Sunday, 12 August 2012

SS Helenus (I)

Helenus (1) was built in 1913 by Scott's Ship Building & Engineering Co. at Greenock with a tonnage of 7555grt, a length of 455ft 4in, a beam of 56ft 4in and a service speed of 11 knots. Sister of the Lycaon she was completed for the Ocean Steam Ship Co. During 1917-18 she was requisitioned as an Expeditionary Force Transport and used to transport Portuguese troops. On 1st December 1917 she was hit by a torpedo from U-53 in the English Channel and had to be towed into port. In the following year, on 30th June, she was missed by a torpedo in the North Sea. On 22nd August 1918 she was pursued by U-90 and attacked by gunfire but she retaliated and managed to outpace her attacker. She was finally sunk when torpedoed by U-68 (FregattenKapitan Karl-Friedrich Merten - Knights Cross with Oakleaves) off Freetown, Sierra Leone (6.01N 12 02W) on 3rd March 1942, with the loss of 5 lives, during a voyage from Penang to the Mersey via Table Bay and Freetown. Eighty six survivors were picked up during the same evening by the Beaconsfield.

Lowry refers to the Helenus in the 1940 Under the Volcano when Hugh talks about his time on a ship sailing past Sokotra; "It was an English ship, the Helen. Before that, out of Frisco over to Japan I'd been on its sister ship, that was the Achilles. When I was on the Achilles I one saw the Helen coming out of Kelung, Formosa, with the Menelaus after her. The Minnylaws, as the limeys call her."(Pgs. 60-61). Lowry refers to 2 other Blue Funnel Line ships accurately but for the sake of symmetry changes the name of Helenus to Helen which was a name not used by the Blue Funnel Line.

Lowry never sailed on any of the ships nor is it possible to ascertain whether 3 Blue Funnel Line ships would all be in Keelung at the same time though Lowry did sail to the port on board the Pyrrhus in 1927. The symmetry of the 3 ships appears to fit in with Lowry playing with characters from Homer's Odyssey to underpin the drama of the novel.

Lowry also refers to the ship in his poem 'The Lighthouse Invites The Storm'; "Reclaims dividendless Homeric errors: A rusted Helen rotting in Kow-loon" (Collected Poetry Pg. 85). Chris Ackerley has identified that Lowry's poem may be an ironic imitation of John Masefield's 'Ships'. (Pg.262).

Later in  the 1940 Under the Volcano, Lowry refers again to the Helen;  "I was on two ships, " he said, "Helen and Achilles. Blue-pipers. Sweatrags and hard work..." (Pg. 62-63).

Lowry also evokes the the myth of Helen of Troy in Under The Volcano; "the face that launched five hundred ships." Chris Ackerely notes the allusion; "Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus evokes the vision of Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of llium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Like Helen, who betrayed her country by going with Paris to Troy, Doña Marina, or Malinche, the Indian maiden who became the mistress of Cortés, betrayed her people by revealing to Cortés Moctezuma's plans for murdering the Spaniards in Cholula before he had even reached Tenochtitlán.  Malinche's treacherous beauty, the Consul implies, like Helen's, launched the ships of the Spanish conquistadors, and by her act of betrayal to her people she brought into being the worship of Christ in the New World. Cervantes, being Tlaxcalan, is likewise a betrayer of his people" Malcolm Lowry Project 268.8

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