Anthony . . .was shaken to the bottom — indeed there was no bottom, only the unthinkable abyss of human impotence opened under him.... Three, maybe four, men gone, swept off and smothered somewhere in the broken wake, was a fact, literal and sharp . At once the misery of wetness and fear, the noise above, like animals crowded in a dangerous pen, became a simpler thing, pitiable. If, a moment ago, Anthony could have wished them all scoured out by the hard sea, buried away and obliterated, now he felt only their wretched humanity, their common helplessness against the inhuman ocean. — James Gould Cozzens, S. S. San Pedro, ch. 3
A man adrift on a slim spar
A horizon smaller than the rim of a bottle.
Tented waves rearing lashy dark points
The near whine of froth in circles.
God is cold. —Stephen Crane, 'A man adrift on a slim spar'
The world's an orphans' home. — Marianne Moore, 'In Distrust of Merits'
fter that moment when the sailor suddenly perceives that he is lost, that his charts have disappeared or become useless, and after that more terrifying moment of shipwreck when his vessel sinks in crossseas or drives upon a reef, there comes another of those characteristic instants of recognition which inform the modern imagination — that moment when the mariner perceives the sea's complete indifference to what it destroys. It is then that one can no longer refer to the ocean as 'she'. The ocean has irrevocably become 'it', something wholly alien, wholly other. When man recognizes nature's indifference, his isolation is complete. When his ship founders, he has come to disaster — but not always final disaster: for a short time at least he can cling to the wallowing hulk or try for the lifeboat. He still has companions, even though they may soon be companions in death. But when he jumps from the stricken vessel and finds himself in the cold, churning waters, when he feels the iciness of the ocean, then he knows he is comnletelv alone.
Stephen Crane, who survived shipwreck off the Florida coast on New Year's Day, 1897, presents this moment of recognition in terms of the way that sea's temperature stuns and disorients the correspondent in his autobiographical short story, 'The Open Boat':
The January water was icy, and he reflected immediately that it was colder than he expected to find it off the coast of Florida. This appeared to his dazed mind as a fact important enough to be noted at the time. The coldness of the water was sad; it was tragic. This fact was somehow mixed and confused with his opinion of his own situation, so that it seemed almost a proper reason for tears. The water was cold.
The ocean's coldness, a mere physical quality, quickly comes to signify the complete indifference of God and nature to man. In Crane's 'A man adrift on a slim spar', a poem that remained unpublished in his lifetime, God, not the ocean, is cold. Emily Dickinson provides another version of this recognition when she tells the 'little Brig . . . o'ertook by Blast', 'The Ocean's Heart's too smooth — too Blue — / to break for You' (no. 723). Whereas to some like Dickinson, Melville, and Crane, nature appears appallingly indifferent, to others it merely seems opaque and incomprehensible. As Neruda admits in the opening lines of 'Soliloquio en las olas' ('Soliloquy in the Waves'),
Si, pero aqui estoy solo.
tal vez dice su nombre,
[Yes, but it's lonely here.
The wave builds
and breaks, speaking
its name, it may be: I understand nothing. trans. Ben Belitt]
However, like Melville's Ahab, Crane found himself, not puzzled but infuriated by such icy indifference, since
when it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
As George Monteiro's essential essay on 'The Open Boat' demonstrates, Crane communicates his recognition that there are 'no temples' by invoking a complex gathering of cultural codes that were accepted by most of his contemporary audience. Hymns, sermons, and emblem books taught nineteenth-century Protestants that Christ the pilot was always present in one's lifeboat. Crane's autobiographical short story, therefore, contradicts commonplace Christian interpretations of the emblematic situation of the man in the imperilled vessel.
Crane's details in 'The Open Boat' were drawn from actual experience, of course, but they are details resonant with meaning, especially when they are viewed against the background of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity.... He matched his personal experiences of shipwreck against the essentialist, allegorical teachings of nineteenth-century Protestantism as he knew them, and he found their optimism decidedly wrong-headed. While the hymns talk of Christianity as the life-boat which in itself provides safety and salvation, Crane's story tells of a dinghy which at the last becomes as dangerous to human life as the sea itself. 1
Furthermore, as Professor Monteiro demonstrates, the castaway's experience in the waste ocean not only thus disproves the relevance of the Christian scheme of things but it also goes further and wears away at our most basic conceptions of self and causality.
Whereas Crane's 'The Open Boat' uses the situation of the castaway as an implicit criticism and parody of Protestant hymns, the poetry of William Cowper, who himself wrote hymns, arrives at the same modern imaginative landscape by a very different route. Cowper's 'The Castaway', which is probably the best known of all English depictions of the swimmer in the waste ocean, confesses that 'misery still delights to trace/ Its semblance in another's case' and then describes the plight of one swept overboard by raging seas who drowns because help cannot reach him. He then closes the poem by emphasizing his own abandonment and spiritual destruction:
No voice divine the storm allay'd
No light propitious shone; When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he. [11. 61-6]
Cowper's poem is a turning-point in the iconology of spiritual shipwreck. Before it such shipwreck always represents a divine punishment, test, or lesson, whereas afterwards (perhaps in large part because of this poem's influence) the situation increasingly represents the disappearance of God. What makes 'The Castaway' so difficult to interpret finally is that, although it apparently presents this modern sense of abandonment, the evidence of biography and his other poetry argues that Cowper believed his experience as castaway was God's punishment for his sins.
Even when making apparendy straightforward uses of traditional Christian commonplaces, he makes this absence of God an unsettling element in his verse. 'Human Frailty', for example, points out that man inevitably shipwrecks without divine assistance:
Bound on a voyage of awful length
And dangers little known,
A stranger to superior strength,
Man vainly trusts his own.
But oars alone can ne'er prevail
To reach the distant coast,
The breath of heav'n must swell the sail,
Or all the toil is lost. [11. 17-24]
When placed in the context of his other poems, such a commonplace statement of man's dependence upon God takes on a particular poignancy, for even here Cowper has no confidence that God will in fact 'swell the sails'. He has stated the conditions of survival, but the conditional nature of the statement reminds us that here, as in so many of his poems, God is mentioned as not being present: He is a hoped-for presence, a condition necessary for success, survival, and salvation. Such a description of God is not all that unusual in religious verse and hymnody, but in his most powerful poems Cowper does not seem able to move from a conditional —and absent —deity to a present one who sustains him. 'Temptation', which expresses his hope that he will make safe haven, characteristically closes, not with the certainty that he has reached God or will reach Him, but with the injunction that the difficulties of the voyage might not prevent his search from continuing:
Tho' tempest-toss'd and half a wreck,
My saviour thro' the flood I seek;
Let neither winds nor stormy main
Force back my shatter'd bark again. [11. 1720]
Already envisaging himself as a wreck, he continues his voyage, but the frequently despairing Cowper seems to have little hope that he could close his voyage successfully. Several times, in fact, he expresses the conviction that he is a castaway. Thus, in the verses he wrote on John Newton's safe return from a sea voyage ('To the Reverend Mr. Newton on his Return from Ramsgate'), he tells his friend and Evangelical mentor, who had himself exchanged the life of a slave-ship captain for that of a preacher, that
Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
Come home to port no more. [11. 13-16]
The poet's sense of being isolated from both man and God led him to see himself in the guise of Robinson Crusoe, and once again, he employs the post-Christian intonation of this figure. In other words, he sees himself, not the way Defoe presented Crusoe as a man shipwrecked and cast away by God for his spiritual edification —but simply as an example of isolated, abandoned humanity. In Cowper's vision of the voyage of life,
. . . the wreck'd mariner may strive
Some desert shore to gain,
Secure of life if he survive
The fury of the main:
But there, to famine doom'd a prey
Finds the mistaken wretch!
He but escap'd the troubled sea,
To perish on the beach.
['Mortals! Around Your Destin'd Heads', 11. 1320]
Cowper, who so powerfully presents such vignettes of men perishing in isolation and despair, obviously saw himself living in this situation as the primal castaway, His verses 'On the Death of Sir W. Russell' overtly claim that he is such a hapless survivor of maritime disaster:
See me —ere yet my destin'd course half done
Cast forth a wand'rer on a wild unknown!
See neglected on the world's rude coast,
Each dear companion of my voyage lost! [11. 1518]
Similarly, his lines on Alexander Selkirk, the original of Robinson Crusoe, close with the abandoned mariner complaining, 'I must finish my journey alone', and although neither Selkirk nor Crusoe did in fact perish on his respective island, Cowper seemed certain he would do so on his.
The poet's Evangelical sense of sin so convinced him of his own depravity that he came to believe that God had abandoned him, despite his awareness that such conviction was despair, the greatest of sins. His despair thrust Cowper into the modern imaginative landscape in which God has disappeared. The very absence of God in 'The Castaway' makes it a precursor of much later work, for whereas the older Christian uses of the situation, which still appear in Coleridge, Hopkins, and Hugo, always rely on a dual perspective that presents both the abandonment and the presence of God, the later version concentrates solely on the experience of the man shipwrecked and cast away —in other words, on the consequences of God's absence.
Like Crane, Arthur Hugh Clough , the friend of Emerson and Arnold, describes the frightening indifference of the universe which devours man, but he does not have to shipwreck literally to understand this. Gazing at the ocean from the deck of his ship, Clough's protagonist in Amours de Voyage perceives man's true situation in this world, and in doing so he employs both the situation of the castaway and one of its equivalents of transformations:
Standing, uplifted, alone on the heaving poop of the vessel,
Looking around on the waste of the rushing incurious billows,
'This is Nature,' I said: 'we are born as it were from her waters,
Over her billows that buffet and beat us, her offspring uncaredfor,
Casting one single regard of a painful victorious knowledge,
Into her billows that buffet and beat us we sink and are swallowed.' [canto 3, sec. 2]
According to Clough, as according to Melville, man exists an 'offspring uncared-for', an orphan, a waif. Like the situation of the castaway, that of the waif struck men who had lost their religious belief as a fitting metaphor for the human condition.[Another important version (or transformation) of the castaway appears in the motif of the Babes in the Wood, which, as Barton L. St Armand points out, was 'surely one of the most popular themes of nineteenth-century art and illustration.'2 This important study traces the many varying applications and intonations of this version
of the castaway or orphan in nineteenthcentury literature. It also demonstrates how ballad incident was often combined with scriptural echoes and allusion]Throughout Moby Dick, for example, Ishmael describes the crew of the Pequod as orphans and castaways, gradually making the two as equivalent in the world of Melville as they are in the world of Dickens. All three authors would have agreed with Mr Jarndyce's observation in Bleak House that the 'universe makes a rather indifferent parent' (ch. 6). Each of Dickens's novels has at least half-a-dozen orphans —Bleak House has nine among the main characters —and it is clear that, like Clough, Melville, and James Thomson, he sees the situation of the orphan as universally applicable.3
Rockwell Kent's illustration to Moby Dick
— Pip Castaway
Moby Dick provides a fitting emblem of this sense of the world when Starbuck's boat becomes separated from the Pequod one night. The mate lights a lantern, and then 'stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. . . . There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair' (ch. 48). This concern with man shipwrecked, cast away, and orphaned permeates the imagery of Melville's novel, focusing our attention on the author's sense of being in the world. At one point Ishmael tells us that 'our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them; the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it' (ch. 114). Whether or not we are the children of God, or of a god, that is the question! The chapter entitled 'The Castaway', in which the cabin boy, Pip, jumps from the whale boat in mid-chase, would suggest that whatever our origins, we are now orphans. Pip, says Ishmael, saw God's foot upon the loom and was thought mad. Pip, he says, had at last seen the ambiguous maddening wisdom of the universe and became as 'indifferent as his God'. This same chapter tells how 'from the centre of the sea, Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest' (ch. 93), and we receive the impression of an entire world, an entire universe, which has been forgotten by God.
Melville reminds us that just as men have felt the indifference of nature and their situation as orphans, so, too, they realize that in this situation 'the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the midst of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?' (ch. 93). Moby Dick again and again reveals man struggling to keep himself from being swallowed by what Conrad's Nostromo calls 'the immense indifference of things' (pt 3, ch. 10), so that the situation of Pip widens until it encompasses the fates of all on the ill-fated Pequod. In this transformation of the castaway's situation into a figure for the human condition, Melville's great novel becomes representative of much art and literature since the late eighteenth century.