Ships and Poets: A Farrago


THE earliest recorded name of a ship is the Bull. This vessel sailed to the mysterious land of Punt and was commanded by a courtier of King Tehutimes I (or Thothmes or Thuthmose, as you like; ancient Egyptian vowel sounds — since the Egyptians failed to indicate them — are anyone’s guess). The Bull was wrecked on the coast of Punt some thirty-five centuries ago.

That Egyptian duke made a fool of himself when the Queen of Punt received him. He was frightened out of his wits, so he tried to impress her with his importance. He warned her that if anything happened to him all Thebes would know about it. “ I am a man who will be missed at Thebes,” he said. The Queen, who was as big as a barrel but apparently a kindly soul, answered him quietly, “Just what is it you wish to say? Lie down and sleep.” He must have returned to Egypt in safety, for the cruise of the Bull is fully recorded on his tomb.

The names of ships are, in fact, magic keys to vast libraries of association. Consider the Argo, the Santa María, the Golden Hind, the Half Moon, the Mayflower, the Victory, the Bonhomme Richard, the Alabama, the Maine, the Almirante Oquendo, even the Columbia, the Shamrock, the Corsair. Nowhere else do we find such compact and evocative histories.

In war, when the number of ships is only less astounding than the varieties, there are not enough names to go around. Hence many of the less gainly types of craft are anonymous except for a number. Function has conquered all, and romance was denied them at their birth. This would seem a greater calamity were it not for a painful memory of the names bestowed on parlor cars.

Since poets, like their works, are supposed to be intense condensations of human experience, it is only natural that the attraction of the sea should amount to a passion with many. Probably anthropologists would find in this instinct a vestigial memory from the times when we were all lizards together in the primordial depths. Psychoanalysts would detect a longing to return to the womb of the Earth, our Mother. For my part, I am willing to concede that my best days have been spent on the salt water all the way from Martha’s Vineyard to Barnegat Bay. I do not believe that an inlander, born and bred, would feel the same quivering of the nostrils and feast of the eyes at the first flash of water between the windy dunes.

There is an excellent description of man, the seagoing lizard, in Johannes V. Jensen’s Braeen. He tells how all the other creatures respectfully made way for this majestic reptile that already was set apart as the destined ancestor of the human race.

Most poets have the tang of salt about them, notably the Greek and the English. Surely the aged Aeschylus met his end, so sad and yet so ludicrous, while walking on the beach. Where else would an eagle have mistaken Aeschylus’s bald and polished head for a stone on which to drop the tortoise whose shell he wished to crack? And years before that, Aeschylus had faced death at sea in the battle of Salamis.

“Sophocles long ago heard it by the Aegean,” says Matthew Arnold of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea, and it stirred in Sophocles as in Arnold centuries later the turbid ebb and flow of human misery and faint memories of a happier time when the sea of faith was once at the full. That elusive Golden Age! The ocean is eloquent in hints of its existence long ago, from Rockall, the bleak and solitary peak rising from the lost continent of Atlantis, to the half-heard chimes and plainsong of the Engulfed Cathedral.

The present Poet Laureate is the only poet I can think of who actually shipped before the mast. Some of the great Elizabethans, notably Raleigh, were sailors as well as poets, but they were no ordinary seamen. We might include John Donne, who accompanied Essex on his foray against Cadiz. It was during this expedition that Essex plundered a great Spanish library, the contents of which he presented to Sir Thomas Bodley to form a nucleus of the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

As for Byron’s using the Hellespont as a natatorium, I consider it only as an exhibition for the admiration of posterity. So much of Byron’s life was posed. In this case, he was Leander. Sometimes he was Phoebus Apollo, and sometimes Don Juan all this impersonation according to his own wild surmise. But when, instead of attempting the conquest of the sea, he permitted it to conquer him, he could take on grandeur and be relieved, for a while, of the burden of being Lord Byron. It was a small burden, but heavy.

Shelley’s yacht, the Ariel, has the double association of Shakespeare’s Tempest and of the romantic poet himself. When he went in bathing, Shelley, who was never averse to calling attention to himself, even if it involved running naked through the drawing room, used to let himself sink to the bottom of the bay — I suppose to give his friends a foretaste of the loss they would sustain in his death. Or perhaps he fancied himself as a sort of male Ophelia, drowned and beautiful. The catastrophe of the Ariel was almost predestined. Some years ago a book appeared in which it was argued that Shelley was murdered by pirates under the misapprehension that he was the rich Lord Byron. As a matter of fact, Shelley was not exactly poor.

As far as I know, the first account of having oneself laid out before one was dead is in Petronius’s Satiricon. The drunken Trimalchio had a rehearsal of his own funeral and urged his wife and guests to ever louder screeches of lamentation.

John Donne was not above collecting a morbid tribute while he was still alive, and posed in his winding sheet for the sculptor who w’as to carve his memorial in Westminster Abbey. The instinct must be fairly common. “When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me”! I knew a poet in World War I who maintained that he was the only bard on the western front who did not carry with him appropriate verses on his own death to be found in case of accident. The poet was, in fact, myself. Everybody else seemed well provided, and some few of the poems found a use. And then, of course, Sarah Bernhardt was wont to sleep in a coffin. It is a temptation to attend one’s own funeral, but the experience is not available for the usual memoir.

There are certain stretches of country which seem more solemn than any dramatization of death; to hold within themselves memories of human activity which did not so much go out of existence as hang in a thousand echoes and half-lights.

The country of the Sleeping Beauty must have been like that. We may conjecture that the magic which lured the wandering Prince through the dark maze of underbrush and thorn was immediately dissipated when his arrival summoned everything back again into the clangor and flash of change.

Arthur Machen, in his Hill of Dreams, used the Celtic and Roman past of South Wales as the spell which enticed and finally overwhelmed his solitary hero. “A Robinson Crusoe of the soul,” Machen said of his book.

Opposite ways of thinking about these matters are illustrated by the difference between the French revenants and the English ghosts. One can imagine the revenant revisiting the world from time to time to see what new folly was brewing, and having satisfied his Gallic curiosity, speeding back to Limbo with a new epigram on his lips. But the ghost never withdrew; he shuddered into the background along with his past, and lingered there, half-realized in the depth of the wood.

The other day Ted Weeks and I were speaking of such a countryside. We both knew it well some thirty years ago — the pine barrens from Lakewood to the southern end of Barnegat Bay. This is not a storied district in the sense that many books have been written about it, but it was the scene of many furtive and important doings in the Revolutionary War. At that time the country was dotted with villages and farms and inns. Roads crisscrossed it. But now it has long been deserted by all but the Pineys.

In our boyhood we could still find an occasional ruin or an iron inn-sign rusting away in the sand, or, nearer the Bay, the skeleton of an old boat. Once in a long while we encountered the Pineys, a strange race — or mixture of races — who roamed the barrens and, at the approach of an outsider, vanished with sibillant cries.

We would canoe up sluggish lagoons into the heart of this wilderness. The aspect was Southern. Spanish moss hung from the branches, and holly trees and prickly pears were abundant. Large scarlet lilies bloomed there, breaking the dark green like flames.

The solemnity of these miles was in keeping with the natural melancholy of one side of a boy’s mood. Akin to the more buoyant side was the relief (after sufficient swamp and shadow) of emerging into the bright bay again and hearing from over the sunny dunes the breakers of the open sea.

Fire has repeatedly swept the pines since those days. As for the Pineys, some years ago Princeton University sent an expedition into the barrens to make a study of them. I do not know what happened to the Pineys. Perhaps they became Ph.D.’s.

At another university recently, a candidate for the Ph.D. in English presented as his subject: “English Poets and the Sea.” Naturally, this was deemed far too large, and he narrowed it down to “The Poet Swinburne and the Sea.” It was pointed out to him that he would be wiser to limit his research to some aspect of the poet Swinburne in relation to some aspect of the sea. Exasperated at last, he scribbled on his subject-blank:—

“ Dactylic Components of a Globule of Sea Water.”

A puzzled secretary, arriving early the next morning, scribbled on it: “To Eng. Dept, by error. Refer to Chemistry Dept.”