»  Charles Kingsley's "Three Fishers"


Three Fishers

by Charles Kingsley, 1819-1875


•  Background

Kingsley was one of those characters who leave you thinking that the Victorian English were in fact a race of space aliens. Though a model of piety and domesticity, he was intensely sexual, and apparently believed that the Afterlife was one endless orgasm. This side of the man was only revealed when letters and drawings by Kingsley became available in the early 1970s. The following is taken from Susan Chitty's 1974 biography of Kingsley, The Beast and the Monk:

The love letters revealed that Kingsley combined an extremely sensuous nature with strict inhibitions instilled by a formidable upbringing. He could only accept the idea of carnal relations with his wife once he had convinced himself that the body was holy and the act of sex a kind of sacrament … Before the marriage could be consummated the bodies of the lovers must be purified by mortification, but their rewards would be great, for heaven, he declared, would consist of one perpetual copulation in a literal, physical sense. "Those thrilling writhings are but dim shadows of a union which shall be perfect," he wrote to Fanny when she was his fiancée.

His drawings are suffused with eroticism. With some sadism, too; he was particularly attracted to the idea of female saints undergoing excruciating tortures. It is not at all surprising that he wrote a novel (quite a good one, actually) about Hypatia. Ms. Chitty describes Kingsley's wife Fanny, who was his only and life-long love, as "a well upholstered young woman with a creamy skin, glossy brown hair and fine eyes."

In the winter of 1874-5, Fanny took ill with a fever. Everyone, including Kingsley, assumed she was dying. For three weeks of that bitter winter, Kingsley hardly left his wife's bedside. Says Ms. Chitty: "The cold in that room was intense, for Dr. Heynes had ordered that all the windows be kept open in order that Fanny could get her breath during her attacks." The result was that Kingsley himself caught pneumonia and died. Fanny recovered, wrote a life of her husband (leaving out all the erotic stuff, of course), and died in 1891 at age 77.

Kingsley's descendants, if there are any, are American, as Ms. Chitty explains:

No direct living descendants of Charles Kingsley can now be traced. Although he was the father of four, only his oldest son, Maurice, had children, two boys named Ralph and Frank. They, however, were born in the United States, whither their father had emigrated in 1873, and when they failed to come home and volunteer for the First World War, the English branch of the family ceased to recognize their existence. Maurice, who died at New Rochelle, New York, in 1910, had, in any case, made it clear that he was no longer interested in his mother country, for he refused the offer of his father's papers and possessions when his mother died, on the grounds that he could not afford the cost of transporting them across the Atlantic.

"Eversley, June 25, 1851," it says under this poem in the Collected Works of Charles Kingsley. (Mine is the John D. Morris & Co. Philadelphia edition of 1899 … which I suppose accounts for the Americanized spelling of "harbour.") The poet was therefore a few days short of his 32nd birthday when he wrote "Three Fishers," had been married seven and a half years, and was the father of two children. Eversley is the name of the small hamlet in the county of Hampshire, on England's south coast, where Kingsley was rector from 1844 to his death.

The fifth and sixth lines of the last stanza were common currency for English people born in the late 19th and early 20th century. I often heard them quoted by older people, usually in the context of some mild family misfortune.

My essay on Kingsley is here.

•  Notes

"the harbor bar be moaning" — This refers to an old legend from the fishing towns of western England. The "bar" is a sand bar across the entrance to a small harbor. It is this bar that keeps the water comparatively still and calm inside the harbor. More affluent towns would build up a stone wall on the bar, making a mole. In its unimproved state, however, the bar was visible above the water, if at all, only at low tide. In the days of sail, ships and fishing boats would leave the harbor as the tide withdrew. The legend was, that if the withdrawing tide made a moaning sound over the bar, that was a portent of disaster. (In some versions, the moaning of the bar was a tribute to a death that had already occurred.) The moaning of the bar is most famously used in Tennyson's poem "Crossing the Bar."

"night-rack" — The OED gives the following among the numerous meanings of "rack":  "clouds, or a mass of cloud, driven before the wind in the upper air."


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

Three fishers went sailing away to the West,
      Away to the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who loved him the best,
      And the children stood watching them out of the town;
      For men must work, and women must weep,
      And there's little to earn and many to keep,
            Though the harbor bar be moaning.

Three wives sat up in the lighthouse tower,
      And they trimmed the lamps as the sun went down;
They looked at the squall, and they looked at the shower,
      And the night-rack came rolling up ragged and brown.
      But men must work, and women must weep,
      Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
            And the harbor bar be moaning.

Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
      In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
      For those who will never come home to the town;
      For men must work and women must weep,
      And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep;
            And goodbye to the bar and its moaning.