(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XI, published 1892)

For that was indeed a day of many and incongruous occupations. Breakfast was scarce swallowed before Jim must run to the City Hall and Frank's about the cares of marriage, and I hurry to John Smith's upon the account of stores, and thence, on a visit of certification, to the Norah Creina. Methought she looked smaller than ever, sundry great ships overspiring her from close without. She was already a nightmare of disorder; and the wharf alongside was piled with a world of casks, and cases, and tins, and tools, and coils of rope, and miniature barrels of giant powder, such as it seemed no human ingenuity could stuff on board of her. Johnson was in the waist, in a red shirt and dungaree trousers, his eye kindled with activity. With him I exchanged a word or two; thence stepped aft along the narrow alleyway between the house and the rail, and down the companion to the main cabin, where the captain sat with the commissioner at wine.

The word without troubles me there. I suppose it's a matter of word-order and has to be without from close; to emphasize it it's put to the end? But, maybe, it's sailor's cant and it is a question for the ELU-StackExchange.

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    without is locative there. opposite of within. The bigger ships are nearby. Nautical language, like legal language, preserves archaisms. Oct 7, 2023 at 15:18
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    If you're asking about the meaning of a particular word -- even one you're familiar with -- you should always check a dictionary first.
    – gotube
    Oct 7, 2023 at 16:44
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    As for its position, compare "from close by" or "from deep within". Oct 7, 2023 at 16:56

3 Answers 3


You're right that the word order here is significant. However, it's not about emphasis but rather that without is not a preposition. From NOAD:

adverb archaic or literary
outside: the enemy without.

As TimR says, it's acting as an antonym to the adverb "within".

  • @ TimR and @ Laurel - However, I don't understand it, I'm afraid. What do you take from close without to mean there? It doesn't mean anything to me. Does it mean when you stand near (to) the ship - that is close without - and look at it the other ships overspire the schooner Norah Creina (that's the ship the speaker is talking about)? That's idle talk in my opinion.
    – philphil
    Oct 7, 2023 at 16:06
  • I think I understand it now. Only when you stand relatively near by you can judge its seize and height in comparison to the other ships. I suppose that's meant by the authors.
    – philphil
    Oct 7, 2023 at 16:19
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    @Philphil: I don't think it refers to the position of the observer but to the closeness of the bigger ships. Those ships being so close to the smaller ship, her smallness is all the more apparent. The bigger ships are "overspiring her from " [locations] close by outside, not from the far end of the harbor. They appear to be looming over her. Oct 7, 2023 at 17:17
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    @Lambie: If the locative phrase was in the matrix clause: "Methought she seemed smaller than ever from close without...", you'd be on firmer ground. But the locative phrase being at the very end of the nonfinite clause would suggest it is to be understood in relation to nearness of the ships on the busy wharf. Compare this from an 1899 story by Frank Norris: "Ships innumerable nuzzled at the endless line of docks, mast overspiring mast, and bowsprit overlapping bowsprit, till the eye was bewildered..." Oct 7, 2023 at 17:39
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    @Lambie: I understand what you're saying, and it's not implausible, but the structure of the sentence argues against it, IMO. Oct 7, 2023 at 19:24

Sample: Norah Creina. Methought she looked smaller than ever, sundry great ships overspiring her from close without.

The pronoun refers to the Norah Creina sailing ship

sundry: various

overspire: to have "spires" that are higher (they are over or above her) than hers. Sailing ships do not really have spires but their masts can be viewed as spires; this is used as a metaphor since they are "pointy" like a spire.

from close without: looking up at the ship from the wharf, the other ships loom over it. (More of the text: the wharf alongside was piled with a world of casks). That bit of text tells us where the ship is; it is docked at the wharf.

If you stood on the wharf and looked up at it closely from the outside (not inside the ship), various other ships towered over it due to having higher masts that look like spires.

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    @Mari-LouA God, I hate the internet. :) OK, so: The pronoun she refers to the Norah Creina sailing ship. Nothing to do with the narrator. The narrator is the first person pronoun I in the book.
    – Lambie
    Oct 7, 2023 at 21:33

To me, it's the word overspire that is odd - it seems to be an invention of RLS's. Presumably the sundry (various) big ships moored close to 'Norah' towered over her - near her, but obviously 'outside'.

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