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British War Poetry in the Age of Romanticism 1793-1815, by Betty T. Bennet, Edited by Orianne Smith

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1810.7
Ode to the Fleas[1]of Walcheren[2]
“A Foremast-Man"
The Morning Chronicle (August 25, 1810)

Nimble freebooters of this marshy land,
I think it neither complaisant nor right,
That your light infantry, a num'rous band,
Should put the dream-crown'd God of sleep to flight!

From boundless Liberty what mischiefs flow—
France to such doctrine owes its present ruin!
Your lobster rabble, driving to and fro,
Like it, will gallop on their own undoing!

In vain I twist and turn, and grunt and groan,
Still uppermost the hungry varlets fly;
Pull my poor flesh from ev'ry smarting bone,
And bid sweet slumber quit my closing eye!

The cold phlegmatic Dutchman cannot feel
Your sharp-nosed miners delving through his skin;
He mocks your efforts, with an hide of steel,
My cov'ring (Fortune knows) is rather thin;

E'en now I hear a starving glutton cry,
(Poking his brown snout from the blanket's side),
"No fear that we shall of a famine die,
"For here's a plumb, fine, fat, young juicy blade!

"No Frenchman this, without an ounce of fat,
"No Dutchman lean, impenetrable meat,
"Whose rancid flesh tastes like an old ram cat;
"No, he is all delicious—eat, fleas! eat!

"Heav'n! pick a bit of this—the flavour's fine,
"And rich as turtle—what a juicy part!
"How dev'lish unlucky I should dine
"Before I found him!—Ah! I've made him start!"

Sweet, Sir, you have, indeed! Your piercing snout,
Which you exactly manage like a drill,
Gives a pang sharper than the stone or gout—
Case-harden'd I must be, if I lay still!

But, prithee, spare me, murd'rers as you are!
Your hearts are not so callous as to keep
A ragged seaman, doom'd to toils severe,
From his short interval of ease and sleep!

In sleep's care-curing arms, enraptur'd, I
O'er ev'ry scene of former pleasure rove;
Live in the sun-shine of my LAURA'S eye,
And, kneeling, tell the damsel tales of love!

Or, seated in some lone, sequester'd spot,
Far from the world, and glory's mad-brain'd sons,
I bless indulgent HEAV'N it was my lot,
To 'scape the slaughter made by Gallic guns!

There I forget the frowns of those, whose scorn
Oft rends my heart-strings!—Let me sleep, Oh! fleas!
Grant me a respite, Gentlemen, till morn,
And eat me in the day-time—if ye please!

His Majesty's Ship Impetueuz.


Notes

1. [Author's note]: "Amongst the various plagues the Author had to encounter, in the late ill-fated Expedition, the treatment he received from the "hopping inhabitants" of Walcheren can never be forgotten—for numbers, size, and expertness they exceed description!"

2. On July 28, 1809, 39,000 British fighting men were sent to the Low Countries under the Command of John Pitt, 2nd earl of Chatham. Instead of marching on Antwerp, Chatham ordered his men to take Walcheren Island off Flushing. By September when half his troops were recalled, 11,000 of Chatham's men had contracted fever, unused as they were to the swampy region. By December when the remaining troops were called back, the casualties numbered 4,044, only 106 of whom had been killed in battle.

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September 2004

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