La nave o proa entonces
surgio de los desiertos,
navegaba hacia el cielo:
una punta de piedra dirigida
hacia el insoportable infinito,
una basilica cerrada por los dioses perdidos....
Solo hasta alli llego mi viaje:
mas alla empezaba la muerte.
— Pablo Neruda, "La Nave"

[It was then that the ship, or a ship's prow
hove to on the desert
sailing into the sky:
a flint pinpoint aimed
at the unbearable infinite,
a basilica closed by the perishing gods....
But the voyage led me no farther:
death began in the distance.
—"The Ship," trans. Ben Belitt]

T he first problem faced by so many men and women during the past two hundred years was to locate the safe harbour, where the destination lay, or, in the words of Tennyson's prefatory sonnet to the Nineteenth Century, "If any golden harbour be for men/ In seas of Death and sunless gulfs of Doubt." Certainly, many agreed with Lamartine that "L'homme n'a pointe de port" ("Le Lac"), or with Baudelaire that "Singuliere fortune ou le but se deplace,/ Et, n'etant nulle part, peut etre n'importe ou!" ("Le Voyage"). Centuries before Chaucer's ideal parson might have been able to claim that he could

   show yow the wey, in this viage,
of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage
That highte Jerusalem celestial. — "Parson's Prologue," 11. 49-51

And, of course, many writing in the last century remained confident that they knew both that a port existed and how to find it. For instance, in Longfellow's "The Building of the Ship the worthy pastor — "shepherd of that wandering flock,/ That has the ocean for its wold,/ That has the vessel for its fold" — assures his parishioners that

   if our souls but poise and swing
Like the compass in its brazen ring,
For ever level and true
To the toil and the task we have to do,
We shall sail securely, and safely reach
The fortunate isles.

The American sage Emerson similarly employs the ancient Christian topos confidently to convey his sense at being at home in a purposeful, coherent world. In "Terminus," a poem that begins with the realization that he has arrived at the "time to be old,/ To take in sail," the poet calmly rejoices that a divine presence still guides him to his goal:

I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
"Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed."

Such American optimism appears across the Atlantic Ocean as well. Newman, for example, opens the fifth chapter of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua by describing the "perfect peace and contentment" he had enjoyed since converting to the Roman Church in terms of the traditional comparison: "I was not conscious of firmer faith . . . but it was like cominginto portafterarough sea." Such are the joys and real comforts of belief: confidence that a spiritual goal, be it heaven or true faith, really exists; the happy feeling that one has arrived at safe harbour or will doubtlessly do so; and, perhaps most important, the sense that God has created a nurturing universe after all.

On the other hand, when many in the last century look around them in age, they no longer know in which direction to steer or, indeed, if there is any direction in which one can steer. Once doubt began to wear away at the Christian beliefs that had given direction to men's lives for more than thirteen centuries, people began to find themselves in a new, puzzling, and occasionally terrifying imaginative landscape. Generally, however, the recognition that the destination of the lifejourney has disappeared or been called into question does not produce the severe emotional impact that informs the shipwreck situation. Doubt, dissatisfaction, and ennui, rather than terror, characterize the literary appearances of this intonation of the journey-of-life metaphor. Similarly, one encounters a characteristic tone of worldly disillusionment, for those who speak within such situations, or employ them for objective correlatives for their spiritual condition, do not find themselves captured by panic. Thus, the questioner in Auden's "The Voyage" is certain, even as he asks, dhat such journeyings have no goal, no purpose.

alone with his heart at last, does the traveller find
In the vaguer touch of the wind and the fickle flash of the sea
Proofs that somewhere there exists, really, the Good Place,
As certain as those the children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing; he does not want to arrive.
The journey is false.

The basic structure of this situation, then, is formed by a recognition that the goal, the intended end, of a pattern of movement has disappeared, and therefore the one moving loses suddenly a previous certainty about what to do. Things have lost their apparent meaning, but they have not yet begun to threaten one. One feels dissatisfied and disillusioned, but one does not feel particularly endangered. Having lost one's earlier certainty, one feels anger and resentment at being cheated out of such a comforting possession; but having thus lost this dear possession, one willingly assumes the posture of the disillusioned and the worldly-wise.

One of the corollaries of such radical disillusionment is that it tends to emphasize the less attractive conditions of the journey. For example, in George Seferis's Mythical Story the questioner cannot avoid a general discomfort and decay that permeates all:

What do our souls seek journeying
on the decks of decayed ships
crowded with sallow women and crying infants
unable to forget themselves, either widh the flying fish
or widh dhe stars which the tips of the mast indicate,
grated by gramophone records
bound unwillingly by non-existent pilgrimages
murmuring broken thoughts from foreign tongues?

What do our souls seek journeying
on rotten, sea-borne timbers
from harbour to harbour?
[trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]

Once the goal has disappeared, the journey becomes irksome and even grotesque rather than heroic. Indeed, to return to St. Augustine's basic analogy which presented the pilgrim in danger of becoming an idle tourist, one may observe that those who find that the goal of the life journey has vanished are in the positions of tourists unexpectedly finding themselves condemned to remain in countries they had wanted only to visit briefly. Having proclaimed that these alien lands were nice places to visit but one would not want to live there, dhey find themselves having to live there in exile. What had been picturesque, now seems sordid; what had been a condition of adventure, now seems an unending cause of boredom.

Like the structure that informs the moment of shipwreck, this one also takes various non-nautical guises. Carlyle, for exarnple, frequently sets the suddenly destinationless life journey in the desert as well as the ocean. A particularly common twentieth-century intonation of the basic metaphor employs the train trip, rather dhan the ocean voyage, as the means of conveying the imaginative world in which the goal has vanished. In Auden's "Caliban to dhe Audience" , from The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" that character summons all the sordid, depressing details that Seferis had employed to argue against any coherence and purpose on this train trip.

The Journey of Life — the down-at-heels disillusioned figure can still put its characterisation across — is infinitely long and its possible destinations infinitely distant from one another, but the time spent in actual travel is infinitesimally small. The hours the traveller measures are those in which he is at rest between the three or four decisive instants of transportation which are all he needs and all he gets to carry him the whole of his way; the scenery he observes is the view, gorgeous or drab, he glimpses from platform and siding; the incidents he dhrills or blushes to remember take place in waiting and washrooms, ticket queues and parcels offices: it is in dhose promiscuous places of random association, in dhat air of anticipatory fidget, that he makes friends and enemies, that he promises, confesses, kisses, and betrays until, either because it is the one he has been expecting, or because, losing his temper, he has vowed to take the first to come along, or because he has been given a free ticket, or simply by misdirection and mistake, a train arrives which he does get into: it whistles - at least he thinks afterwards he remembers it whistling — but before he can blink, it has come to a standstill again and there he stands clutching his battered bags, surrounded by entirely strange smells and noises - -yet in their smelliness and noisiness how familiar - one vast important stretch the nearer Nowhere, that still smashed terrninus at which he will, in due course, be deposited, seedy and by himself.

Sea voyages have always had a kind of glarnour that has generally been absent from most travel by rail, and therefore the train trip as voyage of life has appeared to many the particularly appropriate way in which to invest the old topos with a wry disillusionment.

A. D. Hope, the fine contemporary Australian poet, thus emphasizes in "Observation Car" the element of boredom, for although, he says, he may have once found the travelling novel and even "fun",

    now I am tired of the train. I have learned that one tree
Is much like another, one hill the dead spit of the next
I have seen trailing off behind all the various types of country
Like a clock running down. I am bored and perplexed.

Not only does the terminus change or vanish, so do the other
passengers in a quite maddening way, for
The schoolgirl who goes to the Ladies" comes back to her seat
A lollipop blonde who leads you on to assault her,
And you" ve just got her skirt round her waist and her pants round her feet

When you find yourself fumbling about the nightmare knees
Of a pink hippopotamus with a permanent wave
Who sends you for sandwiches and a couple of teas,
But by then she has whiskers, no teeth and one foot in the grave.

Such changes, such temporal devastation, lead him to confess, "I have lost my faith that the ticket tells us where we are going." He does not, however, find himself terrified by such disillusionment, for although there are "rumours the driver is mad," that we are being shipped to slaughter-houses somewhere, or that "the signals are jammed and unknowing/ We aim through the night full speed at a wrecked viaduct," he refuses to countenance such hysterical fears. "The future is rumor and drivel." He is the man of disillusion, and his is the world of ennui, not fear.


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Last modified 26 December 2004