The Captain’s Well
Whittier had probably read the story of Bagley as a child, in A Journal of the Travels and sufferings of Daniel Saunders, Jr., A Mariner on Board the Ship Commerce of Boston, Captain Samuel Johnson, Commander, which was Cast Away Near Cape Morebet on the Coast of Arabia, July 10, 1772.
By the time Whittier wrote his poem, in 1889, wells at a nearby pumping station had drained the water from the spring that fed Bagley’s well, and it was filled with mud and debris. In the late 1890s the well was cleaned up, a canopy built over it and a pipe installed to connect it to the town water system. Later the canopy was replaced by a permanent monument engraved with Whittier’s poem. It still stands there today.
The Captain’s Well
Whittier includes an explanatory note at the beginning of the poem:
The story of the shipwreck of Captain Valentine Bagley, on the coast of Arabia, and his sufferings in the desert, has been familiar from my childhood. It has been partially told in the singularly beautiful lines of my friend, Harriet Prescott Spofford, on the occasion of a public celebration at the Newburyport Library. To the charm and felicity of her verse, as far as it goes, nothing can be added; but in the following ballad I have endeavored to give a fuller detail of the touching incident upon which it is founded.
From pain and peril, by land and main,
The shipwrecked sailor came back again;
And like one from the dead, the threshold crossed
Of his wondering home, that had mourned him lost,
Where he sat once more with his kith and kin,
And welcomed his neighbors thronging in.
But when morning came he called for his spade.
“I must pay my debt to the Lord,” he said.
“Why dig you here?! Asked the passerby;
“Is there gold or silver the road so nigh?”
The passerby points out that each house has its own well, and that there is no guarantee that Bagley will find water where he is digging. But Bagley is insistent:
“No, wet or dry, I will dig it here,
Shallow or deep, if it take a year.
“In the Arab desert, where shade is none,
The waterless land of sand and sun,
“Under the pitiless, brazen sky
My burning throat as the sand was dry;
After describing his suffering, Bagley repeats his prayer:
“Pity me, God! For I die of thirst;
Take me out of this land accurst;
“And if ever I reach my home again,
Where earth has springs, and the sky has rain,
“I will dig a well for the passers-by,
And none shall suffer from thirst as I.
And his prayer was answered:
“God heard my prayer in that evil day;
He let my feet in their homeward way,
After a description of his journey home, Bagley continues
“And the well I promised by Oman’s Sea,
I am digging for him in Amesbury.”
His kindred wept, and the neighbors said:
“The poor old captain is out of his head.”
Here Whittier takes poetic license. Bagley was only 19 when this incident took place, and not yet a Captain. The poem continues with Bagley’s success.
“And when at last, from the loosened earth,
Under his spade the stream gushed forth,
And fast as he climbed to his deep well’s brim,
The water he dug for followed him,
He shouted for joy: “I have kept my word,
And here is the well I promised the Lord!”
In the poem, Bagley sits by the roadside for long years and watches those who stop to drink or give water to their horses.
And when a wayfarer weary and hot,
Kept to the mid road, pausing not
For the well’s refreshing, he shook his head;
“He don’t know the value of water,” he said;
“Had he prayed for a drop, as I have done,
In the desert circle of sand and sun,
“He would drink and rest, and go home to tell
That God’s best gift is the wayside well!”
Full text of "The Captain's Well"