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An essay by James Runciman

The Sea

Title:     The Sea
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Is there anything new to say about it? Alas, have not all the poets done their uttermost; and how should a poor prose-writer fare when he enters a region where the monarchs of rhythm have proudly trodden? It is audacious; and yet I must say that our beloved poets seem somehow to fail in strict accuracy. Tennyson wanders and gazes and thinks; he strikes out some immortal word of love or despair when the awful influence of the ocean touches his soul; and yet he is not the poet that we want. One or two of his phrases are pictorial and decisive--no one can better them--and the only fault which we find with them is that they are perhaps a little too exquisite. When he says, "And white sails flying on the yellow sea," he startles us; but his picture done in seven words is absolutely accurate. When he writes of "the scream of the maddened beach," he uses the pathetic fallacy; but his science is quite correct, for the swift whirling of myriads of pebbles does produce a clear shrill note as the backdraught streams from the shore. But, when he writes the glorious passion beginning, "Is that enchanted moan only the swell Of the long waves that roll-in yonder bay?" we feel the note of falsity at once--the swell does not moan, and the poet only wanted to lead up to the expression of a mysterious ecstasy of love. Again, the most magnificent piece of word-weaving in English is an attempted description of the sea by a man whose command of a certain kind of verse is marvellous. Here is the passage--

"The sea shone
And shivered like spread wings of angels blown
By the sun's breath before him, and a low
Sweet gale shook all the foam-flowers of thin snow
As into rainfall of sea-roses, shed
Leaf by wild leaf in the green garden bed
That tempests still and sea-winds turn and plough;
For rosy and fiery round the running prow
Fluttered the flakes and feathers of the spray
And bloomed like blossoms cast by God away
To waste on the ardent water; the wan moon
Withered to westward as a face in swoon
Death-stricken by glad tidings; and the height
Throbbed and the centre quivered with delight
And the deep quailed with passion as of love,
Till, like the heart of a new-mated dove,
Air, light, and wave seemed full of burning rest"--

and so on. Superb, is it not? And yet that noble strain of music gives us no true picture of our dear, commonplace, terrible sea; it reminds us rather of some gaudy canvas painted for the theatre. The lines are glorious, the sense of movement and swing is conveyed, and yet--and yet it is not the sea. We fancy that only the prose-poets truly succeed; and the chief of them all--the matchless Mr. Clark Russell--gets his most moving effects by portraying the commonplace aspects of the water in a way that reminds people of things which they noticed but failed to admire promptly. Mr. Russell's gospel is plain enough; he watches minutely, and there is not a flaw of wind or a cross-drift of spray that does not offer some new emotion to his quick and sensitive soul.

I want all those who are now dwelling amid the shrewd sweetness of the sea-air to learn how to gain simple pleasure from gazing on the incessant changes that mark the face of the sea. The entertainment is so cheap, so fruitful of lovely thought, so exhilarating, that I can hardly keep my patience when I see those wretched men who carry a newspaper to the beach on a glad summer morning, and yawn in the face of the Divine spectacle of wave and cloud and limpid sky. Let no one think that I picture the sea as always gladsome. Ah, no! I have seen too much of storm and stress for that. On one awful night long ago, I waited for hours watching waves that reared and thundered as if they would charge headlong through the streets of the town. The white crests nickered like flame, and below the crests the dreadful inky bulge of each monster rolled on like doom--like death. Throughout the mad night of tempest the guns from many distressed vessels rang out, and I could see the violent sweep of the ships' lights as they were hurled in wild arcs from crest to crest. Many and many a corpse lay out on those sands in the morning; the bold, bronzed men stared with awful glassy stare at the lowering sky; the little cabin-boy clasped his fragment of wreckage as though it had been a toy, and smiled--oh, so sweetly!--in spite of the cruel sand that filled his dead eyes. There was turmoil enough out at sea, for the steadily northerly drift was crossed by a violent roll from the east, and these two currents were complicated in their movement by a rush of water that came like a mill-race from the southward. Imagine a great city tossed about by a monstrous earthquake that first dashes the streets against each other, and then flings up the ruins in vast rolls; that may give some idea of that memorable storm. One poor, pretty girl saw her husband gallantly trying to make the harbour. Long, long had she waited for him, and day by day had she tried to track the vessel's course; the smart barque had gone round the Horn, and escaped from the perils of the Western Ocean in dead winter, and now she was heaving convulsively as she strove to run into harbour at home. Right and left the grey billows hit her, and we could see her keel sometimes when the wan light of the morning broke. The girl stared steadily, and her face was like that of a corpse. The barque swung southward, and with the speed of a railway engine rushed on to the stones; the pretty girl moaned, "Oh me!--oh me!" She never saw her lad again until his battered body was in the dead-house of the pier. A commonplace red-haired woman was in a dreadful state of mind when she saw a large fishing-boat trying to run for the harbour. Her husband and two sons were aboard, she said, so she had reasons for anxiety. The boat was pitched about like a cork; and presently one fearful sea fairly smashed her. The red-haired woman fell down upon the sand, and lay there moaning.

Assuredly I am not inclined to imitate the Cockney frivolity of Barry Cornwall, who never went to sea in his life, but who nevertheless carolled the most absurdly joyous lays regarding the ocean, which made him ill even when he merely looked at it. No; the true sea-lover knows that there are terror and mystery and horror as well as joyousness in the varied moods of the treacherous, remorseless, magnificent ocean. Those who read this may see the unspeakable beauty of the opaline and ruby tints that flame on the water when the sunset sinks behind the Isle of Thanet. The bay at Westgate will shine like mother-of-pearl, and the glassy rollers at the horizon will be incarnardined. That is a splendid sight! Then those who are in Devon may pass sleepy days in gazing on a vivid piercing blue that is pure and brilliant as the blue of the Bay of Naples. In the lochs to the West of Scotland the swarming tourists watch that riot of colour that marks the times of sunrise and sunset. All these spectacles of suave magnificence are imposing; but, for my own part, I love the grey water on the East Coast, and I like the low level dunes where the bent grass gleams and the sea-wind comes whispering "Forget!" All the gay days of the holiday-places, all the gorgeous sunsets, the imperial noondays, the solemn, glittering midnights are imposing, but the wise traveller learns to see the beauty of all the moods of the wild changing sea. Observe the commonplace man's attitude on a grey cheerless day, when the sky hangs low and the rollers are leaden. "A beast of a day!" he remarks in his elegant fashion; and he goes and grumbles in the vile parlour of his lodging-house, where the stuffy odour of aged chairs and the acrid smell of clumsy cookery contend for mastery. Yet outside on the moaning levels of the dim sea there are mysterious and ghostly sights that might move the heart of the veriest stockbroker if he would but force his mind to consider them. Look at that dark tremulous stream that seems to flow over the sullen sea. It is but a cat's-paw of wind, and yet it looks like a river flowing in silence from some fairy region. The boats start out of the haze and glide away into dimness after having shown their phantom shadows for a few seconds; the cry of the gull rings weirdly; the simulated agony of the staunch bird's scream makes one somehow think of tortured souls; you think of dim strange years, you feel the dim strange weather, you remember the still strange land unvexed of sun or stars, "where Lancelot rides clanking through the haze." Ah, who dares talk of a commonplace or disagreeable sea? I used the phrase once, but I well know that the "commonplace" day offers sights of sober grandeur to the eyes of the wise man. Happy those who have royal, serene days, lovely sunsets, quiet gloamings full of stars; happy also those who see but the enormous hurly-burly of mixed grey waves, and hear the harsh song of the wild wind that blows from the fields at night!

Autumn is a great time for the wild Sea Rovers who gather at Cowes and Southampton. The Rover may always be recognised on shore--and, by-the-way, he stays ashore a good deal--for his nautical clothing is spick and span new, the rake of his glossy cap is unspeakably jaunty, and the dignity of his gesture when he scans the offing with a trusty telescope is without parallel in history. When the Rover walks, you observe a slight roll which no doubt is acquired during long experience of tempestuous weather. The tailors and bootmakers gaze on the gallant Rover with joy and admiration, for does he not carry the triumphs of their art on his person? He roughs it, does this bold sea-dog--none of your fine living for him! His saucy barque lies at her moorings amid the wild breakers of Cowes or "the Water," and he sleeps rocked in the cradle of the deep, when he is not tempted to sojourn in his frugal hotel. The hard life on the briny ocean suits him, and he leaves all luxuries to the swabs who stay on shore. If the water is not in a violent humour, the Rover enjoys his humble breakfast about nine. He tries kidneys, bloaters, brawn, and other rude fare; he never uses a gold coffee-pot--humble silver suffices; and even the urn is made of cheap metal. At eleven the hardy fellow recruits his strength with a simple draught of champagne, for which he never pays more than twelve pounds a dozen, and then four stalwart seamen row him to the landing-place. He criticises the mighty ocean from the balcony of the club until the middle of the afternoon, and then he prepares for a desperate deed of daring. The Rover goes to the landing-place and scans the gulf that yawns between him and his vessel. Two hundred yards at least must be covered before the Rover can bound on to the deck of his taut craft. Two hundred yards! And there is a current that might almost sweep a tea-chest out to sea! But the Rover's steady eye takes in the whole view, and his very nautical mind enables him to lay plans with wisdom. He looks sternly at his gig with the four stout oarsmen; his simple carpets are all right; his cushions, his pillows, his cigar-box, his silken rudder-lines are all as they should be. The Rover takes his determination, and a dark look settles on his manly countenance. For one brief instant he thinks of all he leaves behind him; his dear home rises before his eyes, the voices of his loved ones thrill in his ear, and his bronzed hand is raised to dash away the tear that starts unbidden. But there must be no weakness. Rovers have their feelings, but they must subdue them when two hundred yards have to be traversed over waves that are nearly two inches high. The Rover steps into his boat, resolved to do or die. Now or never! He puts one cushion behind his athletic back, he lights a Regalia--so cool are genuine heroes in peril--and shoots away over the yeasty billows. For forty seconds the fierce struggle lasts; the bow of the boat is wetted to a height of four inches; but dauntlessness and skill conquer all difficulties, and in forty seconds and a half the unscathed Rover stands on his quarter-deck.

Sometimes when the captain is in a good humour, the Rover goes for a sail, and he takes as many as three ladies with him. This statement may be doubted, but only by those who do not know what British courage is really like. Yes, the Rover sometimes sails as much as ten miles in the course of one trip, and he may be as much as three hours away from his moorings. Moreover, I have known a good-natured skipper who allowed the roving proprietor of a yacht to take as many as six trips in the course of a single season. Observe the cheapness of this amusement, and reflect thankfully on the simplicity of taste which now distinguishes the wealthy Rovers of the South Coast. The yacht costs about two thousand pounds to begin with, and one thousand pounds per year is paid to keep her up. Thus it seems that a Rover may have six sails at the rate of one hundred and sixty-six pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence per sail! So long as the breed of Cowes Rovers exists we need have no fears concerning our naval supremacy. Indeed competent nautical men think that, if any band of enemies, no matter how ferocious they might be, happened to see a thorough-bred Cowes Rover equipped for his perilous afternoon voyage of two hundred yards, they would instantly lose heart and flee in terror. Such is the majesty of a true seaman. I hope that all my readers may respect the Rover when they see him. Remember that his dinner rarely numbers more than six courses, and he cannot always ice his champagne owing to the commotion of the elements. If such privations do not win pity from judicious readers, then, alas, I have written in vain! Those who read this will often be surrounded by strolling Rovers. Treat the reckless daring salts with respect, for they live hard and risk much.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Sea