Although the modern or post-Christian versions of the situation of crisis become increasingly important during the nineteenth century they never become completely dominant — at least not in the sense that medieval Christianity and its codes became dominant enough to triumph completely over classical pagan thought, however much of it is subsumed, assimilated, or reinterpreted. In fact, as the interpretation of any single metaphor or situation of crisis will suggest, for the past two centuries we have existed in the face of competing code systems. For example, whereas some literary and artistic interpretations of the destruction of Pompeii present it as an instance of essentially inexplicable catastrophe, others, such as Bulwer-Lytton's novel and Summer Lincoln Fairfax's poem The Last Night of Pompeii (1832), employ it as an instance of God's vengeance upon sinners. Similarly, some paintings and poems employ the shipwreck to communicate the post-Christian sense of existence in a Godless universe while others do so to communicate traditional beliefs about divine punishment of the guilty. As we shall observe in the next chapter, what is particularly interesting about the position of any particular paradigm in this situation of competing codes is that its users can emphasize this radical ambiguity; that is, taking the shipwreck as an initially opaque or uninterpretable event, writers like Coleridge, Tennyson, and Hopkins intentionally employ its capacity to move the reader back and forth between opposing cultural codes and the imaginative universes they create. The most orthodox employment of the journey of life can be transformed into a new metaphor of isolation and helplessness, and, conversely, an image of shipwreck that first appears to present the speaker in a Godless universe can, with equal suddenness, be converted into reassurances of divine presence. As Tennyson puts it, a wandering, helmless bark may turn out to be, after all, an ark of grace and deliverance. For these and many other authors, then, paradigmatic imagery and structure, like the human condition — it is supposed to help us understand, may first appear in the guise of ambiguous revelations. Matthew Arnold, following Carlyle's "Characteristics," describes modern man as

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born. — "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse"

In fact, the situation of so many men and women of the past two hundred years is better described as having to choose between two fully developed codes and the imaginative worlds they create. Once again, the condition of artist, writer, and audience faced with having to choose between alternative applications (or meanings) of such situations and structures of crisis has much in common with that of the scientist during a period of scientific upheaval. According to Kuhn,

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field's most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications.... Others who have noted this aspect of scientific advance have emphasized its similarity to a change in visual gestalt: the marks on paper that were first seen as a bird are now seen as an antelope, or vice versa.... Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.... The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.[The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1501): 84-5.]

Kuhn's description of what takes place during scientific revolutions well describes what occurs during spiritual, religious, or philosophical ones as well. His pointing out that a conversion takes place when a person exchanges paradigms certainly matches what we have observed when people lose or acquire religious faith. Since, however the paradigms (or paradigmatic structures and metaphors) at which we have been looking are also cultural codes, they have the capacity to reproduce the basic experience of conversion. By employing such an essentially problematic situation, the artist and writer can remind us that one assigns values to it only by declaring allegiance to a particular cultural code and conception of the human condition. Prompting the audience thus to assign a value or spiritual interpretation to a problematic situation — be it a shipwreck, the invasion of Rome, or the destruction of Pompeii also leads its members to undergo something roughly analogous to a religious conversion, the difference between this artistic conversion and a real-life one being that here the audience assigns value upon discovering which paradigm the author has accepted and not the one that they would have chosen.

Shipwrecks Literary, Literal, and Opaque

By now the reader will have observed that in the preceding pages I have used a variety of terms, including 'situation," "figure," "analogy," 'structure," and "paradigm," to refer to what are often called images and now is the time to explain the reasons for employing such a diverse vocabulary and the advantages it has for the student of iconology. The prime reason for avoiding the term "image" is that, like so many critical terms, it is essentially an analogy and therefore often potentially misleading. Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche and Martin's The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are paintings, provide examples of literal images or visual representations. The scene at which we have looked from Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" does not; and furthermore, since it does not function in any obvious manner as an analogy, metaphor, or figuration, we cannot usefully employ the terms "image" or "imagery" in their accepted senses as referring to figurative language. According to the section on imagery in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the term is used in criticism to mean (1) mental images, (2) figures of speech, and (3) imagery and image patterns as embodiments of symbolic vision or of non-discursive truth. Although there is obviously some sort of major relation between the shipwreck passage in Poe, the analogy in Sikelianos's "The Sacred Way," and Dahl's Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway (Pl. 4), the terms "image" and "imagery" taken in any of these meanings will not help us investigate it. Each of these three works does, however, employ or depict the same situation, and therefore I have used this term as most clearly and efficiently communicating that fact. Furthermore, the situations in Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche, Dahl's Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, and Martin's The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are paintings, share with the situation in Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, which is a literary work, a common structure, or what Ruskin would have called an "idea of intellectual relation." This term has the important virtue of permitting the student of iconology to perceive common elements in both different arts and different situations. Furthermore, the conception of structure, which emphasizes the elements and relations that constitute a situation also permits the student of iconology to trace the genesis and development of such situations. Many, though not all, of these situations function as tropes, which is to say that they serve as metaphors, analogies, synecdoches or other figurations, and to do so they may take the form of similes or metaphors, or some signal in text or painting can prompt the audience to interpret the situation as such. In addition, certain of these troped situations, ones employed symbolically or metaphorically, also function as paradigms to organize, focus, and communicate a society's ideas and attitudes about a range of culturally significant subjects, such as man's relation to God and eternity, the nature of work, politics, and sexuality, and so on. When discussing their capacity to organize thoughts and feelings about such subjects, I have generally employed the term "paradigm," though when concentrating on their communicative function, I have often emphasized their role as codes. Of course, in different contexts the shipwreck can function as a structure, analogy, metaphor, paradigm, or code: or rather, the shipwreck, which always possesses a definable, describable structure, may also function as a figuration, which may or may not be paradigmatic.

Since the shipwreck has had such a long and rich history in Western culture, I have chosen to use it as a test case in the following chapter, which will offer additional schema and hypotheses for examining figurative and non-figurative situations in narrative, Iyric, and other forms. Since, as we have already observed, such situations can be profitably studied as equivalents to other ones, the third chapter will offer examples of different kinds of relations and equivalencies. Finally, the concluding chapter will examine the kind of relationships that such situations have to other aspects of literary form, including point of view, lyric organization, and narrative structure. However, before proceeding to set forth a typology of shipwreck and related situations, which will be the concern of the next chapter, I wish to suggest more precisely than I have done thus far the range of subjects included in a complete iconsological approach. A useful place to begin such a survey is an autobiographical account of shipwreck that Poe scholars have suggested as a possible basis for his fictional ones. According to Captain Aubin, whose sloop Betsy sank off the coast of Dutch Guyana on 5 August 1756, the disaster came without warning as he and his mate were relaxing on deck:

The vessel suddenly turned with her broadside to windward: I called to one of the seamen to put the helm a weather, but he replied that it had been so for some time.... At this moment the vessel swung around with her head to the sea, and plunged; her head filled in such a manner that she could not rise above the surf, which broke over us to the height of the anchor stocks, and we were presently up to our necks in water; every thing in the cabin was washed away. Some of the crew, which consisted of nine men, were drowned in their hammocks, without a cry or groan.2

Like the shipwreck scene in "MS. Found in a Bottle," Captain Aubin's takes the form of a narrative of fact, but whereas Captain Aubin was engaged to record an event that had actually happened to him, Poe's narrator only follows fictional convention. Neither shipwreck narrative, however, takes the event as a paradigmatic one; As in so many cases of actual disaster, the traumatic event so impressed itself upon the survivor's imagination that the event remains uninterpreted and essentially opaque.

None the less, no matter how opaque an event or situation in narrative may at first appear, the very fact that it appears within a narrative provides it with some sort of figurative status or function. At the very least, if a narrator presents an event as totally opaque, mysterious, or without meaning, it thereby becomes representative of that class of events which are totally opaque, mysterious, and without meaning. Of course, the narrative situation that we label uninterpreted and uninterpretable lacks only a particular kind of meaning. Captain Aubin's tale, for example, tells us about the dangers of the sea, the way even good seamanship could not save him, and the fact that he finally did survive. Furthermore, in a later part of his story we learn that the Carib Indians treated him with great kindness and that some of their herbs saved his life. The actual situation of shipwreck, however, remains uninterpreted in spiritual terms. Neither Poe's narrator nor Aubin perceives any spiritual meaning in his experience, for he does not take it as a paradigmatic event. Shipwreck narratives, religious records of deliverance at sea, Bible commentaries, and hymns had long taught believers to perceive such situations in religious terms, that is, as part of a religious code; and several decades after Aubin's experience writers began to use the situation as part of an explicitly non-Christian code. But neither the narrator of a "MS. Found in a Bottle" nor Captain Aubin sees the relevance of any such cultural code to his situation.

In contrast, Tennyson's "The Wreck" exemplifies a literary employment of the shipwreck in which the narrator perceives it to be paradigmatic. The heroine of Tennyson's poem describes the identical situation we have already observed in narratives by Poe and Aubin, for she also emphasizes that instant

the ship staggered under a thunderous shock
That shook us asunder, as if she had struck and crashed on a rock;
For the huge sea smote every soul from the decks of The Falcon but one;
All of them, all but the man that was lash"d to the helm had gone. [11. 106-9]

Unlike Poe's narrator, the speaker in this dramatic monologue explicitly makes the sea disaster a metaphor for her life:

My brain is full of the crash of wrecks, and the roar of wave s,
My life is itself a wreck, I have sullied a noble name,
I am flung from the rushing tide of the world as a waif of shame. [11. 4-6]

Thus the shipwreck she experienced literally, physically, becomes metaphoric as well, and she sees it as the central moment in her life, encompassing and characterizing all. Her role in society, her child, her lover, all have vanished. She did not perish physically in the shipwreck, but everything that mattered to her died then, and she sees her life in terms of this disaster. When Tennyson has her cry that her "brain is full of the crash of wrecks, and the roar of waves ," he is using the shipwreck both as a commonplace means of conveying the experience of a mind in crisis and an equally commonplace means of summing up a life. In addition, the poet combines these uses of the situation with another conventionally employed as a figure for the fallen woman — the waif or castaway. By ringing these changes on the theme of shipwreck, Tennyson is able to make the literal sea disaster experienced by his character take on additional meanings and quickly come to appear as the centre and significance of her life.

Tennyson's "The Wreck," which exemplifies a metaphoric use of the situation, presents it in the form of narrative. In contrast, the same poet's "Despair," "The Two Voices," and In Memoriam employ it solely as a figure, essentially condensing the narrative elements into an emblematic analogy. "The Wreck" uses the situation as a paradigm of divine punishment, "Despair" as one of post-Christian spiritual hopelessness, and "The Two Voices" and In Memoriam as a transformational paradigm that moves the reader from the experience of one imaginative cosmos to another. Every one of these poems, however, presents the situation to communicate the experience of a first-person narrator. Matthew Arnold's "A Summer Night," on the other hand, employs it to generalize about the human condition. Realizing that "most men in a brazen prison live" and languidly give their lives to "unmeaning taskwork," he has a vision of the fate of the few who

Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where"er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning-bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck
With anguished face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears, and comes no more. [11.51-72]

In addition to such explicit deployments of the shipwreck situation as paradigm, art and literature also make use of subtle forms of allusion. For example, at the beginning of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, the lonely orphan child finds herself unloved, isolated, threatened, and deprived in the Reed household. She exists, in other words, in a situation analogous to that of the shipwrecked mariner. Stendhal, at the opening of the twenty-seventh chapter of The Red and the Black, describes the similar isolation of Julien Sorel at the seminary by pointing out that "he was alone like a boat abandoned in the midst of the ocean." Brontë" makes the same point with more subtlety when she has Jane describe the way she used to hide in the window-seat and read Bewick's History of British Birds. She read with fascination descriptions of arctic bleakness and found herself drawn to Bewick's vignettes of the "rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking." The reader who is aware of some of the usual significance of such scenes of shipwreck soon perceives that those at which Jane is looking function as analogues for her condition. Much in the manner of Tennyson's "Mariana," Jane Eyre here expressionistically makes the objects described by a narrator- here literally images — communicate that narrator's inner world.


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Last modified 15 July 2007