for sexual gratification and is emboldened by the challenge leveled and presented by the milkmaid. He follows her to her stateroom in the clear hope of besting the maid, desiring to prove to her that he is able to take whatever she tenders and through that move, fueled by hubris, secure both his victory and his pleasure in one fell swoop. What the sailor will come to realize is that the milkmaid has several other surprises at her disposal and the main character ultimately must flee in fear for his life. He is rendered, through his choice to flee, an object of warning for all other sailors who encounter a maid such as the one he did “walking down Paradise Street.”
[i] Stan Hugill, Shanties from the Seven Seas, 157.
[ii] In fact, readers, singers, and those who heard the song would also be primed, as an audience, to expect the sexual narrative that follows. Milkmaids are often tied to sexuality and procreation and the existence of a milkmaid in a text accesses the cultural association between the milkmaid and her sexual prowess. In fact, the identity of the milkmaid is so tied to her sexuality that, at least for historian Robin Ganev, in her article “Milkmaids, Ploughmen, and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” “Even before the song began [here, she is discussing the song “John and Nell”], the occupations of the two protagonists, a milkmaid and a ploughman, would have immediately led the audience to expect a story about sex” (Robin Ganev “Milkmaids, Ploughmen, and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 2007, 40).
[iii] Simon J. Bronner, “ ‘Who’s that Knocking at my Door?’: Barnacle Bill and his Mates in Song and Story,” Occassional Papers in Folklore, 5 (2016), 51.
[iv] Ibid., 2. It is interesting to note that Bronner mentions the work of Annie Gilchrist where she claims that the different parts of a song like “A Pair of White Gloves,” a song similar in structure and narrative to “Barnacle Bill” was sung in a different tone or key depending on which character was singing (male or female) (20). The same could be said of “Blow the Man Down,” indicating an interesting play with gender on the part of sailors.