And ever louder the voices grew,
And the tramp of men in mail;
Until my brain it seemed to be
As though I tossed on a ship at sea
In the teeth of a crashing gale. — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The King's Tragedy', 11. 550-4

T hus far we have observed only those metaphors of drifting which explicitly figure forth the situation of the person who finds himself without purpose, without direction, because his religious faith has vanished. The related situations of drifting and actual shipwreck, however, frequently appear in a second form as a paradigm of severe mental crisis not necessarily connected with the problems of religious belief. For instance, the speaker in Baudelaire's "Les Sept Vieillards" uses this image of drifting to convey his feeling when he came upon the seventh of the identical men encountered in the fog-filled streets. Wandering through the swarming city, he comes upon a grotesque, horrifyingly evil cripple, and immediately catches sight of a second, third, fourth — each the same — until at the seventh he flees this horrifying absurdity and returns home:

Vainement ma raison voulait prendre la barre;
La tempete en jouant deroutait ses efforts,
Et mon ame dansait, dansait, vieille gabarre
Sans mats, sur une mer monstrueuse et sans bords!

[My reason vainly sought to seize the helm;
The blowing storm foiled all its efforts,
and my soul danced, danced, an old hulk
without masts on a sea monstrous and without shores.]

Wounded by mystery and absurdity, he discovers himself to be an old barge battered by forces too great for him to resist.

When Thomas Moore describes Zelica's mental state after she has been mistakenly informed that her lover Azim is dead, the poet employs a similar analogy:

The mind was still all there, but turn'd astray;-
A wandering bark, upon whose path-way shone
All stars of heav'n, excepting the guiding one![Lalla Rookh]

Zelica therefore becomes a wreck, at random driven,/ Without one glimpse of reason or of heaven.

These psychological versions of the shipwreck structure present the conscious intelligence, and not just the person s physical being, surrounded and impinged upon by alien forces. In Baudelaire's application of the commonplace figure, the sight of something horrible thus threatens his reason, while in Rossetti's and Moore's versions sounds and voices are the analogous agents. Baudelaire's image of the battered hulk, like that of Moore, emphasizes that the element of external, overwhelming force conquers reason — conquers, in other words, what is human. Such psychological applications of the ship-in-danger topos continue the ancient attempt to explain the effect upon the self of the unexpected and irrational. In The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds explains that Homeric man had no unified concept of what we call soul or personality. Furthermore, Homer had

a habit of explaining character or behaviour in terms of knowledge . . . not only the possession of technical skill . . . but also what we should call moral character or personal feelings. . . . If character is knowledge, what is not knowledge is not part of the character, but comes to a man from outside. When he acts in a manner contrary to the systems of conscious dispositions which he is said to know, his action is not properly his own but has been dictated to him. In other words, unsystematised, non-rational impulses, and the acts resulting from them, tend to be excluded from the self and ascribed to an alien origin.1

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptions of the human mind do accept that irrational impulses belong to the person experiencing them. None the less, the conscious mind is often portrayed as if it were being battered, a vessel in peril, by alien forces. The effect is implicitly to reduce the self to a consciousness while treating powerful feelings as exterior powers. The effect of such a conception of the mind s relation to itself and the exterior world is to reverse that progressive interiorization that has characterized Western thought since Periclean Athens, and which has been the subject of commentary by twentieth-century authors as different as Werner Jaeger and Paul Ricoeur.

It is difficult to say whether these descriptions of the mind in crisis are simply extensions of the metaphors mainly associated with problems of religious faith or whether they are the natural result of the new attitudes towards emotions and mental processes which accompany Romanticism. Baudelaire's Les Sept Vieillards of course exemplifies a situation that is clearly a secularized version of the similar metaphors employed by both religious authors and those describing loss of faith. Suddenly encountering himself in a world in which natural laws do not hold, the speaker in Baudelaire's poem discovers precisely that threatening, senseless cosmos experiencedby those who lose their religious belief, for like them he finds himself impinged upon by external forces beyond his control. The crucial feature of both metaphysical and psychological versions of the shipwreck topos, in other words, lies in the fact that they both present the human intelligence abandoning claims to full responsibility for man's fate. The Christian version of the journey-of-life and shipwreck metaphors gives man the dignity of deciding his fate; or more accurately, it presents man deciding his fate on those spiritual matters that it conceives as the most important portion of his life and end. The modern version of these commonplace situations and metaphors in contrast declines such responsibility ceding it, instead, to some external cause, condition, or force.

Moore's many uses of the shipwreck situation in Lalla Rookh reminds us, however, that there had long existed one popular application of it that emphasized precisely just this basic lack of responsibility for one's fate. The Irish poet employs the analogy of maritime disaster to convey the intense psychological trauma of Zelica, who has lost her lover; and in fact, erotic and amatory verse has always used such images of shipwreck either to compliment the beloved or to emphasize the supposedly undeserved sufferings of the unrequited lover. Here, for example, the anonymous twelfth-century Goliard poet who wrote 'Dum Diane vitrea' describes the characteristic plight of the lover in terms of the many shifting moods he endures:

Ut vaga ratis per equora
dum caret anchora,
fluctuat inter spem emtumque dubia.

George F. Whicher's edition (1949) of The Goliard Poets, from which these lines are taken, renders them:

No ship that drifts
With anchor lost
Can match the shifts
Of hope and fear
Wherewith he's crossed.

Such medieval representations of the mind in turmoil differ from nineteenth- and twentieth-century ones in two ways: first of all, they tend to have an obvious moral emphasis, something quite appropriate to an age that conceived of the mind in terms of moral, rather than a faculty, psychology. In fact, immediately after describing the lover in terms of the anchorless, drifting vessel, the author of "Dum Diane vitrea" draws the moral that such is the fate of all who become soldiers of Venus. Second, the lover's mental stress is often conveyed by the psychomachia, almost a logical debate, rather than by any attempt to re-create psychological experience.

In essence, the speaker in many such erotic poems places God and the rest of the world in brackets, thereby making his beloved the centre of the universe and the only true divinity. Such an intentional isolation of the lovers of course permits the speaker in seduction poems to employ delightful hyperbole. Such hyperbole, in turn, permits him to urge that the beloved's cruel unwillingness to yield, and not his own desires, bears full responsibility for his sufferings. Thomas Carew thus instructs his desired one in "To Celia, on Love's Ubiquity" that she is the sole power responsible for his unhappy destiny:

Whilst in the bosom of the waves I reel,
My heart I'll liken to the offering Keel,
The Sea to my own troubled fate, the Wind
To your disdain, sent from a soul unkind.

Throughout his poetry Carew rings many witty changes on this basic conceit, elaborately comparing himself, for example, to an imperilled mariner in "To her in Absence — A Ship" while in 'My Mistress commanding me to return her letters" he represents himself as "th'advent'rous Merchant" who throws the "long toil'd for treasure" into the angry sea to save himself from destruction. Although Carew may claim he most desires his mistress's letters, his previsions of safe journey always end in the less literary pleasures of her "arms, which are my port." The poet's strategy is to pretend to a passive relation to the beloved in the hopes of in fact placing her in a passive relationship to him. Of course, both the poem and its argument are playful, and the hyperbolic imagery of shipwreck is used largely as a means of complimenting the mistress, who appears in the position of a deity or natural power.

Such a witty exchange of the beloved for God atthe centre of one's imaginative cosmos, which characterizes much Renaissance amatoryverse, is crucially tied to the erotic genres as such. Naturally enough all the other key terms of thejourney-of-life topos can be transformed as well. John Donne makes the usual Christian application of the topos in "The Progresse of the Soule" when he asserts that "though through many streights, and lands I roame,/ I launch at paradise" but the paradise at which most erotic poets set their courses turns out to be very much in this world. Carew's "A Rapture" thus promises a happy voyage indeed:

Thou like a sea of milk shalt lie display'd
Whilst I the smooth calm ocean will invade
With such a tempest, as when Jove of old
Fell down on Danae in a stream of gold
Yet my tall pinnace shall in th' Cypnan straight
Ride safe at anchor, and unload her freight:
My rudder with thy bold hand, like a tried
And skilful pilot, thou shalt steer, and guide
My bark into Love's channel, where it shall
Dance, as the bounding waves to rise or fall.

The erotic poet, furthermore, can transform even the more paradoxical uses of Christian shipwreck as happy disaster to his own uses. Drawing upon the Christian belief that true life, one's full existence, begins only after death when one joins God, many believers, including Coleridge, Thoreau, and Hopkins, claim that physical shipwreck can mark a spiritually successful end to one's lifevoyage by bringing one directly to one's heavenly destination. As Emily Dickinson, who did not always write so hopefully, put the paradox:

If my Bark sink
'Tis to another sea —
Mortality's Ground Floor
Is Immortality — [no. 1,234]

Making the erotic poet's transformation of the original Christian paradox, the anonymous early eighteenth-century author of "The Enjoyment" describes how he and his lover were

Tost with a tempest of Desire;
Till with utmost fury driven,
Down, at once, we sunk to heaven.

As these examples reveal, the amatory and erotic author frequently employs all the structures, situations, and analogies associated with traditional religious discourse. The particular importance for this study of literary iconology of such a recognition lies in the fact that it illuminates another stage in the development of a culturally important code, for although what I have termed modern paradigms of metaphysical shipwreck only begin to appear in the late eighteenth century, erotic writing traditionally had employed very similar structures for centuries before. Whereas the modern uses of the shipwreck and similar situations to figure forth man's fate tend to do so with extreme earnestness, erotic ones, of course, generally take a far lighter tone, since they are often employed for witty hyperbole. Such erotic applications of an entire set of cultural codes that were originally religious — or at least had been so since the end of the classical world and the beginning of the Christian one show us, therefore, one way in which society developed potentially subversive versions of religious paradigms. By bracketing God and the universe and thus making the lover's world all that mattered, such erotic applications of Christian metaphors made it possible that someone, sooner or later, would decide that this imaginary cosmos in which God did not exist usefully described the world that he had experienced. One would not have to insulate the universe of the speaker from the supposedly truer one of religious discourse if religion turned out to be false. Ironically, erotic writing, which thus parodies modes of religious discourse, seems to have at least some role in creating modern versions of these more earnest modes.


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Last modified 14 July 2007