The terrific storms of the preceding twelve months have been productive of the most unprecedented disasters in the seas and on the shores of the United Kingdom. A terrible record of shipwreck and loss of life will be found in the 'Board of Trade Wreck Register.' This states that the increase in these disasters is mainly to be traced to the very heavy storms of October 25 and 26, and of October 31 and November 1 and 2 last. In the former gale there were 133 total wrecks and 90 casualties, resulting in serious damage, and 798 lives were lost. This number, however, includes the loss of 446 lives in the Royal Charter, which will always be remembered as one of the most melancholy shipwrecks that ever occurred on British shores.... It appears that in one voyage out of 175 voyages made by British ships employed in the overseas-trade a casualty has happened, while in only one voyage out of 335 has a casualty happened to a foreign ship similarly employed.... It appears that, exclusive of passengers, there were 10,538 persons on board these 1416 wrecks, and that ofthese 3977 were actually imperilled, and 2332 have been saved from a watery grave by life-boats and other craft; the remainder 1645 having unhappily been drowned. — 'The Wreck Register of 1859', Illustrated London News, October 1860
The Hurricane at Madras: Wrecks on the Beach. Click on image to enlarge it and to see Illustrated London News that accompanied the engraving. [Not in original edition.]
lthough 1859 may have been a particularly perilous year for British sailors, shipwreck was an ever-present threat to sailors of all nations. As anyone who has visited the maritime museums of old and New England can attest, disaster in mid-ocean or upon a coast ended the careers of an astonishingly high percentage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century vessels. Looking at a sampling of well-known ships from this period, one observes how many were lost at sea. For example, the Benjamin W. Latham, a particularly handsome Grand Banks fishing vessel built in 1902, foundered at an advanced age off the coast of San Juan in 1943; the Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing schooner Elsie was built in 1910 and sank in the Gulf of St Lawrence in 1935; the New York pilot boat Phantom was built in 1868 and was lost with six crew members when driven upon the New Jersey shore during the blizzard of 1888; the steam-paddle cutter Harriet Lane of New York, which was built in 1857, foundered in 1884 off Pernambuco; and the American revenue cutter Roger B. Taney, which was built in 1833, was destroyed by lightning near Savannah, Georgia, in 1857.
Such sea disasters occurred frequently enough during the past two centuries that many artistic and literary figures not only could have encountered them in newspaper accounts and other published shipwreck narratives but also could have been acquainted with them more intimately. In fact, many artistic and literary figures had experienced shipwreck at first hand, had observed them taking place or had friends or family who perished in them. William Falconer, whose poem in three cantos, The Shipwreck (1762), did much to popularize the subject, himself drowned at sea, as did Shelley, whose poetry makes frequent use of such situations. [See pp. 75-84 for a discussion of Falconer's The Shipwreck.] Stephen Crane survived shipwreck on the Commodore in 1897 and lived to base a newspaper article, short story, and poem upon his confrontation with a coldly indifferent nature. Margaret Fuller, the American critic and journalist, drowned in a storm off Fire Island, New York, as she was returning to America. 'She was drowned', wrote Emerson to Carlyle, 'with her husband and child on the wreck of the ship Elizabeth on the 19 July, at 3 in the P. M. after sitting all day, from morning, in plain sight of the shore'. [The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. (1964) Ney York: ed. Joseph Slater, 462. Hereafter cited by page number in text.]
Left: Collision between the “Duchess of Kent” and the “Ravensbourne” steamers, off Northfleet Point (1852). Right: The North German Lloyd’s Steam-ship Baltimore aground at Hastings (1872). Click on images to enlarge them and to see the article about the collision that appeared in the 1852 Illustrated London News that accompanied the engraving. [Not in original edition.]
Nine years before the death of Margaret Fuller, Carlyle had interrupted a letter to Emerson when a ship met with disaster before his eyes.
— Good Heavens! Here comes my Wife, all in tears, pointing out to me a poor ship, just tumbled over on a sandbank on the Cumberland Coast, men still said to be alive with it! - a Belfast steamer doing all it can to get in contact with it! Moments are precious (say the people on the beach), the flood runs at ten miles an hour. Thank god, the steamer's boat is out: 'eleven men,' says a person with a glass, 'are saved; it is an American timber-ship coming up without a pilot.' And now, - in ten minutes more - there lies the melancholy mass alone among the waters. [p. 307]
Joseph Conrad, whose experience of rescuing a similar endangered vessel taught him much about himself and the sea, drew upon his experience throughout his career as a novelist. As is well known, a maritime disaster similarly affected William Wordsworth, whose beloved brother John, a captain of a merchant vessel, perished with his ship on 6 February 1805.
Wreck of the “Oregon” under Picklecombe Battery, Plymouth Sound.. Click on image to enlarge it and to see Illustrated London News that accompanied the engraving. [Not in original edition.]
For three months, Wordsworth stopped work on The Prelude. The loss of his brother is as major an event in Wordsworth's poetry as in his life. Directly due to it are the powerful lines that form Wordsworth's palinode on his gospel of Nature, the Elegiac Stanzas, better known as Peele Castle.1
Gerard Manley Hopkins also wrote about an actual shipwreck in The Wreck of the Deutschland, and, as Elizabeth Schneider has pointed out, he and his family had long shared a deep interest in sea disaster. His brother had exhibited paintings of shipwrecks and
Wrecks, it will be remembered, were a main part of the business of his father, who as head of a firm of marine average adjusters not only wrote technical works on marine insurance but, only a short time before the Deutschland's disaster, had published The Port of Refuge, or Advice and Instructions to the Master-Mariner in Situations of Doubt, Diffculty, and Danger (1873), a book practical in purpose but adorned, beyond the alliterative title, with quotations from The Ancient Mariner.... The whole family seems to have been a company of horrified amateurs of maritime disaster, too high-minded to rejoice in others' misfortune but vividly interested.[The Dragon in the Gate. op. cit., 16.]
Granted, shipwrecks were common enough that they provided an obvious example of dramatic disaster and crisis. The commonness or cultural availability of such events does not, however, explain why this situation should take on new meanings when employed as an analogy and paradigm. Although the physical conditicas that made this situation of crisis particularly popular may has provided a necessary condition for its use, they could not provile a sufficient condition, one whose presence completely explairs its cultural significance.
Wreck of the “Edmund” (1850). (1850). Click on image to enlarge it and to see the article in The Illustrated London News that accompanied the engraving. [Not in original edition.]
Thoreau's Cape Cod, a fugue on the theme of shipwrelk, exemplifies such distinctions. This work also gives us a far bettzr idea of the human cost of such disaster than does any 'Wreck Retistert or list of foundered vessels, for although examples and statistiFS suggest how commonly sea voyages ended beneath the waves rathlr than in port, they do not convey what it was like either to experien-e a shipwreck or to observe its aftermath. In the first sentence of Cape Cod Thoreau informs us: 'Wishing to get a better view than I had yit of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two-thirds ofthe globe. . . I made a visit to Cape Cod in October, l 849, anotherWhe succeeding June, and another to Truro inJuly, 1855.' It immedately becomes clear that having wished to obtain this 'better view' of the sea, Thoreau does so by gazing on its victims. Arrivingin Boston on 9 October 1849 on his way to the Cape, he discoves that a severe storm has delayed the boat he had planned to take t, Provincetown and that the same storm took one hundred and forty-five lives at (Cohasset, which then became his destination . 'The b, ig St.John, from Galway, Ireland, laden with emigrants, was wreceed on Sunday morning.' Passing the graveyard, he observes a lsrge hole, like a cellar, being prepared for a mass burial; and arrivhg at the beach, Thoreau encounters the sea and its victims:
I saw many marble feet and matted heads as he cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen and mangled bcdy of a drowned girl, - who probably had intended to go out to service in some American farnily, - to which Some rags still adhered, with a string, half concealed by the tesh, about its swollen neck; the coiled-up wreck of a humar hulk, gashed by rocks or fishes, so that the bone and musce were exposed but quite bloodless, - merely red and white, - with wide- open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead-ligits; or like cabin windows of a stranded vessel, filled with sand Sometimes there were two or more children, or a parentand child, in the same box, and on the lid would perhapsbe written with red chalk, 'Bridget such-a-one, and sister's child'
Turning to the rubble that litters the beach, Thoreau begins to comprehend the oceanss power from the way it has shattered the brig's masts, largest timbers, and iron braces.
The wreck of the St John was not a unique event on these shores, Thoreau soon discovers, and it has not even disturbed the daily routine of farmers who gather seaweed to fertilize their fields, while others gather the bodies that are also cast up by the sea. Later he Vlsits Truro where, despite the lighthouse,
after every storm we read of one or more vessels wrecked there, and sometimes more than a dozen wrecks are visible from this point at one time. The inhabitants hear the crash of vessels going to pieces as they sit round their hearths, and they commonly date from some memorable shipwreck. ['The Highland Light']
These people live with the sound and memory of shipwrecks, and almost every family has lost some of its members in them. Continuing his attempt to get a 'better view' of the ocean, Thoreau catches sight of this monument:
to the memory of
57 citizens of Truro,
who were lost in seven
foundered at sea in
the memorable gale
of Oct. 3d, 1841.
Thoreau reports that the names and ages of the victims appeared on different sides of the stone, arranged by families . 'I was told that only one vessel drifted ashore on the backside of the Cape, with the boys locked into the cabin and drowned.' The homes of all these victims lay within two miles of one another. So many fishermen were lost, Thoreau adds, that the company which owned rnany of the boats failed for want of crews.
But the surviving inhabitants went a-fishing again the next year as usual. I found it would not do to speak of shipwrecks here, for almost every family has lost some of its members at sea. 'Who lives in that house?' I inquired. 'Three widows,' was the reply.
Such a response prevents all dialogue, since it would be cruel to speak of the realities of shipwreck with those who have suffered so much from it.
Thoreau, however, can confront the bleak, undignified, unheroic, almost infinitely pathetic facts associated with these sea disasters because he places them in a religious context and accepts that these Irish emigrants may have perished a brief mile from shore;
but before they could reach it, they emigrated to a newer world than ever Columbus dreamed of.... We have reason to thank God that they' have not been 'shipwrecked into life again.' The mariner who makes the safest port in Heaven, perchance, seems to his friends on earth to be shipwrecked, for they deem Boston Harbor the better place. ['The Shipwreck']
Until Thoreau abruptly introduces this Christian reading of an actual event, the reader of his text has received no indication that such might be this shipwreck's meaning for him. By unexpectedly considering this actual disaster from the vantage-point of a wellknown Christian commonplace, Thoreau manages to transform a horrifying scene of slaughter into a place of good fortune. The Christian paradigm, then, functions in the manner of a magic lens, for it permits him to show the reader an otherwise invisible world of spirit inhering in the things of this one.
Rescue of the crew of the “Caber-Faigh” on the Owens Shoal, Isle of Wight. Click on image to enlarge it and to see Illustrated London News that accompanied the engraving. [Not in original edition.]
Thoreau's procedure in Cape Cod demonstrates that any particular fact or event does not in itself possess a meaning. The meaning derives from the context of these codes that define it. At first, Thoreau's objective, even chilling descriptions of the emigrants' bodies seduces his reader into interpreting the shipwreck of the St John as an instance of either a meaningless event or one that reveals nature's essential indifference to man - and that of God as well. By inserting this historical event into the cultural code provided by Christian notions of the journey of life, he unexpectedly defines the event in his chosen terms . He transforms an apparently tragic voyage into a supposedly happy one.
Of course, had Thoreau not seen the victims of this particular shipwreck, he could not have written Cape Cod in this way. None the less, as his procedure brilliantly demonstrates, no event has its own meaning; it must receive one from a human agent, who defines it by placing it in one or another context. Thoreau's point, we recognize is that, as a seer, as a man who can see better than most in his audience, he claims to be able to interpret such matters for us better than we can do ourselves.
Turning back to some of the situations of crisis discussed earlier, we observe that the same principles obtain. For example, although Pompeii is unlikely to have become a paradigmatic event had it not been rediscovered in 17 45 - contemporary accounts of its destruction by Pliny the Younger and others had not sufficed to make it one - the fact of Pompeii brought with it no one meaning. Some interpreters perceived it to be an instance of divine puniskment of paganism and others took it as a slaughter of the innocents. Although certain events may prove so shocking as to lead a believer to abandon his faith, no event, in itself, can necessarily do so, for the eye of faith can always, as it has so many times, perceive any disaster as a punishment, test, or means of spiritual education.2
Indeed, as the following pages-will demonstrate, any particular situation of crisis, whether considered primarily as an historical event or metaphor, could be interpreted as a paradigm belonging to one or two diametrically opposed codes or systems, those I have termed the Christian and the post-Christian. The Christian eye of faith claims implicitly - and often explicitly as well - that to see a shipwreck or a destroyed Pompeii as an instance of man's isolation in an indifferent universe is to suffer spiritual blindness. The sceptical post-Christian eye, in contrast, claims similarly that to take them as instances of divine justice is wilfully to blind oneself to human suffering in order to preserve a desperate belief in a non-existent world of the spirit.
Wreck of the Chilean steamer “Cazador”. Click on image to enlarge it. [Not in original edition.]
Last modified 12 December 2015