Oscar Laighton's Bailer

Jim Cerny commentary

Poem by William Plumer Fowler

“I got wet through with the flying spray, and had to keep bailing.” – Oscar Laighton (1839-1939)

Sir Walter Raleigh’s pipe, Will Shakespeare’s pen,
Napoleon’s sword – not one of these I own,
Nor any muskets by the Minutemen
Fired at Concord or at Lexington;
But my most prized, most cherished of antiques
None other is than Oscar Laighton’s bailer,
Mute witness that a poet’s boat sometimes leaks,
Albeit Oscar was both poet and sailor.
On cod banks off the Isles of Shoals he may
Have used this hand-wrought wood to lay his bait on;
And no one his past title can gainsay
To what still bears the brandmark of O. LAIGHTON,
Buried, aged ninety-nine, on Appledore
Beside his parents, dead long years before.

From New England Sonnets by William Plumer Fowler, Branden Press, 1966, p. 70. A slightly different version appears in an earlier collection of Fowler’s poems, Granite Ledges, published in 1943.  Reprinted with permission.

An Appreciation and Photos by Jim Cerny

Main gravestone in the Laighton family cemetery on Appledore Island, Isles of Shoals.

Oscar Laighton was Celia Thaxter’s brother, who lived to be just months short of 100 years, outliving his famous sister by 40 years! Oscar published his well-known recollections of Shoals life, Ninety Years at the Isles of Shoals, when he was 90 years old. The more complete passage that Fowler references reads as:
One day a man and woman missed the return boat, and, as they were exceedingly anxious to get ashore, I carried them across to Rye Beach in my whale boat. It was late when I started back and the wind increased from the northeast, so I had to reef both sails. I got wet through, with the flying spray, and had to keep bailing, but had no thought of danger …
[p. 76 in the original edition; pp. 72-73 in the paperback reprint edition]
I’d first read this poem over 30 years ago when William Plumer Fowler presented my wife and me with a copy of his collected poems on the occasion of our wedding at Union Chapel, when he was a trustee. In summer 2007, I finally visited the Celia Thaxter Museum in the Vaughn Cottage on Star Island. Can you imagine my surprise when I saw a bailer branded O. LAIGHTON?

Until then I’d always accepted the premise of the poem, that there was a unique bailer. But maybe Oscar made a dozen or two dozen? The example in the Vaughn Cottage has a production look to it, not something "hand-wrought." We know Oscar made drawings to give away and sell – perhaps he sold some bailers as well?

Bailer marked "O. LAIGHTON" in the Celia Thaxter Museum, Vaughn Cottage, Star Island, Isles of Shoals.

October, 2007