Some Objections to the Sea
THE notion that people must be happy because they have put off to sea in a boat, is a very puerile one, and, if closely considered, will be found no more capable than a sieve of containing water. Let us take a sail-boat as the kind of craft in which pleasure parties are supposed to attain the highest pinnacle of happiness. If there is no wind, the idle flapping of the sails against the mast is a sound exceedingly irritating to the hearer. Very few persons are capable of listening to this for more than an hour or two, without either getting out of humor, or putting themselves up to the mark by a free use of such stimulants as the locker may happen to contain. Should there be a breeze, a great deal of merriment is affected by the holiday people “ out in a boat.” They shout; they sing, “ A wet sheet and a flowing sea,” or some such twaddle written by designing persons to inspire the land with fudge about the water. The feminine element shrieks prettily, and poses itself for protecting arms. Presently a sea is shipped ; then another, and another, and then everybody whose hat has n’t been blown off and carried out into blue water uses it vigorously to bale out the boat. From that moment all is cither affectation or profanity. The salt water has ruined the lobster salad, and depression broods over what really might have been a pleasure party if it had n’t been donkey enough to go to sea in a boat.
Viewing the sea from a level beach, or from some lofty pinnacle of a rockbound coast, the sentiment with which it invariably impresses me is one of profound melancholy. One of my earliest memories is of the sea. I conjure up now the beach of the quiet little watering-place where I first became acquainted with the sad salt element. I am a deluded child again. I see before me the retrogressive crab, as it used to shock my young mind by its abnormal way of backing into the heaps of slippery seaweed. All sorts of wet and wriggling creatures — most of them excessively ridiculous in form, all of them suggestive of that cold sliminess which is so disagreeable in the toad and other terrestrial reptiles — flap and palpitate upon the purple sand, into which some of them disappear with a rapidity that is bewildering to the callow mind. It is bathing time, and I am consigned to the clutches of the ’longshore woman, whose name, as I remember, is Dolly, and who, on account of her being as black as the shoes that have just been wrested from me, and partly, it may be, from the circumstance of her head being protected by wool instead of hair, — phenomena which then dawn upon me for the first time, — appalls the chaotic little bit of mind as yet developed within me, and reduces me to the level of a mollusk. I cut my foot with the sharp edge of a razor-shell as I fight with her for thedear land. Blood trickles from the wound, and the sight of it — it is the first that I have seen — completes the shock administered to my nervous system by the sea and its appurtenances. Nothing after this can touch my befogged senses, although I am conscious of the headlong plunge into the odious brine; the gurgling of it from nose, mouth, and ears ; the swallowing of it ; the general sensation of drowning kitten connected with it. All these memories, and some others that need not be recounted here, recur vividly to my mind whenever I walk upon the shore of the sea.
Therefore it is that the sadness of ocean comes to me in a nature most depressing. Viewed from a flat beach especially, the endless unbroken line where sky and water meet is one of the most awful things in nature to contemplate. An extensive prairie affects the mind similarly, to a certain point; but when you are on the prairie your foot presses terra firma. Around you lie the discernible and familiar. You know approximately how the prairie is inhabited. It harbors the marmot, perhaps, and the badger. There may be spiring rattlesnakes coiled away beneath its grassy waves, which also afford asylum to burrowing owls. Buffaloes and Indians come careering over its painful expanse. The wapiti lifts its tall antlers there, and antelopes vanish beyond ridges that lie far this side of the horizon. But all these have little mystery about them,— nothing to perplex the mind and wrap chaos about the pineal gland. Under the surface of the sea there may be that which the eye of man never has seen, never can see. What do we know about things ten miles down in the stupendous valleys of the ocean ? On land, here, the vegetation of the Alpine base is not that of its summit ; the wild goat skips upon the peaks of the Himalayas, but the rhinoceros has his lair miles below. Our acquaintance with the mysteries of the deep must be absolutely and literally superficial, for we may assume that its mountain-tops alone are revealed to us, and these dimly, and that to its valleys our senses can never penetrate. All the creatures that disport themselves on or near its surface are more or less familiar to us, — the whales, the porpoises, and the sharks, that come tumbling over its undulations much in the same way that buffaloes come floundering over the waves of the prairie. The countless broods that feed on its shallow banks, and are taken therefrom to feed shallower mortals, are all within our grasp, and we grasp them. On the ledge of the iceberg sits enthroned the walrus, and we salute him as the elephant of the sea, and esteem him unspeakably for the commercial value of his ivory tusks. The huge sea-cow has no mystery for us. We wake the harmless creature up from its bed of seaweed on the isolated rock, and having wished it a good morning, we stick spears into it, and convert it to the noble purpose of gain. The magnificent sea-unicorn, king of the Arctic waters, is no stranger to us, which is just so much the worse for him. We have cognizance of all these sea creatures and many more, the range of which appears to be in the upper regions of the deep ; but what can we aver of the mystic realms that lie far, far down about the bases of the great submarine mountain ranges,— mountains compared with which our highest dry-land peaks are possibly nothing but mere hillocks ?
There is a sea monster known to fishermen as the Horned Ray, a monster most fearful in itself, but interesting as an illustration of that which is, and a suggestion of that which may be — a veritable dragon of the sea, whose lateral fins extend like wings, and frequently measure more than thirty teet from tip to tip. This voracious fish will sometimes make its appenrance among the swimmers in the surf, and, taking one under each arm, so to speak, descend with them to depths unknown. Until ocean shallliave been dried up, or drained off, no human being can ever explore the strange grottoes into which this hideous man-eater glides with his prey. The great fishes and sea beasts that are known to us may be creatures of the upper deep alone, never descending below a certain depth, lest they encounter far more hideous and powerful monsters than themselves, which dwell at the bases of the marine mountains leagues farther down. One can easily imagine a polypus anchored there below in some distracting valley, of which it is the lord and tyrant,— a stupendous mass of bloated matter, grasping at everything within a circumference of half a mile, and absorbent of all living creatures under the size of a whale. In the China Sea there are bivalves — whether oysters or mussels I am not certain — the shells of which are large enough to contain a man properly doubled up. If a monster like this inhabit comparative shallows, there is no limit to one’s imaginings of the bivalvular enormities at the bottom ten miles farther down. Stage carpentry has done much to familiarize people with the possibilities of the deep, deep sea ; but the wildest conceptions of that fanciful art could never give us a “grotto of shells ” such as may exist amid the vast rockeries of the submarine gardens, and of which we have no right to discredit the existence since we have never penetrated the region.
Some islands in the sea have that about them which is absolutely terrible to tlie contemplative mind. There are places of this kind in which no solitarycastaway of civilization could tarry for a day ere Reason would begin to totter on her throne. It is known, on the best authority, that the birds on certain remote islands will gaze listlessly upon man, making so little of him as not to move out of his way. The shrinking of a sensitive human nature at being thus contemptuously treated by a creature no better than a goose must be very distressing. Yet worse than this are the astounding arrangements of the silly penguins, on certain islands to which man penetrates but once, probably, in the lifetime of a sea fowl. These birds are land-surveyors of high mathematical precision. When the season of incubation arrives, they lay out their villages in regular blocks, with commodious streets intersecting each other at right angles, and everything on the square. They are regularly marshalled by leaders when they go clown to the sea for their three meals a day, proceeding along the streets in lines of two by two, with a sober decency not always observable in cities laid out by man. Humanity must feel insignificant, indeed, in the presence of such natures as this. The dancing bear ; the comic mule of the circus ; the industrious flea that dwells in amity with the accomplished poodle, — these are mere results of education, exciting no supernatural misgivings in the wellbalanced mind. But there issomething that makes the hair straighten and the blood run cold, in the story of the remote sea fowl, and the social science in which it equals, not to say excels, the braggart man.
Boys have commonly a strong inclination for the sea, and in this there is a wise provision of nature, seeing that, until science has done something to rid us of the great liquid barrier, we must have sailors. But the illusion of a sea life vanishes with the first voyage. There are but few sailors who do not look’upon the sea as their particular enemy, by fighting which they make their living, else they would turn their backs upon it and flee. I have met with agricultural persons, in places far remote from the sea, who had once been mariners, but on whom the horrors of.the sea had settled like an incubus, so that, at last, they bolted away from ploughing it, to plough more happily the steadfast, solid land. Fishermen’s wi'ves have a haunting dread of the sea. They are always gazing out upon it with bodeful eyes, and they take their little girls to gaze upon it, too, and instruct them how it is at once their friend and their foe. The only seafaring men I know of who are more contented at sea than ashore are the captains of great passenger steamships. Their position while on board their vessels is one of almost unlimited authority. The serfdom of the sea is nowhere more fully illustrated than it is in the rigorous discipline maintained by them with their officers and crews. On the “ bridge,” the steamship commander is a despot and a power from which there is no appeal: ashore he is no better than anybody else ; and so, he swears by the sea, and tolerates the land only as a necessity to which we must all come for water and coal.
The metaphors furnished by the sea are not always of the most cheerful character. Breakers ahead remind us of passages from which few lives are exempt, and every human being is a ship, in readiness for whom there is a rock on which to split. There is alee shore for everybody through life. The shark lurks for us on the land as in the sea. We have our quicksands, though we dwell between brick walls; and when sickness and misfortune come upon us, it delights our dearest friends to have the opportunity of describing us as a mere wreck. Consider all this, and say whether it is not very sad ; and then consider how many far sadder things there are associated with the cruel sea, and how many loving hearts it has caused to “Break, break, break,” forever.
When that royal old gentleman, Canute, ordered his rocking-chair to be shunted out upon the shingle, his heart was depressed with the vanity of all human things. Heads might fall at his nod, but the undertow was a thing upon which he could not put down his foot. He might write his royal autograph with the point of his umbrella on the sand, but no minions of his could prevent the next wave from washing it away. Very small must he and his courtiers have felt as they backed, ignominiously away from the audacious tidal wash. It is one of the most vexatious things about the sea that it makes us feel so small as we gaze upon it. The juxtaposition of a mountain belittles us, certainly ; but then the mountain is motionless, and we can climb it, and light fires on the top of it, and dig in its opulent ribs for ore. But it is the surging of the everlasting sea that makes it so awful to the mind. In its roar our voice is shattered and lost, and as we shrink from its assault we are scarcely conscious of our own existence, so ineffably atomic have we become in its presence. Truly the sea is a terrible damper for our self-conceit, and this, as I have said, is one of the most odious features belonging to it.
Very fallacious are the songs that have been written in praise of the sea. Dibdin was one of the worst deluders in this way, and herein Barry Cornwall has much to be answerable for, too. The bright gleams of the mariners’ life as depicted in these lyrics, are deceptive as the phosphorescent sparkles that follow in the wake of ships, flashing brilliantly to the eye, but eluding the grasp of the hand. Dr. Johnson’s definition of a ship — “ a prison, with a chance of being drowned,” — has more of the downright truth in it than is contained in a bushel of nautical songs. The sophist who tried to persuade the mariner, in musical numbers, that the sea is a much pleasanter and safer place in a storm than the land was a decoy setter and a premeditating sham. There is more danger, says he, from the falling chimney pots in a city, and the flying tiles, than ever seaman is liable to encounter when out on the stormy deep. Another will sing you merrily of the stormy petrel, — a dire sea-chick that has more of calamity in its puny but perpetual hover than has the largest condor that ever swept down from a ledge of the Cordilleras to deal death and consternation among the harmless flocks below. When does the petrel take its rest, and where? The same individual, recognizable by some peculiar mark, has been known to follow a ship for many days and nights at a stretch, without resting for a moment its vibrating wings, or ceasing to patter the crests of the waves with its tiny feet. To the earnest mind there is something essentially perplexing in all this, and one is fain to solve the question at last by supposing that the petrel is either the receptacle of a soul condemned to eternal unrest for crimes unknown, or that it is the only embodiment of that perpetual motion to the discovery of which the scientific mind has devoted itself so long. So of all the sea things and sea changes about which the singers tell their tales to the marines, jack may have come to grief somewhere about the middle of the song, but, after tearing his way through several succeeding verses, with a hatchet in one hand and a handspike in the other, he is sure to turn up all right in the end, and his cheers are heard above the roaring of the tempest as the chorus to the last verse rings merrily out. This is all as it should be, — except that it is not exactly true. Policy demands that we should imbue the mind of maritime youth with a due sense of the amenities of the sea, and of the glories that are to be derived from tossing and tumbling about upon it. The singer, therefore, who should chant the horrors of the cyclone, the waterspout, the shark, the fire in the powder magazine, the damaged provisions, the privation of fresh water, the scurvy, and the thousand other little incidents to which seafaring men are all more or less liable, would be a traitor to his country, and an object of the well-deserved scorn of all true men.
Charles Dawson Shanty.