J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry c.1809

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 31 Recto:
Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry circa 1809
Turner Bequest CVIII 31
Pen and ink on white wove paper, 115 x 88 mm
Inscribed by Turner in ink (see main catalogue entry)
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘31’ bottom left, descending vertically
Stamped in black ‘CVIII – 31’ bottom left, descending vertically
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The whole page is taken up with lines of poetry:
Be still my dear Molly dear Molly be still
No [‘Don’t’ overwritten] more urge that soft sigh to a will
Which is anxious each wish to fulfill
But I prithee dear Molly be still
By thy lips quivering motion I ween
To the center where love lies between
A passport to bliss is thy will
Yet I prithee dear<est> Molly be still
By the Eyes when half closed in delight
That so languishing turn from the light
With kisses I’ll hid them I will
So I prithee dear Molly be still
By thy bosom so throbbing with truth
Its short heavings to me speak reproof
By the half blushing mark on each hill
O Molly dear Molly be still1
In transcribing the draft on this page and its verso (D07404), James Hamilton notes in connection with the artist’s current relationship with Sarah Danby: ‘Sex had become a central diversion from Turner’s work on perspective’, with the poem ‘putting a soft human perspective onto his granite thoughts’.2 Jack Lindsay had seen it as evidence that Turner’s ‘sensuality was very strong’ and the poem or song ‘could only have been given in the tavern with suitable cronies’.3
The poem has something of the rolling rhythm of a sea shanty, comparable for instance with a traditional example, Billy the Midshipman’s Welcome Home:
You’re welcome, my Billy, to the English shore;
I hope you’ll not cross the rough seas any more.
Many a day too, and many a night,
My heart grieved sore ’cause you were out of sight...
Dear Molly, said Billy, the joy of my heart,
Daily I thought of you since we did part;
And when the roaring waves mounting high they did move,
In the greatest danger I thought on my love...4
Turner’s poem concludes on the verso of this leaf (D07404), and the same verses appear, with variations, on both sides of folio 29 (D07400, D07401). For a concordance of the extensive passages of poetry in this book, see the sketchbook Introduction.

Matthew Imms
June 2008

See Lindsay, Life, 1966, p.162 (partial transcription); Lindsay, Sunset Ship, 1966, p.104 no.47, as ‘Be Still My Dear Molly’ (transcription); Lindsay 1975, p.16 (transcription of first verse only, following 1966 reading); Lindsay 1985, p.27 (transcription following 1966 reading); Bailey 1997, p.155 (transcription of last verse); and Wilton and Turner 1990, p.165 (transcription, followed here with slight variations).
Hamilton 1997, p.118; see also Hamilton 2001, p.233.
Lindsay 1985, pp.26, 131; see also Lindsay 1975, pp.15–16.
Charles Harding Firth (ed.), Naval Songs and Ballads, Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol.XXXIII, London 1908, pp.146–7.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry c.1809 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, June 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-inscription-by-turner-draft-of-poetry-r1136599, accessed 25 January 2022.