In the English Tradition


The Pillars of Hercules. Title page of Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna , 1620


The Song of the Sea


The island is filled with the sounds of the sea. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, the metaphor of the ship was used as a token of movement and of composition itself, the narrative becoming a vessel which had to be driven across the face of the deep. The ship also became the frail form of the human being tossed on the ocean of life, with faith and hope and charity as its three anchors. King Alfred continually resorted to nautical imagery, and his own experience of the sea in peace and in war informs his writing; he declares, for example, that “a good steersman, by the raging of the sea, is aware of a great wind ere it come. He bids furl the sail and sometimes lower the mast, and let go the cables, and by making fast before the foul wind he takes measures against the storm.”1 He uses many compound variants for the sea— egorstream, bronmere, laguflod, fifelstream, merestream—as if its reality could only be understood as shifting and multitudinous. It rises, too, in other Anglo-Saxon prose: in Byrhtferth’s invocation of “the salt sea-strand,” for example, and in Werferth’s description of “the person who approaches land in a frail ship.” 2 In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we read of “the tossing waves, the gannet’s bath, the tumult of waters, the homeland of the whale,” 3 this fervent litany calling up the spirit of the deep. The poetry of the sea is deeply implicated in the Anglo-Saxon imagination with its “sealte saestreamas ond swanrade,” the salt sea-currents which are the swans’ path, running into all subsequent English verse. The sea is also “cald waeter” with lines which vary “the emphasis on the ‘depths’ to ‘space’ to ‘terror’ ” 4 suggesting the English fear of the ocean. In Anglo-Saxon poetry it is as if the island of Britain were truly the home or harbour. This in turn has informed the pastoral dream of England as a calm and tranquil haven. The exile or wanderer, in contrast, is customarily depicted as surrounded by “the sea booming—the ice-cold wave.”5

The depths of the sea are used as the image of privation and isolation, even of hell itself, “that bottomless swell beneath the misty gloom.” 6 The answer to one Anglo-Saxon riddle, invoking the “ocean bed” and “the vast depths of the sea,” is presumed to be “submarine earthquake.”7 In the fourteenth century Dame Julian of Norwich is taken in vision “downe into the see-ground, and there I saw hill and dalis grene, semand as it were mosse begrowne, with wrekke and gravel.” The same vision was also vouchsafed to William Blake, who depicted Newton on the floor of the sea, sitting upon a moss-stained rock with his compasses spread out before him. We can put with it Blake’s lament:

The Corse of Albion lay on the Rock the sea of Time & Space Beat round the Rock in mighty waves & as a Polypus That vegetates beneath the Sea . . .

So an image created in the eighth or ninth century casts a shadow for many hundreds of years. The sea is both margin and mystery. The historian Gildas describes how the Britons were driven to the sea’s edge by their oppressors, until the sea drove them back again. In medieval fable there are many departures by sea, with erstwhile companions left weeping by the shore. Layamon, in his epic poem Brut, changes his French source in order to concentrate upon storm and shipwreck; the alliterative Morte Arthure resonates with all the qualities of the sea, the ancient measure of the verse summoning up some instinctive and native response to the delights and perils of the encroaching waters. We might even be inclined to believe that the Saxons rode over “the sea’s bath” and “the whale’s road” to the chanting of alliterative song, its measures mingling with the beat of the waves.

English writers, employing continental models, continually enlarge their source material with national tales of ships and of the sea. Of John Gower, that most representative of medieval English poets, it has been written that “the idioms and technical terms of shipmen and the sea are amongst the most distinctive features of his language.” 8 It is a national preoccupation, evinced no less in painting and in music than in poetry.

The fashion for marine painting had its origins in the eighteenth century, and the great master of the English sea was J. M. W. Turner. He was the painter of storms, effortlessly able to convey the huge movement of waters; he was the poet of rain-clouds and winds, tracing on canvas the gusts of turbulent light. Once he had himself lashed to a mast so that his own breath and the breath of the sea might be mingled and surely here, if anywhere, there is some native or atavistic spirit at work; it is as if this Cockney boy, who felt the romance of the ocean, were becoming once more the seafarer of the Anglo-Saxon lament. He painted the sea in all its manifestations and conditions, from the turbid magnificence of The Fighting Téméraire to the quiescence of the Evening Star. Of Snow Storm, where a steam-boat is seen in a vortex of mist and swirling water, Ruskin wrote that it is “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner.” In Sta fa, Fingal’s Cave all the yearning of Turner’s nature is to be found in the evanescent glow of the sun setting upon the face of the deep while all around great clouds of mist and darkness cast their shadows over the heaving waters. When human figures are introduced into his sea-scapes, fishermen or mariners, they are frail things; they are bowed before the immensity. Turner has often been compared or associated with the “romantic” poets, particularly in his understanding of natural sublimity, but in truth his instinct and inspiration lie much farther back in a physical or physiological response to the movement of great waters.

In The Enchafed Flood W. H. Auden, who had himself been so mightily stirred by the Anglo-Saxon imagination, remarked that the sea represents “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged.” In similar spirit, some trace memory of original Saxon migrations lies, perhaps, within the fascination and horror of Turner’s seas. For Auden the sea represented the true condition of humankind, the setting of all great choices and decisions, so that even in this twentieth-century poet there is the residue of some strange atavistic passion.

But if there is one contemporary who matches Turner in his preoccupation with the sea, it is Charles Dickens. Both artists of London lived by a huge tidal river, and became entranced by the waters. Many of Dickens’s novels have settings by the sea’s edge, and few of them are not haunted by its presence. There is the sea that Paul Dombey stared into, looking into the ancient fashion of the waves before his impending death; there is gentle Mr. Toots wandering by the shore where “The waves were hoarse with repetition of their mystery; the dust lies piled upon the shore; the sea-birds soar and hover; the winds and clouds go forth upon their trackless flight; the white arms beckon, in the moonlight, to the invisible country far away.” There is the sea upon which Martin Chuzzlewit, and little Emily, and Mr. Micawber, variously depart. There is the storm at sea in which Steerforth dies, where “high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf . . . a rending and upheaving of all nature.” There is the sea of David Copperfield’s memory with “the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist, and showing us the ships, like their own shadows. . . . I have never beheld such sky, such water, such glorified ships sailing away into golden air.” It is the poetry of light and water, equivalent to what Kenneth Clark called the “chromatic fantasies” of Turner’s seascapes, and in the consonance between the writer and the painter we may glimpse some stirring of the English genius.

The sea is a constant presence in nineteenth-century poetry, moving within Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean—roll!

and within Tennyson’s verse:

Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

It also flows within Matthew Arnold’s threnody of loss:

The sea is calm to-night. The tide is full, the moon lies fair

There the waves of the tide beat:

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in

The waters gather in Rossetti’s “sad blueness” and “the murmur of the earth’s large shell.” The deep peace of the sea is celebrated by Hardy, “And over a gate was the sun-glazed sea,” almost as if it were a rolling landscape, with its own hills and valleys reproducing the soft curves of the English countryside; it is a vision of rest, or perhaps of oblivion. The sea is, perhaps, the true landscape of the English imagination. In Hippolyte Taine’s capacious survey of English literature, there suddenly emerges a great paean to the sea “ever intractable and fierce.” Thus he suggests that “not in vain is a people insular and oceanic, especially with this sea and these coasts . . . its waves leap with strange gambollings, and their sides take an oily and livid tint . . . here and there on the limitless plain, a patch of sky is shrouded in a sudden shower.” The mystery and melancholy of England itself are exemplified in passages such as this.

In the cadences of the most nostalgic and sorrowful music, the sea can also be heard. “O past, O happy life” are the plangent words that accompany the epilogue of Delius’s Sea Drift in 1908. Two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony was first heard. Both of them were based upon the poetry of Walt Whitman but they are filled with what can only be called “a recognisably English idiom,” 9 matched by Henry Newbolt’s Songs of the Sea and John Masefield’s Salt-Water Ballads of the same period. Two song cycles, Stanford’s Song of the Sea and Elgar’s Sea Pictures, suggest the constant awakening presence of surrounding waters. Vaughan Williams composed Riders to the Sea while Arnold Bax wrote The Garden of Fand, which is the sea, and Tintagel, “in which enormous breakers may be imagined crashing against the coast of Cornwall.” In Bax’s work the tinctures of myth subtly irradiate the composition, so that the mystery of the sea is deepened and strengthened. The opening bars of his Fourth Symphony “are said to represent a choppy sea at floodtide on a sunny day,”10 and he died looking out over the Atlantic “burnished to beaten gold in the rays of the setting sun.”11 The principle of “melodic stability” and “harmonic changeability,”12 so profound a duality in English music, might have been prompted by the sound and movement of the sea.

Vaughan Williams collected folk-songs about the sea, and their melodies inform his own music. Benjamin Britten wrote two celebrated operas concerning the sea, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. In Billy Budd, based upon a story by Herman Melville, the swell of the sea is musically associated with the murmurs of mutiny on board ship. Peter Grimes, inspired by a poem of George Crabbe’s, is redolent of the sea in every note but especially in the orchestral interludes which link the separate acts. The score of Peter Grimes has been characterised as “the grinding of surf against shingle,” “the gulls” cry,” “the jangle of rigging against masts in the storm” and the deep sea-fog.13 It is impossible not to hear, in this litany of effects, the echoes of the Anglo-Saxon poetry of the sea. There is a continuity.

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