In this final blog post deconstructing a version of “Blow the Man Down” located in Gordon’s Inferno Collection, I will focus discussion on the final stanzas of the song where the nature of the encounter between the milkmaid and the sailor changes dramatically as compared to the beginning of the song. Though there are hints of the maid’s superiority, in the initial interaction between the sailor and the maid, the power differential is writ large when the characters make it to the space where the sailor believes he will receive pleasure: the maid’s quarters. In fact, it is until the moment of the milkmaid’s reveal that the sailor character believes himself to be in total control of the situation. The maid, who should be viewed as the nemesis of the sailor, ultimately solidifies her control (to the horror of the hapless sailor) and ultimately “kills” the masculine hubris the sailor carried with him to her chambers. Where the sailor, at first, sees the milkmaid as a beautiful, erotic object, the experience is wholly altered when the two characters make their way into the “stateroom” of the milkmaid. In fact, I argue that the change of setting from the street (shared though, arguably, the sailor’s domain) to the stateroom (owned by the milkmaid or, at least, dominated by her) sets the tipping of power in motion and ultimately leaves the sailor not only disempowered, but vanquished and subordinated. When the milkmaid transforms into the object of horror, she destroys the sailor’s conception of her, vanquishes him in the face of his expected pleasure, and the sailor’s construction of masculine strength and virility ultimately “dies,” rendering the sailor a pitiable and ineffectual character.
To begin, the last stanzas of the song first detail the sailor’s immediate desire to test the milkmaid’s warning and also demonstrate his sheer cavalier nature in his approach to the encounter. It is apparent that, before the maid initiates her transformation, the sailor feels that he is total control of what will transpire; however, it is also clear, that this sailor’s firm grasp on control is fleeting and his horror drives him almost to the point of his death (either physically or emotionally, as in “the little death,” or symbolically). The change between the sailor’s imagined grasp on the situation and his realization of his possible undoing happens incredibly quickly, within the space of a stanza. One stark line demonstrates his cavalier attitude and then, immediately after it, a line demonstrates his immediate realization that he is not only out of control but also in danger. The lines that read “I gave her 5 shillings, she took me in tow/And away to her stateroom we quickly did go/As I stripped off my dunnage and jumped into bed” indicate the cavalier attitude the sailor has toward the milkmaid and underscores his motivation spurred by his unchecked hubris. It is not until the line “This fair maiden she scared me till I was nearly dead” that the reader registers that some kind of change in the encounter has struck the sailor and pulled him from the narrative that blinded him to the truth of the encounter which is that the maid has not only been in control since the beginning, but also that she is ultimately the harbinger of his death (again, either physically or symbolically).
In the next group of stanzas, the once beautiful milkmaid begins to transform before the growing horror of the sailor. The line reads “Her catheads came off when she took off her dress/Also with her bonnet came off her bright tress.” She begins by removing what the sailor describes as “her catheads” which utilizes a nautical term to stand in for the milkmaid’s arms. The cathead of the ship is used to raise the anchor and is a wooden beam that runs at a 45-degree angle, off the side of the ship, near the front. An example of the cathead appears in the image below. Though the images are meant to illustrate the billboards of a ship, the catheads are holding the anchor in each image (one from a ship in 1790 and the other from 1860).[i]
As the milkmaid begins to take off her dress, the sailor is primed to enjoy her naked body, still believing that he is the one who has conquered her. Instead of pleasure, however, he looks on in horror as his pleasure-object loses her arms (catheads) and they come off along with her dress. This immediate juxtaposition between the image that the sailor expects and the actuality of the lived experience unfolding before him affirms the maid’s superiority in the exchange (she knew all along that she was without arms) and also solidifies the growing disempowerment the sailor will encounter. The loss of the maid’s arms indicates that she could now, in this state, no longer perform the pleasures that initially piqued the sailor’s attentions and therefore the sailor would be left without the sexual engagement expected. Without arms, the maid is also without hands, which are the appendages capable of “milking” the sailor until he was “too dry.” If the frightful vision of dislocating arms were not enough for the sailor, let alone the prospect that he would be without the pleasure he sought, the maid then proceeds to remove her bonnet which, along with it, comes her hair. Without arms or hair, the milkmaid transforms into not only a monstrous character, but also the exact opposite of what the sailor expected. Robin Ganev, in her “Milkmaids, Ploughmen, and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” describes the rural laborer (like the milkmaid) as a figure usually associated not only with beauty but also with the fecundity of the land. In fact, Ganev argues that milkmaids are often known for and described as having incredibly beautiful features like perfect skin, hair, and nails. Figures like the milkmaid are also immediately tied to sexuality and reproduction because of their tie to the land and to animals and the appearance of a milkmaid, in any text, would prime readers of the era to expect a sexual interaction to come. What is important here, however, is that the expectation of the beautiful milkmaid, an image the sailor has learned to anticipate, is immediately turned on its head. In the same way, what the sailor expects to be his ultimate pleasure has blinded him to the truth: the maid is actually his nemesis in disguise. The revelation of her true nature, however, has only begun in these lines and this first interaction with the maid, in her chambers, holds within it the beginnings of the sailor’s undoing. As well, realizing that the maid knew the impossibility of fulfilling the temptations she snared the sailor with and also that she has more surprises yet to reveal, leaves the reader with only one conclusion: the entire encounter on Paradise Street was a ruse to lure the sailor into her stateroom for the exact interaction that occurs.
In the next stanzas, the milkmaid then goes on to remove her left leg, her right ear, her teeth, and her right eye. With each subsequent removal of an appendage, the sailor’s horror grows, until he finally realizes that his only choice is to flee, ultimately giving in to the power of the milkmaid and proving that he is not capable of handling what the maid does in each passing moment. The lines read:
Then she unscrewed her left leg-unhooked her right ear
By that time believe me, I was feelin’ dam queer.
When she spat out her teeth, and gouged out her right eye,
I grabbed up my dunnage, and left her to die.
In this final scene, the sailor confronts the image of the milkmaid transformed and realizes that he has been tricked by the beautiful façade she proffered. The sailor, in this moment, looks on in horror because he doubly recognizes the maid for the ruse she created and also recognizes her as his nemesis. Though the maid tried to warn him of her might and power over him, the sailor saw her if not as an erotic equal than as a thing to be conquered and in that misinterpretation, he sealed his own fate. The removal of clothing and appendages, in this final scene, spells the defeat of the sailor and ultimately marks his death. Though the sailor does not actually die, as readers would expect, a very important part of the sailor identity is impacted to the point where the sailor (as he imagined himself) is no longer. The swaggering sailor figure, arrogantly propositioning the maid for sexual pleasures, is rendered a terrified and ineffectual character in the face of the maid’s transformation. In the line, he describes himself as “feelin’ dam queer” and fearful enough that he ultimately takes up his clothing (dunnage) and runs from the woman as fast as he can. Sailors are often depicted, in early modern representations of them stretching into present day, as hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, and prone to heavy drinking, revelry, and foul language. Historians Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh show that New England minister Cotton Mather characterized the sailors, in his 1709 Sailour’s Companion and Counsellor, as men “much more interested in drinking, ‘Wicked Speeches,’ ‘Filthy Songs,’ gaming, superstition, sodomy, and masturbation.”[ii] Descriptions like this show that sailors were seen as “a different sort of people: ‘a strange race of men.’ In character, ‘simple and somewhat rude,’ ‘fearless, intrepid, and daring,’ ‘thoughtless, hasty, and choleric,’ ‘heedless and improvident,’ they were said to possess a degree of ‘hardihood, sometimes approaching almost from necessity to ferocity.’”[iii] This brash and strong masculinity is not at all represented in the trembling and, ultimately, vanquished image of the sailor in this version of “Blow the Man Down.” In fact, as readers watch him flee from the presence of the milkmaid, the sailor becomes the antithesis of the strong, capable seaman and instead might be viewed as not only the disempowered male but also the symbolically castrated and, thereby, feminized male. The sailor’s nemesis, the milkmaid, tricks the sailor into her bedroom and it is within this arena that the milkmaid mounts her final attack.
Though the last line of the sailor’s encounter with the maid reads “I grabbed up my dunnage, and left her to die” it is not the maid at all who dies in this situation. As outlined, the sailor is the character who ultimately experiences a death, even if it is only death of self or, at least, a recognition of the empty performance he lately mounted. Though the fleeing sailor imagines that the milkmaid will die as she continues to come apart, he flees without realizing that he is the one who ultimately dies; for, he has failed in his masculine quest to sexually conquer the maid and is, instead, sent from her chambers trembling with fear. He leaves with such fright that he, in fact, runs naked from her stateroom, not taking the time to place his clothing back on his body. He “grabs up his dunnage” but makes no mention of placing those articles back on his exposed flesh, reinforcing his subordination through the spectacle of his fleeing exposure. The masculine strength and virility he exudes in the initial encounter, meeting the maid alone on Paradise Street, is totally vanquished by the frightful milkmaid standing before him and the sailor is rendered weak, ineffectual, and cowardly—a death of his masculine identity construction. All that is left for him to do, in an attempt to reassemble his own sense of identity, is to use the encounter as an opportunity to warn his fellow sailors of the dangers of milkmaids in port. The chantey closes with the line “Take warnin’ my hearties, when you go ashore/Steer clear of false riggins & moor to a whore.” The sailor is using his experience with the milkmaid as an illustration of what unchecked hubris might subject the unwitting sailor to and, thereby, might expose a fellow tar to the same embarrassing fate. The sailor is telling his fellow seamen to use his tale as a warning and to stay away from women who present themselves as beautiful and available. Instead, sailors should “moor to a whore,” or a woman in port who would be viewed as something of a “plain dealer” and certainly one who would be less likely to present herself differently than she is in reality. Prostitutes were, however, not wholly trustworthy and often worked side-by-side with crimps who would rob a sailor of his hard-earned wage and force him back onto sailing ships to pay his debts.
A final and closing point to the analysis of this version of “Blow the Man Down” is the way in which the sailor and the maid are symbolically rendered. The maid, in taking off her “catheads,” becomes aligned with the sailing ship while Jack Tar, grabbing his dunnage and running for the door, remains the fearful and vulnerable sailing body. In the final warning, it is possible to imagine a double-message: first, the sailor in port should be mindful of the maids he encounters and should seek out known quantities like prostitutes, as discussed above. However, the second and, I believe, the main suggestion is that the sailor should also be careful of ships which appear to be trustworthy and whose captains might make attractive promises; for, the sailor could find himself shipped out with the exact crew and the exact ship he wished he had not “moored to.” The connection back to ships is reinforced at the end of the song through aligning the body of the maid, again, with the sailing ship. The words “false riggings” move the listener to understand that the deceitful milkmaid is similar to the ships in port that might make lofty promises and, instead, mistreat and rob sailor Jack. The OED shows that false should be understood as “[in the] Navy/Milt. counterfeited for the purpose of deception.” With this reading in mind, false would refer to the beautiful façade that the maid used to entrap the unwitting sailor and the line would warn other sailors that they should not be tricked or tempted by any woman (or ship) they encounter in port. In the same line, the term “riggins’” might be read in one of two ways. For the first definition, the OED shows that rigging should be understood at “an item of clothing.” In the second possibility, the term should be understood as “naut. The action of preparing a ship or boat for going to sea, esp. by fitting the necessary ropes, chains, wires.” In either of the definitions, however, there is a clear connection between the milkmaid and the sailing ship. A sailor should be mindful of the lies and deceits that await him in port and should be careful to inspect and verify what he ultimately decides to “moor” himself to. Jack’s ultimate choice could spell either his undoing (possibly, even, his death) or could be a welcome boon.[iv] In this final remark, we should understand the indeterminacy of the sea and how the only real “true riggings” the sailor could rely on would be the sailing comrades he worked side by side with before the mast.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this series of posts. I am interested to hear any feedback or suggestions. These last few blogs provided space for me to think through at least one reading of this particular chantey. There are many other readings and those could be the subject of subsequent posts or publications.
[i] George F. Campbell, “The neophyte shipmodeller`s jackstay,” http://www.all-model.com/pages/Neophyte7.html
[ii] Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 92. It is important to highlight the fact that Cotton Mather was a minister. During the Great Age of Sail, the religion and eternal soul of the sailor was the object of much scrutiny and continued attempted intervention. Historian Paul Gilje outlines in his To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850, (Cambridge University Press, 2016), that “Throughout the antebellum era the American Bible Society printed Bibles that would be purchased by auxiliary organizations and then sold or distributed to different groups, including seamen. For example, the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society distributed 750 Bibles in 1846, 382 Bibles in 1848, and 249 Bibles in 1849. These handouts were just a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of Bibles placed into the hands of sinners in the backwoods, in the cities, and aboard ships by the American Bible Society before 1850” (217). Many religious organizations provided the libraries given to sailing ships and sailing men were left to entertain themselves only with those books that were freely given by societies such as the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society. The hope was that the sailing men would be reformed by the religious literature they encountered.
[iii] Ibid., 233.
[iv] The dangers of the maritime world cannot be overstated. Sailing men were met with sometimes endlessly plagued voyages where intense and relentless weather cast the ship about and threw men from the decks without warning. Machinery malfunctions or a slip on deck could spell the difference between life and death. To underscore just how dangerous the sailing vocation was, historical statistics for sailing in the mid-1760’s in New England demonstrate that “as age distributions imply, most who had shipped themselves before the mast at age twenty had vanished from the forecastle by thirty” (Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 108). Historian Michael Jarvis argues that “it would seem that between one-third and one-half of all Bermudian men who went to sea died while abroad over the course of their seafaring careers” (Michael Jarvis, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina, 2010) 261).