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Bells in the Tower

Patrick O'Brian's unattributed use of Poem AP IX, in his novel The Thirteen-Gun Salute

Lois Montbertrand

This article appeared in substantially the same form in "Housman Society Journal 2002", Volume Twenty Eight, p. 106  (See

Patrick O'Brian died alone in a Dublin hotel at the age of 85, in January of the year 2000. For most of his professional life he had been a respected but little-known French-to-English translator of the works of De Gaulle, Simone de Beauvoir, and others; the author of several well-received non-fiction books, including biographies of Joseph Banks and Pablo Picasso; and a writer of short stories and novellas which critics praised, but the public largely ignored. Later in life, however, O'Brian wrote a panoramic fictional, historical oeuvre which slowly gained him an adoring public in England and the United States. By the time of his death, he was well-known internationally as the creator of this continuing adventure story: a complex twenty-novel series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, featuring a hearty, enthusiastic naval officer, Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, and his companion on land and sea, Dr. Stephen Maturin, an erudite, sometimes reclusive Irish physician and naturalist, ship's doctor and secret intelligence agent. The series has been a much acclaimed historical "best seller" in English and numerous translations, and is the subject of a movie directed by Peter Weir, "Master and Commander", filmed in 2002. Fn 1

Critical appraisals of O'Brian's work have expressed admiration for the accuracy of his recreation of the "Wooden World" in which Aubrey and Maturin live and work, and for the chronicity of his descriptions of the greater society in which they exist, including his use of geographic, scientific, historical and literary references. In several prefaces, O'Brian describes his reliance on original naval archives and period writings, his unabashed borrowings from them for his books, his desire to be faithful to the era, and his efforts to avoid anachronisms.

O'Brian, however, was not above amusing himself by peppering his work with unexplained, untranslated foreign phrases; unattributed fragments of literary works, both ancient and modern, known and obscure; and elusive, unsubstantial references to actual people and events. When he takes obvious liberties with historical sequence, place, literature or persons, O'Brian often provides detailed apologetic confessions and justifications in his prefaces. There are, however, numerous mentions in his books which appear inexplicable, leaving his devoted readers puzzled, and wondering if the "Master" has "nodded", or is simply amusing himself at the expense of his public. One of those questionable items appears on p. 167, chapter 5 of The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the thirteenth novel of the twenty O'Brian completed. Fn 2

In that book, Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin are transporting diplomat "Edward Fox" to a China Sea country, Pulo Prabang, where he will attempt to negotiate a treaty favorable to Britain. Fox is admired for his intellectual qualities and ability, but disliked by the ship's company for his arrogance, displays of self importance, and abusive treatment of his staff. Ill, lonely, and feeling unappreciated and isolated, Fox seeks a rapprochement with his physician Stephen Maturin, whose competent, attentive treatment during a recent illness has comforted and reassured him, whose conversational abilities and general knowledge have impressed him, and whose intellectual qualities he deems sufficient to appreciate his own. Fox asks the doctor:

"I wonder if you know the author of the lines I have ventured to translate
When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did."

Stephen understands that by his question and quote, Fox is seeking to establish a familiarity with him that he wishes to avoid. In responding to Fox, Stephen declines to engage in a dialogue which would bring the two men closer, contrives to keep him at arm's length, and acts to avert future intimacies between them:

"From Fox's tone it was evident to Stephen that this was the preliminary to a confidence, a confidence prompted not by any high degree of friendship or esteem but by loneliness and a desire to talk. From the nature of the verse it was reasonably certain that the confidence would be of a somewhat scabrous nature, and Stephen did not wish to hear it. Restored to society, cares, activity and his usual environment, Fox would undoubtedly regret having made it; he would resent Stephen's knowledge of his intimate life, and that would make working together in Pulo Prabang far more difficult. Collaboration and indifference might agree; collaboration and resentment could scarcely do so. He said, "I do not know the author. Can you remember the original?"
"I am afraid not," responds Fox, (Id., p. 167).

And then Stephen, with a harshness he will only fleetingly regret, deflects the confidences he does not wish to hear by declining to pursue the conversation sought by Fox, choosing, rather, to speculate on the authorship of the lines he has just heard recited:

"It cannot be an ancient: the pagans, as far as my reading goes, were never much given to self-hatred or guilt about their sexual activities. That was reserved for the Christians, with their particular sense of sin; and as "all I ever did" clearly refers to ill-doing, I must suppose it to be of a sexual nature, since a thief is not always stealing nor a murderer always murdering, whereas a man's sexual instincts are with him all the time, day and night", (Id., p. 168).

While neither Edward Fox nor Stephen Maturin names the author of the poetry fragment featured in their ambiguous exchange, O'Brian's reader will likely recognize A.E. Housman's Poem IX, from Additional Poems (AP), published after his brother's death by Laurence Housman. And that reader may also conclude that for his attributionless lines, O'Brian has chosen well, by selecting a poem in its own right of somewhat arguable origins, having neither been published by Housman during his lifetime, nor wholeheartedly acknowledged by him before his death. Fn 3

The reader, then, is left to wonder what to make of O'Brian's having inserted these lines in an early 19th Century conversation, for surely he was aware that the poem was Housman's, and its mention anachronistic. Perplexing, also, is O'Brian's contextual implication that Poem AP IX was of pre-19th Century origin, and translated from a non-English original.

Many uncertainties in the Aubrey/Maturin novels can be clarified by consulting Patrick O'Brian's detailed preliminary notes for the series, which have been acquired by The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA. In these extensive writings, made by hand during the planning stages of his work, O'Brian often provides illuminating comments, and attributions for items which will later appear in his novels.

His notes for The Thirteen-Gun Salute, however, resolve no questions concerning Poem AP IX. While they include a manuscript page headed "Bells in the tower", which must certainly refer to that poem, Housman's text is not reproduced, no mention of its origins is made, and the page upon which the phrase "Bells in the tower" appears as a heading, contains only the following additional words:

"Hypochondriac self-centered self-hater; and I have often observed, that your self-hater generally manages to retain his self-esteem in relation to others by means of a general denigration: it is as though he saw clearly & no doubt rightly that he was a worthless scrub but that nevertheless all the rest (or all those in his immediate view) were even more worthless, even more scrublike. They are I am told the bane of confessors in the old establishment—interminably wordy—the last & lowest of sinners, apart from any (illegible word) of humanity."

Nothing in these musings on self-hatred indicates if O'Brian is relating his general personal observations, referring specifically to the author or content of Poem AP IX, or discussing the character of Fox, upon which the poem will later elaborate. The notes are equally unrevealing concerning O'Brian's personal opinion about Poem AP IX's authorship, giving no indication if questions about the poem's genesis are those of fictional persons alone, or if they existed in the mind of Patrick O'Brian as well.

What O'Brian leaves no doubt about, is that he appropriated Poem AP IX for his own use, with no attribution of authorship to A.E. Housman. One could speculate that he was encouraged to do so by Housman's less than adamant assertion of "ownership" of the verse, or that he may have been motivated by discovery of an anterior work, with which he felt the poem too closely resonated. Fn 4 There is, however, nothing apparent in Housman's known writings, or O'Brian's, to support the hypothesis that an earlier, specific inspiration for Poem AP IX existed.


Patrick O'Brian is known for the historical accuracy of his Aubrey/Maturin 19th Century sea novels, but he commonly embeds in their texts manipulated, unexplained, and teasing items and references. Therefore, although he placed Poem AP IX in a 19th Century context, thereby raising questions concerning its authorship and origin, one cannot from that inclusion, conclude that O'Brian himself questioned A.E. Housman's authorship of the fragment.

In considering this question, it is useful to recall that the "bells" and "tower" images in Poem AP IX commonly figure in A.E. Housman's work. Moreover, Laurence Housman's account of their common childhood suggests that bells, towers, steeples and the like, were not randomly selected images in their writing, or the result of later external inspiration, but were inherent to their early experience, primal to their intellectual perceptions. Fn 5

In his preface to Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, O'Brian discusses his use of original source material, and states:

"I have taken great liberties; I have seized upon documents, poems, letters; in short, j'ai pris mon bien la ou je l'ai trouve (I've taken what I've needed wherever I've found it), and within a context of general historical accuracy I have changed names, places and minor events to suit my tale."

In his general literary poaching, O'Brian appears to have "pris le bien" of Poem AP IX, and bent it to his own use for at least two ends: to elaborate upon the character of Edward Fox, a minor actor in his oeuvre; and as a playful puzzler for his readers, whom, it must be said, O'Brian delights in tweaking and amusing, as well as instructing. Whether this literary appropriation also was meant to commment specifically upon A.E. Housman the writer, or his work, remains an unanswered question.

By Lois Montbertrand, with thanks to Anthony Clover and Martin Hardcastle, for generously sharing their ideas about this subject, and for inspiring the writing of this article.


(1) For those unfamiliar with O'Brian's works, the following web page provides information about the interest his Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels have generated, and includes appreciations by writers and journalists: The twenty completed sea novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series are Master and Commander, Post Captain, H.M.S. Surprise, The Mauritius Command, Desolation Island, The Fortune of War, The Surgeon's Mate, The Ionian Mission, Treason's Harbour, The Far Side of the World, The Reverse of the Medal, The Letter of Marque, The Thirteen-Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation, The Truelove (or, Clarissa Oakes), The Wine-Dark Sea, The Commodore, The Yellow Admiral, The Hundred Days, and Blue at the Mizzen. back

(2) The Thirteen-Gun Salute, First published in 1989 by William Collins & Co. Ltd., citations here from the paperback edition, 1992, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY back

(3) Re Housman's comments on the origins of Poem AP IX, see The Poems of A.E. Housman, Edited by Archie Burnett, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1997, pp. 152, 469. Also, A.E.H., Laurence Housman, Jonathan Cape, 1937, Part II, Letters, p. 197, and The Letters of A.E. Housman, Edited by Henry Maas, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 361, both of which quote a letter of October 17, 1934, from A.E. Housman to Houston Martin, a young, rather overenthusiastic American admirer, whose impertinence Housman seems to waspishly enjoy. In this correspondence Housman refers to a 'Fragment composed in a dream', generally accepted to be Poem AP IX, and says—apparently in response to a query about the piece by Martin—that he does not know, or has forgotten, the work. back

(4) For one, see "Reve Parisian", from Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal":

La pendule aux accents funebres
Sonnait brutalement midi,
Et le ciel versait des tenebres
Sur ce triste monde engourdi.

For another, see the following, from "New Year's Eve" by Charles Lamb, suggested in 2005 by Oliver Mundy:

Most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year.
I never heard it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all
the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth;
all I have done or suffered.


(5) See Laurence Housman's autobiographical work, The Unexpected Years, which begins with comments on bells, steeples, and clocks, and their penetrating significance in the Housman household.) back

© 2005 Lois Montbertrand