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From the poem/song "Tom Bowling" by Charles Dibdin:

Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,
The darling of our crew;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling,
For death has broach'd him to:
His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft.
Faithful, below, he did his duty,
And now he's gone aloft,
And now he's gone aloft.

I used to think that "sheer hulk" meant "just a mere hulk, no longer a fully-fledged ship", but recently I came across the term sheer hulk in Wikipedia's article "Hulk":

A sheer hulk (or shear hulk) was used in shipbuilding and repair as a floating crane in the days of sailing ships, primarily to place the lower masts of a ship under construction or repair. Booms known as sheers were attached to the base of a hulk's lower masts or beam, supported from the top of those masts.

Could the phrase "sheer hulk" be somehow related to that expression, or is it just a coincidence, and it's "merely a hulk" (meaning "a corpse")?

An image from Wikipedia:

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  • I would imagine that it was a deliberate play on words, but I can;t imagine how the question could be settled!
    – Barnaby
    May 10, 2023 at 0:53
  • @Barnaby - yes, I think I'll take it down, it's not solvable. May 10, 2023 at 0:56
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    @CopperKettle It's a good question. Lots of literary questions don't have a definitive answer, but that doesn't mean that we can't shed some light on them. May 10, 2023 at 7:38

1 Answer 1

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Although, as remarked in the comments, it may not be possible to definitively settle this question, I think that nonetheless there are certain indications that let us assess the balance of probabilities.

Despite the fact that the name of Charles Dibden "was synonymous with all that is incomparable in the nautical ballad", and that he "made the Ocean the principal element of his muse" (in the words of his nephew Tomas Dibdin in Reminiscences of a Literary Life) he was not himself a nautical man. That honor went to his older brother Captain Thomas Dibdin, a sea captain who was actually the subject of the song Tom Bowling. Instead of going to sea like his brother, Charles instead was educated for the church at Winchester school and became a composer and musician.

As a landlubber it would not be surprising at all for him to use nautical terms incorrectly - a rather common fault with poets - and so to confuse the technical term "sheer hulk" meaning a ship's hulk equipped with lifting booms or "sheers", with a more conventional use of the word "sheer" meaning "total" or "complete". This latter sense seems to exactly fit the meaning of the poem. It makes far more sense to describe a corpse as a "total wreck", rather than a dockyard crane.

Finally it seems that the maritime author C.S. Forester had the firm opinion that Dibdin was misusing the term. His central character, Hornblower, makes the sour observation:

Hornblower marvelled that a seagoing audience could tolerate the misuse of nautical terms in those songs... Dibdin had never bothered to find out that a “sheer hulk” was still leading a useful existence thanks to its sheers — the term did not imply a complete hulk or anything like it.

when attending a ship's concert in Hornblower and the Atropos.

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  • A fine answer. But, just as a quibble: much though I admire Hornblower, his admiration for Gibbon leads me to suspect that he might have seen wordplay as frivolous; more importantly, as he was tone-deaf and disliked heavy drinking, he probably saw most social occasions (aside from card parties) as heavy labour!
    – Barnaby
    May 19, 2023 at 0:44

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