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I guess it roughly means "as long as". But I don't understand the grammar.

I don’t know how long I may live, or how soon I may die; but I know that if I was capsized, any night, in a gale of wind in Yarmouth Roads here, and was to see the town-lights shining for the last time over the rollers as I couldn’t make no head against, I could go down quieter for thinking ‘There’s a man ashore there, iron-true to my little Em’ly, God bless her, and no wrong can touch my Em’ly while so be as that man lives!’” (David Copperfield)

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  • It is nonstandard speech, so it doesn't follow any rule of grammar. Jul 13, 2020 at 14:08
  • It's a bit like the grammar in "...rollers as I couldn't make no head against." earlier in the extract. As @KateBunting says it's nonstandard speech, in this case presumably intended to be Norfolk since he talks of Yarmouth Roads and seeing the town lights.
    – BoldBen
    Jul 13, 2020 at 18:06
  • @KateBunting It is wrong to say that a poem does not obey any grammar rules. There are many different grammars. There exists a poem p and there exist grammars G1 and G2 such that poem p obeys the rules of grammar G1 and poem p does not obey the rules of grammar G2. There exist poems which do not obey the rules of grammar which you are used to. However, foe any poem p there exists at least one grammar G such that poem p obeys the rules of grammar G Sep 23, 2022 at 19:13
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    @SamuelMuldoon - What poem? This is a piece of dialogue in a novel, representing working-class speech. Sep 24, 2022 at 8:01
  • I understand "and no wrong can touch my Em’ly while so be as that man lives!" as "and no wrong can touch my Em’ly while, as God wishes it, that man lives!" I suspect "so be" is short for "so be it"/amen.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 24, 2022 at 16:40

2 Answers 2

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The poem is about a mariner. The mariner wonders what will happen to a woman he cares about if he (the mariner) were to die before the woman died.

The mariner writes that he could accept his own death more easily if he believed that someone would care for the woman after his death, than if he believed that no-one would care for the woman after his own death.


There are many different dialects of the English language. I have translated the poem from one dialect to another. My translation is given below:


I do not know how long I will live.

I do not know how soon I will die.

I imagine that, one night my boat might turn upside down.

one night, a storm (gale) might travel untill it reaches here.

I imagine what it would be like to see the lights in my town shining for the last time.

I imagine that the ocean waves might be so large that I will not be able get any closer to shore. The land will be unreachable by swimming through the water.

I would be more willing to die by drowning if I think somthing to myself while looking towards the land than if I think somthing else.

I would like to believe that there is a man safe on the land.

There is a woman named "Emily" who I care about deeply.

I want to beleive that a man in the town will care for Emily and be nice to Emily.

God bless Emily

I hope that Emily will not be unhappy so long as some man cares about Emily and I hope that the man loves Emily.

The poem is about a sailor who fears that they will not be able to take care of a non-sailor if they(the sailor) were to drown at sea.

The sailor is a mariner, a fisherman, an oarsman, or other seafarer.

The poem is about a human who cares for a different human, other than themselves.

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  • It isn't a poem! The question was about the construction while so be, not about the whole speech. Sep 24, 2022 at 8:02
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The quote was,

No wrong can touch my Em’ly while so be as that man lives!

In mathematics, we would write somthing like the following:

"Emily" is the name of a specific female human-being.

I hope that there exists a man m such that for any t element of the set of all times, if time t is in the future and m is alive at time t then no harm shall befall Emily at time t.

The phrase "no harm shall befall Emily" is similiar to "Emily will be happy"

We have somthing like:

Emily will always be happy while that man lives.

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