Some thoughts on ‘Shipped Oars’ by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

I was reading ‘The Basel Killings’ by Hansjörg Schneider, a Swiss crime fiction writer and one of the characters quoted, in full, a poem by the Swiss poet and novelist Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. I haven’t been able to find this anywhere else in English, so I’m assuming that it was translated by Mike Mitchell, who translated ‘The Basel Killings’.

Here’s the text in full:

Shipped Oars by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

Drops fall from my shipped oars 
Slowly into the depths below. 

Nothing to distress me or irk me now: 
A painless day just dripping down.

Below me – oh, vanished from the light, 
My fairer hours still dreaming bright. 

Yesterday is calling from the depths of blue: 
Are some of my fellows still up there with you? 

I put the novel aside for a while after reading that, (even though the Inspector had just stumbled across another dead body, this time by following a badger through the woods) because I rather liked the image of the shipped oars.

It’s been a long time since I rowed but one of the things I remember is how peaceful it can be when you ship your oars in the middle of a river and surrender yourself to its flow. You’re still riding a little of the energy your rowing created but you’re not adding to it anymore. Your breath slows. Your hearing sharpens. Your muscles slowly cool. There is nothing more for you to do but take in where your rowing had brought you to.

Meyer’s poem brought all that back to me. Of course, he goes a step further. He isn’t just talking about a moment of peace. He seems to be talking about an ending, a cessation, a farewell to who you were when your oars were still in the water. And he seems to me to be relieved not to have to row anymore.

As far as paid work goes, my oars are shipped. There’s no more need to pull myself through the water, filling my lungs, stretching muscle and spending my sweat to get somewhere. I’m done.

Yet, as I sit in my boat, focusing on this moment and the next and trying to see the beauty in each one, I can’t help but notice, now that I have my breath back, that my calloused hands still grip the oars and my muscles are ready for some exercise and it seems to me I might row a little more, for the pleasure of doing it and for the new things it will give me to look at.

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