Alfred Noyes wrote "Song of the Wooden-Legged Fiddler" in 1805. It is the tale (song) of a youngster who ran away to sea, to "fight like a sailor for country and king" (19). The poem is five stanzas, with seven lines in each. At the end of each stanza is a one-line chorus, which echoes the last line of the stanza.
In the first stanza, the singer speaks about his life as a boy. He lived in a cottage in the West, but had a restless spirit that forever called him to sea:
But I knew no peace and I took no rest
Though the roses nigh smothered my snug little nest;
For the smell of the sea
Was much rarer to me,
And the life of a sailor was all my joy (3-7)
The boy has a "snug" home, described as a picture-perfect cottage, surrounded by roses. However, it was not the flowers that he smelled that overwhelmed him, but the rare smell of the salty ocean water.
In the second stanza, the narrator tells of his mother's wishes for him:
My mother she wept, and she begged me to stay... (9)
He notes that she wanted to keep him close to home, tied to "her apron-string" (10), to help with the hay—we can assume with its harvest. (Hay is the crop of a season's growth of grass that is harvested before it goes to seed.) The singer relents to his mother's wishes for the cutting of the hay, but sneaks out and runs off the following spring.
On a night of delight in the following spring,
With a pair of stout shoon
And a seafaring tune
And a bundle and stick in the light of the moon,
Down the long road
To Portsmouth I strode... (13-18)
He takes a pair of strong shoes ("shoon"), and he whistles a sea chantey, having packed a few belongings in a piece of cloth (like a kerchief), carried on the end of a stick—walking to Portsmouth to follow his dream. We can infer this is some distance if his home does not afford him the smell of the sea.
In the third stanza, the sailor is returning home, though the sea still calls him away. The memories of sailing the Spanish Main—chasing French and Spanish frigates—are still fresh in his mind. Perhaps the most poignant line is found in this section of the song:
For at heart an old sailor is always a boy... (25)
This is the line that reminds the listener, even until the end of the song, that the ocean's call never loses its power as the boy grows into a man, and eventually an aged sailor who can no longer make his living on the sea.
The listener (or reader) can believe that a sailor's heart never ages and the draw of the profession never fades: even after all of his experiences, the sea still calls to him like a mythical siren. The smells of gunpowder (for the canon) and pitch (tar to waterproof the ship) are still in his nose. His heart will belong to the sea (he notes) until he cannot tell the difference between either of them—and even when (as he looks out over the ship's side) he cannot distinguish the "grin o' the guns from a glint o' the sea" (27). At this point he will lack the mental capacity to tell the difference between the legendary Nelson and some other jack-tar like himself.
The fourth stanza lets the listener know that the sailor is no longer young:
Ay! Now that I'm old I'm as bold as the best... (32)
By now he has lost his leg—a wooden peg has taken its place; and he is as bald as an egg. Even in light of these drastic changes, his love of the sea has not diminished:
The smell of the sea
Is like victuals to me... (37-38)
In other words, living on the ocean is as necessary to him as food ("victuals"). Even in his grave, he is certain he will still be calling "Ahoy!" When his body is "ready to rest" (die), he echoes the sentiment he shared earlier:
At heart an old sailor is always a boy. (41)
Interestingly, while he recalls whistling a sea song when he left home, his story has become a sea chantey, based upon his life rather than another sailor's, as he has lived the life he was called to so many years before. It would also seem that his choice was true to his heart and he has no regrets—other than, perhaps, having to leave his life on the sea because he can no longer sail. For the boy's heart in him is still passionately in love with the sea.