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Rated: E · Essay · Writing · #2200758
A discussion of Mark Twain's visit to Australia and his poem The Aged Pilot Man.
Mark Twain and The Aged Pilot Man

I am not going to write a biography of Mark Twain. We all know the details of his life (or ought to) and besides, you have allowed me 700 words only. Instead, I am going to gloss over the facts of his upbringing, early career and later life, apart from those aspects that affect the two main requirements of this essay: his time in Australia and his poem, The Aged Pilot Man.

Let me confess immediately that I did not know Twain had written his thoughts on Australia. The fact that John, the Literary Dilettante, mentions Bill Bryson in the same breath with Mark Twain, makes me desperate to read Twain’s account; I am a fan of Bill Bryson’s.

It comes as no surprise that Twain’s tour was enormously successful. It was a case of love on both sides; for most of his life Twain had wanted to see Australia and the Australians were avid to see and hear the great writer. They could have been made for each other. The only surprise to me was Twain’s belief that it would be “unwise” and unnecessary for the colonies to “cut loose from the British Empire.” It seems that he had moderated his views from the days of his anti-imperialism.

Twain’s obvious enjoyment of the Australian people is another endearing fact about him. To describe their nature as “English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out” is true even today. His irrepressible delight in the accent is more proof of the bond between him and the Australians. Just to read his example of their “mislaid Y” makes me hear the accent.

And so to The Aged Pilot Man. Does no one see the huge grin on Twain’s face as he writes this? The first clue is in the rhyme. Such forced couples as “day” and “Albany”, “storm” and “alarm”, and the hilarious apparent rhyme “wind” and “behind” are quite deliberate. He is telling us not to take this too seriously. These all occur at the beginning of the poem when his rhyming ability should be at its freshest and ready to go. But no, he comes up with the ones mentioned.

Then we have to consider the subject of the poem. It is about a storm on the Erie Canal. Not Lake Erie where storms are fierce and have the capacity to sink boats. Twain mocks the possibility of a storm being powerful enough to sink a canal boat. A tornado maybe but this canal is a bit far north for one. Clearly, the passengers and captain are overreacting.

This panic in the captain serves to accentuate the calm assurances of the pilot - “trust in Dollinger, and he will fetch you through.” Twain harks back here to his days as a pilot on the Mississippi. River boat pilots were better paid than captains and were in charge when aboard. They knew the river and its hazards better than anyone and their knowledge was respected and relied upon.

Here we see a canal pilot in the same position. It is hard to imagine a manmade canal containing any dangers equal to those of the Mississippi but I guess he did know the bends and locks very well. The shelving and shallows seem unlikely in a canal dug and maintained by engineers who knew their trade. So much for the exaggerated fear created in the poem. Twain is “taking the mickey”.

Mention has to be made of the whip-boy, striding on despite the captain’s pleas that he come aboard. The whip-boy’s task was to keep the mules moving that towed the boat. If the lad were to abandon his post, the mules would stop and the canal boat lose way and steering - surely a greater danger than anything the storm might offer. Once again, Twain overstates the perils of canal navigation, presumably to lampoon the heroic poetry so popular in his day.

This, surely, is an important part of Twain’s legacy to us. The humour and refusal to bow to the accepted forms of his time broke barriers, the absence of which allow us to be much freer in our writing.


Word Count: 698

Note: There was much more that I wanted to say. Seven hundred words is really cutting it down a bit too much. For instance, can anyone read the list of items thrown overboard and take it seriously? I actually laughed out loud at the ditching of Lord Byron’s works! And then there’s the farmer appearing from nowhere to lay a plank for disembarking. They’d reached their goal and he was the man allotted the task of placing the gangplank, that’s all. Wonderful stuff from the master of humour.

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