Shipwreck Is Everywhere

Si recte calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est.
(If you reckon correctly, shipwreck is everywhere.)
—Gaius Petronius Arbiter


I came to explore the wreck.
. . .
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”


I. Scale of the Winds


Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Shipwreck, 1805.

Some of the most ravishing descriptions of the sea being whipped up into a tempest are contained in an empirical scale of wind force as encountered on sea and on land, the modern Beaufort scale. Escalating from zero, “Calm” (“Sea like a mirror; smoke rises vertically”), up through “Fresh Breeze,” “Gale,” “Storm” and so on, it goes on to a hurricane force of 12, where the “Sea is completely white” and “debris and unsecured objects are hurled around.” The observations have the keen-eyed perceptions of a poet: “well marked streaks of foam are blown along the direction of the wind,” “small flags extended,” “dust and loose paper raised.” The scale is in fact a favorite with poets, Don Paterson’s “Scale of Intensity” being perhaps the most successful homage. Alongside the stranger symptoms in Paterson’s scale, such as the change in weight of ordinary objects, or reversed vortex in the draining bath, Paterson makes sure to begin “Sea like a mirror” and to end on that paradoxical phrase of howling violence and visual stillness (one imagines a Turner painting), “Sea white.”

While the Beaufort scale is still named after Sir Francis Beaufort, upon whose 1805 scale the modern one is based, his observations had a nautical briskness and reflected not the wind’s effect on the sea, or the land, but on the sails of a British Navy frigate, from calm and “or just sufficient to give steerage way” to hurricane, “or that which no canvas can withstand” (poetic phrases which incidentally tend to natural iambic pentameters). Because this was wind force as experienced by a ship at sea, there was no reason to go higher than this—above this force, the ship would not survive: 13 is shipwreck.

Beaufort’s effort was part of a more general movement to make observations of the weather less subjective and more widely transferable as scientific measurement. In 1802, a pharmacist named Luke Howard delivered a lecture in London on the classification of clouds. Moving away from the openly whimsical, “a cloud that’s dragonish,” he proposed a Latin taxonomy which had perhaps its own poetry: “cirrus”—“a ringlet of hair”—“cumulus,” (“heaped”), and “stratus” (“strewn”), as well as hybrids thereof, vocabulary that still informs the contemporary International Cloud Atlas.

The original Beaufort scale itself has a literary connection, going back a century to Daniel Defoe’s “Scale of Winds” of 1704. (Defoe probably was also working from some sort of existing definition of wind force.) Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, probably the most severe storm to hit England in recorded history, and wrote a book, The Storm, on the event, which included firsthand accounts from numerous witnesses. On land, the lead tiles of Westminster Abbey were blown off, and 2,000 massive chimney stacks in London toppled. Scores of ships were wrecked, including 40 merchant vessels and 13 Royal Navy ships, with some 1,500 seamen drowned at Goodwin Sands alone; some ships were blown hundreds of miles out to sea, others inland to end up beached twenty miles from the water. The ferocity of the storm beggared description. Defoe wrote: “No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.”

Defoe had experienced it, however, and collected and published the firsthand experiences of others. He had been so shocked at the depth to which the mercury plummeted in the barometer at the outset that he thought at first that his kids must have meddled with the instrument. He was moved to produce a numbered scale for the winds themselves, the 12-toned “Scale of Winds,” ranging from zero (“Stark Calm”) to 11 (“Tempest”), with intermediary steps such as “a fresh gale” (5), or “a fret of wind” (9). Yet he too was keenly aware that one man’s fresh breeze was another’s gale.

Defoe is most famous now for his 1719 novel, one of the first in English, Robinson Crusoe; it was at least partly based on the real castaway Alexander Selkirk, a privateer who had survived alone on a deserted island from 1704 to 1709, and whose story was widely discussed in the press. (The case of shipwrecked surgeon Henry Pitman may also be a source.) In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe dramatizes the difference with which seasoned sailors and a landlubber on his virgin voyage interpret a squall in an exchange that seems almost written for the stage, or the cinema.

Crusoe is seasick and terrified from the experience; the other sailors tease him:

“[H]ow do you do after it? I warrant you were frighted, wa’n’t you, last night, when it blew but a capful of wind?” “A capful, d’you call it?” said I; “’twas a terrible storm.” “A storm, you fool you,” replies he; “do you call that a storm? Why, it was nothing at all; give us but a good ship and sea-room, and we think nothing of such a squall of wind as that; but you’re but a fresh-water sailor, Bob. Come, let us make a bowl of punch, and we’ll forget all that; d’ye see what charming weather ’tis now?”

Like the scale of winds itself the weather and narrative are destined to escalate, and a second storm, soon after, turns out to be one worse than the seasoned sailors have ever seen. Crusoe’s one advantage is that he does not know the meaning of the “founder”:

However, the storm was so violent that I saw, what is not often seen, the master, the boatswain, and some others more sensible than the rest, at their prayers, and expecting every moment when the ship would go to the bottom.

By the time of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, which pivots on a tempest and a shipwreck, the author can casually pepper Mina’s epistle on the coming storm with scientific observations, like a captain’s log:

The day was unusually fine till the afternoon, when some of the gossips who frequent the East Cliff churchyard, and from the commanding eminence watch the wide sweep of sea visible to the north and east, called attention to a sudden show of “mares tails” high in the sky to the northwest. The wind was then blowing from the south-west in the mild degree which in barometrical language is ranked “No. 2, light breeze.”

Those watching onshore (some of whom will scramble to take salvage from the ship, which might legally be considered derelict but for the complication of a dead man tied to the wheel; the only survivor appears to be a large dog that leaps ashore), take aesthetic pleasure in the experience of watching the approaching storm from shore:

The coastguard on duty at once made report, and one old fisherman, who for more than half a century has kept watch on weather signs from the East Cliff, foretold in an emphatic manner the coming of a sudden storm. The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty. Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward way was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset colour, flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold, with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlined as colossal silhouettes. The experience was not lost on the painters, and doubtless some of the sketches of the “Prelude to the Great Storm” will grace the R. A. and R. I. walls in May next.

It’s unclear to me who exactly changes Beaufort’s sail-based descriptions to the more evocative sea conditions (and corresponding land conditions); but it may well have been Sir George Simpson, who updated the Beaufort scale in 1926 for steamships and observers onshore, including the drift of smoke and the rustling of leaves, giving the scale its modern overlap of scientific observation and poetic precision, as well as its simultaneous observation of wind at sea and wind on shore, both places at once. The ability to imagine conditions at sea from the shore, and to think of the shore from the sea, is an important imagina­tive leap, and one that infuses literature and the development of one of modern literature’s notable components, empathy.

II. “How sweet it is to watch from dry land . . .”


“The Trojan Fleet Encounters a Storm at Sea,” Virgilius Romanus, 5th Century Illuminated Manuscript, (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, MS Vat. lat. 3867, fol. 77r, detail).

Storm and the threat of shipwreck, or actual shipwreck, turn out to be the embarkation point for many narratives, and maybe one of the starting points of literature itself. The Odyssey (circa seventh-century BC) begins with Odysseus already a castaway and sole survivor of his whole armada, the Aeneid (19 BC) with Aeneas, a refugee fleeing the devastation of Troy, in a tempest with his flotilla off the coast of Carthage. The first words spoken by a mortal in Virgil’s poem are Aeneas’ in terror of the storm and in dread of a watery grave. Lifting his palms to heaven he exclaims:

Three times, four times luckier were those
Who died before their parents’ eyes
Under Troy’s high walls!

Aeneas is uttering nearly the same words (if in a different language) that Odysseus says in Odyssey 5.306, 5.307 when his raft is destroyed and he is swimming for his life. A blast of wind from the North strikes the sail as Aeneas speaks:

. . . Waves shot to the stars.
The oars shattered. The prow swung around,
Exposing the side to the waves, and then
A mountain of water broke over the fleet.
The crew of some ships bobbed high on the crest,
While the wave’s deep trough revealed to others
The deep seafloor churning with sand.

Many are drowned, at least one ship wrecked, but Aeneas and his own ship make nearest land, the coast of Libya. There Aeneas utters some of the poem’s most famous words,“forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit”:

Some day, perhaps
It will help to remember these troubles as well.

It turns out there is something mirror-like about the sea (“the sea-like sea” as Alice Oswald describes it), not just its reflective surface in fair weather: it has the effect of doubling current experience as premonition or nostalgia. At sea, Aeneas wishes himself onshore (if dead and buried), and onshore, he casts his mind back to the struggle at sea, as well as forward into a future time when thinking about it will bring pleasure. Iuvabit in the Latin, here translated as “will help” can also be translated as “will gratify or please.”

This counterintuitive association of a ship in distress at sea and pleasure onshore is not coincidence. The Roman poet Virgil throughout the Aeneid is engaged in conversation with, or maybe rebuttal of, one of his strongest influences, Lucretius and his didactic Epicurean epic, De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things” (circa 50 BC). Epicurean philosophy, with its emphasis on Pleasure as the greatest good, and its belief in a purely material universe of atoms drifting through the void, looked to nautical metaphor to describe the serene state of mind that philosophy aimed at: ataraxia—“untroubledness” or “smooth sailing” as it were. And when Lucretius wants to describe the philosophical man looking upon the troubles of others in Book 2, he describes a spectator onshore watching a ship in a tempest:

How sweet it is to watch from dry land when the storm-winds roil
A mighty ocean’s waters, and see another’s bitter toil—
Not because you relish someone else’s misery—
Rather it’s sweet to know from what misfortunes you are free.[1]

Aeneas is both the sailor in difficulties and the philosophical observer onshore who can find pleasure in being out of harm’s way.

For us, Lucretius’ formulation of the sweetness of watching a ship in a storm, and the possible shipwreck, might seem shocking, or callous. But traditionally, shipwreck to those on­shore was potentially both entertainment and enrichment (especially when cargo washes ashore—one man’s wreck is another man’s salvage).

Take Dickens’ description of the excitement engendered by a potential shipwreck in the “Tempest” chapter of David Copperfield (1850):

“What is the matter?” I cried.
“A wreck! Close by!”
I sprung out of bed, and asked, what wreck?
“A schooner, from Spain or Portugal, laden with fruit and wine. Make haste, sir, if you want to see her! It’s thought, down on the beach, she’ll go to pieces every moment.”

Nor is this pleasure at the spectacle of shipwreck confined to realistic fiction. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” (1836), the mermaid of the title witnesses the foundering of a ship during a storm, not from the vantage point of someone safe onshore, but from a creature who is in her native element and cannot drown:

A dreadful storm was approaching; once more the sails were reefed, and the great ship pursued her flying course over the raging sea. The waves rose mountains high, as if they would have overtopped the mast; but the ship dived like a swan between them, and then rose again on their lofty, foaming crests. To the little mermaid this appeared pleasant sport; not so to the sailors.

Lucretius has more to say, though, about ships and storms, shipwreck and mortality, and indeed is prompted by the same desire to categorize rationally the world as the Beaufort scale. (He attempts to explain clouds and other meteorological phenomena at length, for instance, in Book 6.) The relief of watching a ship tossing at sea involves an act of imagination—picturing what it must be like to be onboard. The safety of shore can only be appreciated by the apprehension of danger on the water.

Shipwreck for many writers (as with Petronius, whose quotation heads this paper) is a metaphor for our mortality, and until recently was a risk that nearly all travelers had to take and that all cargo was subject to. Not so in Lucretius. Shipwreck ends lives, but for Lucretius, life begins with shipwreck. What is an infant but a shipwrecked sailor, naked and helpless, washed up on the shores of light, that is, the shores of life?:

A human baby’s like a sailor washed up on a beach
By the battering of the surf, naked, lacking the power of speech,
Possessing no means of survival, when first Nature pours
Him forth with birth-pangs from his mother’s womb upon
Light’s shores. . . .

Likewise, in another strange reversal of metaphor, where shipwreck might be reasonably assumed to symbolize—and to be—destruction, Lucretius posits the wreckage of a ship as a metaphor for the churning matter that makes up the universe, shipwreck as material. His argument here is that matter is infinite, because if it were finite it would be scattered like shipwreck and not combine together to create anything, and yet his description still gives a sense of “matter’s seething tide,” and compares atoms to flotsam:

But as with major shipwrecks, when the vessel’s torn to tatters,
And the mighty sea, as is her wont, tosses about and scatters
Floating transoms, ship-ribs, sail-yards, spars, prow, masts, planks,
And bobbing pieces of the stern are littered on the shores . . .

The wonderful asyndeton in the Latin (I’ve tried to retain the effect in the English), embodying the chaos of strewn wreckage, has its double in Dickens, again from the “Tempest” chapter of David Copperfield: “the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck, made a clean breach, and carried men, spars, casks, planks, bulwarks, heaps of such toys, into the boiling surge.”

Lucretius also goes on later to describe an historical shipwreck in a passage on the futility of superstition. This time he puts us not in the mind of the philosopher snug onshore, but of the person tossed in a tempest and beseeching the gods not to let him die. As with foxholes, there are no atheists on a ship in a storm:

Or when a tempest rises up, when winds of gale-force sweep
The seas, take the commander and his fleet out on the deep
With all his mighty legions and his elephants of war—
Does he not pray to the gods for peace, and terrified, implore
The squall to die down, and beseech more favourable winds to
But all in vain, since often the violent whirlwind won’t let go,
But snatches him up and dashes him upon the shoals of Fate.

This commander could, aside from the war elephants, be Aeneas, or Odysseus, or even Jason. The war elephants are something of a giveaway, though, and any Roman reading the passage would have immediately been put in mind of their old foe, King Pyrrhus.

As we learn from Plutarch, King Pyrrhus, setting out for Italy from Epirus (Northern Greece blending into Illyria, or modern Albania) in a flotilla of ships with a force of twenty elephants, three thousand horse, twenty thousand foot, two thousand archers, and five hundred slingers, is caught halfway through the crossing in a tempest when unseasonable winds strike. Many vessels are lost, or driven off course, and many drowned. Pyrrhus flings himself into the sea. This is where the history parts ways with the poetic example, as Pyrrhus is such a strong swimmer, that he makes shore. (Two of the elephants also survive.)

Lucretius’ act of imagination, though—the obverse side of the coin from the observer onshore—is even stranger when you consider that he puts an event from the distant historical past (the Pyrrhic War lasted from 280–275 BC; Lucretius is writing around 50 BC) in a sort of nebulous present, and puts us in the sandals of an Enemy of Rome in fear of his life.

The ability to imagine oneself at sea from the shore, or from shore to imagine oneself at sea, to leap into the future or the past, seems to be part and parcel of seafaring. (One of the Iliad’s most famous similes involves Hera zipping as swiftly as the thought of a traveler who wants to be elsewhere.) When the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s ballad describes setting out on his doomed voyage, it is simultaneously in terms of the high spirits of those onboard and from the view of those watching the ship depart from shore:

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

Dropping below the horizon is not something the sailors themselves experience but is an illusion to spectators created by distance and the curvature of the earth—the sort of illusion in fact that Lucretius enjoyed describing in Book 4, on the senses. Likewise, when the ship is becalmed, the Mariner famously describes it as “a painted ship upon a painted ocean,” not only from the viewpoint of someone looking at the ship, but of someone viewing the ship framed by genre as a figure in a seascape; not just from shore, but snug in a furnished room.

III. Sea Song, Rubato


Edmund Dulac: “Ariel: Full fathom five thy father lies,” illustration from Shakespeare’s Comedy of The Tempest with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, 1908.

Shipwreck tends to refract time as water refracts the image of sunken things. Perhaps the most famous sea shanty—and everyone associated with the sea, from mermaids and sea-witches to pirates and sailors, sings—in literature comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The spirit Ariel cruelly teases Ferdinand, who has swum to shore like King Pyrrhus (or Odysseus, or Twelfth Night’s Sebastian, or Robinson Crusoe), with the image of his father’s corpse under the sea:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark, now I hear them, ding dong bell.

Even if Ferdinand’s father, Alonso, the King of Naples, had drowned in the tempest (and we know he is alive, likewise fearing that his son is dead), he would merely be bobbing about as a fresh corpse, doing the dead man’s float, and would not have had time to sink to the bottom, much less become a skeleton petrified into coral. The Tempest is one of only two Shakespeare plays that observe the Aristotelian unities of time and place; the action occurs within a single day, but Ariel’s sea shanty casts the imagination both into the counterfactual (Ferdinand’s father is, as the audience knows, very much alive; his clothes aren’t even wet), and the distant future, or rather the chilling future perfect, when his eyes will have turned into pearls.

Something described as contemporary may be (per Lucretius) ancient history. Often a shipwreck written about as of the distant past, or the far future, may have happened last year or last month.

John Milton’s Lycidas, in memory of Edward King, was written in the same year as King’s shipwreck; he drowned en route to Ireland on the 10th of August, 1637, when his ship hit a rock off the Welsh coast. An extreme example of a current event set in the distant, even mythical, past, Edward King is cast as an ancient Greek shepherd who might have walked out of an idyll of Theocritus, a 3rd century BC poet who was himself writing about an ancient, mythical past. Though the dominant imagery is pastoral, flocks of sheep on dry land, the poem never lets us forget the watery death that occasioned it. “He must not float upon his wat’ry bier/ Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,/ Without the meed of some melodius tear.” Eventually Milton exhorts “O ye dolphins” to waft the hapless youth to shore. The memorial volume in which it was first published in 1638, Justa Eduardo King naufrago included the contributor John Cleveland, who bemoaned “the sea’s too rough for verse.” The volume was headed by the Latin motto from Petronius—Si recte calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est.

Or consider the ballad form, and particularly Gordon Lightfoot’s brilliant and popular hit of 1976, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” A nearly perfect example of the genre, with its efficient storytelling, its lyrical melancholy (Lake Superior, a bit like a sea-witch herself, “sings in the rooms of her ice-water mansion”), its archaisms (“a good ship and true”), its ring structure, its elliptical storytelling via direct speech, it has the feel of a folk song. Take the devastatingly swift and uncluttered storytelling of these lines:

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in. [original version]
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”

As the song itself says, the waves “turn the minutes to hours,” but here, hours are telescoped into minutes.

Even the ship’s name, Edmund Fitzgerald, sounds like it comes straight out of a collection of ancient Scottish ballads and holds its own with an anonymous masterpiece such as the fifteenth-century “Sir Patrick Spens.” Yet the song is written in 1976, hardly a year after the actual wreck, lost on November 10, 1975 in Lake Superior with all of her 29 hands.

The context of the song, though, places the accident in the distant, even legendary, past:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake it is said never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy . . .

With the Native American name for Lake Superior, Lightfoot harkens back to Longfellow’s 1855 saga The Song of Hiawatha. Yet if “Gitche Gumee” (“Big Water”) tips us off that Lightfoot is thinking of Longfellow, the Longfellow poem that influences this is “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” The title is now better known than the poem, but it was popular enough in its day that it is still lodged in popular culture. (It gets a mention even in the Simpsons TV show.) Like Lightfoot’s song, the poem is a pseudo-folk ballad, fluent in the genre’s conventions, the lyric moment, the archaisms, the direct speech. Sometimes all of these combine together, as in this stanza:

“Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!”
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Despite the deliberate archaisms inherent to the ballad form, the wind is described with a precision—by its visible symptoms—with a poet’s weather eye that reminds us of the modern Beaufort scale:

The skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.

(“Flaw,” by the way, here means “squall.”)

All of these elements, the doomed skipper, the daughter, the storm, are also to be found in “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” whose most famous lyrical moment also contemplates the moon:

I saw the new moon late yestreen
With the old moon in her arm;
And if we go to sea, master,
I fear we’ll come to harm.

(Coleridge uses another version of this stanza as an epigraph to “Dejection, An Ode.”) The ballad’s direct speech, its dialogue, is essentially theatrical. Interestingly the anonymous balladeer sees fit to compare the drowning noblemen who have accom­panied Sir Patrick Spens on the journey back from Norway with a play:

O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
To wet their cork-heel’d shoon;
But lang or a’ the play was play’d
They wat their hats aboon.

(Again, note the efficiency and wit, which does not detract from the pathos, of the storm rising—at first they are loath to wet their shoes, but by the end, their hats are swimming in the tide.)

It is thought that “Sir Patrick Spens” may reflect an actual thirteenth-century marine disaster connected with Margaret the Maid of Norway. Certainly, Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus,” published in 1840, was influenced by at least one, probably two, incidents from the Great Blizzard of 1839. In the space of two weeks in December of that year, gales wrecked over 50 vessels off the coast of Maine, strewing the shore with debris and the drowned. A ship called the Hesperus was damaged in Boston harbor, but the wreck that inspired the poem is probably the schooner Favorite, which was dashed against an infamous reef named Norman’s Woe. Seventeen hands were lost, and a woman (a Mrs. Sally Hilton) was washed ashore tied “to the windlass bitt,” as in the poem the skipper’s daughter, a pious maiden, is washed ashore tied to the mast.[2] The poem was published in early January of 1840.

Also influenced by Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus,” Gerard Manley Hopkins has two famous poems on the subject of historical wrecks: “The Loss of the Eurydice” (which, though in his sprung-measure, has the look and feel of a ballad), and his masterpiece, the 35-stanza ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” In both cases, the name of the ship is already laden with metaphorical possibilities. “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” describes a real event which carries symbolic weight, with its drowning of five Franciscan nuns fleeing the anti-Catholic Falk Laws in Germany. The title could not be more fraught. Can it be coincidence that the poet’s father, Manley Hopkins, was not only a pastor but the founder of a Marine Insurance company, and the author of a book titled The Port of Refuge, or Advice and Instructions to the Master-Mariner in Situations of Doubt, Difficulty and Danger? This title sounds metaphorical, advice for the storm-tossed soul, but “God” only appears in the book in the phrase “acts of God.” Other books by the same author include A Handbook of Average, and A Manual of Marine Insurance.

Shipwreck poems, in another kind of doubling, are often simultaneously influenced by real wrecks and famous poems about wrecks. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Casabianca” is based on a famous (or infamous) sentimental set piece of a poem, long a favorite for recitation and snickering schoolroom parody, the 1826 poem of the same name by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. It famously begins:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

The boy stays on deck until the ship explodes. (“But the noblest thing that perished there / Was that young faithful heart.”) It is based on an historical incident witnessed by British sailors during the 1798 Battle of the Nile, when the 10- or 12-year-old son of commander Louis de Casabianca remained on the deck of a ship in flames, supposedly refusing to desert his post without leave from his father, who had already perished. (Like some other ballads I’ve discussed here, there is a father and child onboard the doomed vessel, and desperate direct speech.)

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is a curious artefact of infinitely-regressing reflections:

Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite “The boy stood on
the burning deck.” Love’s the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

The poem, with its pair of nearly mono-rhymed stanzas, seems to be partly about the blush-inducing humiliation of a school­room performance (possibly with a father present), the stuff of nightmares. Only the whole poem by sleight of hand becomes a simile about Love. Yet it is also a commentary on the earlier poem. It is a poem at once of intense literary archness and devas­tating empathy as the reader is simultaneously spectator and disaster; Bishop somehow rehabilitates the classroom chestnut while mocking it. The poem even has room in its heart for the actual drowning sailors of the original shipwreck for whom, like the Scottish lords accompanying Sir Patrick Spens, a real platform or a stage would have been a lifesaver. One thinks, too, briefly of Donne’s paradox “A Burnt Ship”: “So all were lost, which in the ship were found, / They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown’d.”

No wreck in modern history has produced as much poetry as the Titanic. Newspapers were inundated with poetic responses after the disaster. Most of these were dross, but at least one arguably great poem came out of it, Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” Published less than a month after the event, the poem appeared in the May 14, 1912 program of the “Dramatic and Operatic Matinee in Aid of the ‘Titanic’ Disaster Fund” given at Covent Garden, an event at which such celebrities as Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova performed.

In the poem, the recent wreck seems not to have just settled on the sea floor, but to have been there for an age:

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

The poet’s mind leaps not only to some future point when the ship will be bleary with sea creatures, but leaps to the bottom of the sea, that rich and strange place where poets and writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Hans Christian Andersen (“The Little Mermaid”) imagine sunken treasure and palaces under the sea:

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”. . .

“The Convergence of the Twain,” as the title suggests, twins the ship and the iceberg, but also embodies the doubling of the sea in its nonce metrical form. The first two lines of each stanza, trimeters, are arguably hemistiches, which collide in the stately hexameter that closes each tercet.

It is another curious trick of this poem that although this is a fairly current event described as being in a distant past, it is yet full of doom and foreboding, diving back before the maiden voyage, when the bridal ship is being prepared for her “sinister mate” to which she will be welded/wedded. The poem ends with the moment of impact, a blow so great that it shudders back up through the poem and splits the world:

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

The poem, set in the future from the disaster, detonates at Time’s epicenter, Now.

IV. Plagiarism and Piracy


Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819.

The word “plagiarist” is introduced into literature in its current meaning by the first century AD Roman poet Martial; originally “plagiarius” meant “kidnapper” (often of slaves); Martial uses it as a kidnapper of words. Kidnapping and selling into slavery is of course a commonplace in the literature of ships and wreck from Homer on. (Kidnapped is one obvious example.) Plagiarism is also a charge that gets brought against those who rig imagined shipwrecks with the details of actual ones. The second canto of Byron’s Don Juan contains harrowing descriptions of the tempest, the shipwreck, the lifeboat of castaways, cannibal­ism, and the sole survivor, themes that emerge again and again in the literature of shipwreck. Many of the details come from accounts of actual disasters (particularly from Sir J. G. Dalyell’s 1812 Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea), among them the recent wreck of the Medusa (whose raft was the subject of Géricault’s famous painting) off the coast of Mauritania in 1816 and the earlier Mutiny of the Bounty in 1789. Byron was accused of plagiarism for making use of firsthand accounts for his fiction. In a letter he wrote to his editor John Murray from Ravenna, dated August 23, 1821, he remarks with frustration:

Enclosed are the two acts corrected. With regard to the charges about the shipwreck, I think that I told both you and Mr. Hobhouse, years ago, that there was not a single circumstance of it not taken from fact; not, indeed, from any single shipwreck, but all from actual facts of different wrecks.

The poet in fact had “an inheritance of storms” from his grandfather, John Byron, “Foul-Weather Jack,” so called because he never embarked on a voyage without a tempest. Vice-Admiral John Byron published a memoir of his experience of shipwreck, mutiny and desertion, and exotic islands, on the ship implausibly named Wager and commanded by a Captain Cheap, in 1768 as The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron. The memoir of The Wager (“my grand-dad’s Narrative”) includes John Byron’s having to eat his dog, a gruesome detail his grandson the poet would take for his shipwreck canto of Don Juan.

Yet the poet Byron had also been on ships in storms and had experienced near shipwreck firsthand; he didn’t need to go to a library for details to flavor an account. In a letter from 1809 to his mother, Byron describes nearly being shipwrecked off of Corfu, that is to say the same general patch of water where Pyrrhus encountered a tempest, and not far from the Illyrian coast where Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked in Twelfth Night:

Two days ago I was nearly lost in a Turkish ship of war, owing to the ignorance of the captain and crew, though the storm was not violent. Fletcher yelled after his wife, the Greeks called on all the Saints, the Mussulmans on Alla; the captain burst into tears and ran below deck, telling us to call on God; the sails were split, the main-yard shivered, the wind blowing fresh, the night setting in, and all our chance was to make Corfu which is in possession of the French, or (as Fletcher pathetically termed it) “a watery grave.” I did what I could to console Fletcher but finding him incorrigible, wrapped myself up in my Albanian capote (an immense cloak) and lay down on deck to wait the worst,” [adding], “I have learnt to philosophize in my travels, and if I had not, complaint was useless.”

This is Stoic. But also, perhaps Epicurean. Looking back on the terrifying moment (a weeping captain is never reassuring), he is able to be amusing about it, even to take pleasure in its description. It is sweet to gaze out into the offing of the imagination and realize you are free from those terrors you had once experienced. Byron becomes two people at once—the man onboard a ship in a squall, huddled under his Albanian capote awaiting the worst, and the Englishman abroad, high and dry, who tosses this off as a wry and amusing travel anecdote.

While there are humor and pathos and sardonic asides leading up to the sinking of the ship, the Trinidada, the moment of her going down is one of precision, including the exact time, a scientific measurement which shipwreck literature is partial to:

At half-past eight o’clock, booms, hencoops, spars,
And all things, for a chance, had been cast loose
That still could keep afloat the struggling tars,
For yet they strove, although of no great use:
There was no light in heaven but a few stars,
The boats put off o’ercrowded with their crews;
She gave a heel, and then a lurch to port,
And, going down head foremost—sunk, in short.

Adrift with little in the way of rations (the hard tack has been soaked in salt water, just as had happened with the Medusa), the survivors on the raft die of thirst, and then starvation, sons dying in their fathers’ arms. Some resort to cannibalism, eating Don Juan’s religious tutor, Pedrillo, who becomes a twisted embodi­ment of Christian communion. Even Don Juan’s dog is devoured (as John Byron’s had been). The men on the raft die of “famine, despair, cold, thirst, and heat,” and those that resort to cannibal­ism go mad. Finally, only Don Juan is left, and, a strong swimmer (Byron boasts that, like himself, he might have been able to swim the Hellespont), he makes shore on a Greek island.

V. Etiquette for Shipwrecked Sailors
(and Stranded Princesses)


Ford Madox Brown, Finding of Don Juan by Haidée, 1873.

Here the realistic shipwreck narrative meshes with myth and folklore. A naked, handsome, shipwrecked sailor washed up on a seemingly-deserted island. What could go wrong? Or right? Naturally he will be found and rescued by a beautiful virgin, the daughter of the island’s chieftain, the lovely and doomed Greek maiden (actually half Moorish, in an interesting twist, on her mother’s side), Haidée.

And walking out upon the beach, below
The cliff,—towards sunset, on that day she found
Insensible,—not dead, but nearly so,—
Don Juan, almost famish’d, and half drown’d;
But being naked, she was shock’d, you know,
Yet deem’d herself in common pity bound,
As far as in her lay, “to take him in,
A stranger” dying, with so white a skin.

Don Juan’s nakedness elicits physical desire. This is exactly what Odysseus will try to avoid when he arrives on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, by modestly covering his nakedness. The little mermaid, who in many ways plays both the role of the rescuing princess and the shipwrecked sailor, and is thus doubly doomed, desires the shipwrecked sailor she has saved so much that she bargains away her magical voice and becomes the naked person washed ashore, exposed to the gaze of the prince:

He fixed his coal-black eyes upon her so earnestly that she cast down her own, and then became aware that her fish’s tail was gone, and that she had as pretty a pair of white legs and tiny feet as any little maiden could have; but she had no clothes, so she wrapped herself in her long, thick hair.

Shipwrecks in literature often end in weddings (Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” does, but not the one we are rooting for), but weddings also end in shipwrecks. (Shakespeare’s The Tempest will do both.) Much can go wrong en route.

If we go by literature—and Don Juan has left the hyper-realism of shipwreck now and entered the fantasy world of islands—a sailor who has landed in a strange country could end up on an island with monsters or cannibals, one ruled by a witch or wizard, could be turned into a pig (or a rock or a tree), could become the captive and/or love slave of a witch or a goddess, could end up being offered the kingship of the island, and/or immortality, but at the price of his destiny and destination, could end up jilting a princess on a desert island, or, in very rare cases, could end up married to the princess and living happily ever after.

Things are not much better from the girl’s point of view. The arrival of a handsome sailor is romantically exciting, but his promises are probably false, he might be a pirate, he might already be married, you might sell your voice for him only to discover that’s what he was attracted to in the first place, he might leave you pregnant and jilted, he might leave you jilted and childless and suicidal: he might be only a ship passing in the night.

[An aside: that shipwrecked sailors do sometimes marry island princesses is not just the stuff of fiction, though it becomes so. Consider the beloved creation of Swedish writer and journalist Astrid Lindgren (1907–2002), Pippi Longstocking. Pippi is a plucky girl with no parents in evidence, her mother long dead, and her father, she explains, a Sea Captain who washed overboard. A teller of tall tales, not least to comfort and entertain herself, Pippi explains that her father is not dead: he has washed up on an island of Cannibals and becomes the Cannibal King, strutting around all day with a gold crown on his head. One assumes at first this is a fiction even in the novels, a figment of Pippi’s over­active and self-soothing imagination, but, delightfully, it turns out to be true. Likewise, Pippi Longstocking’s father is based on Carl Emil Pettersson, a Swedish sailor shipwrecked on Christmas Day in 1904 off of Tabar Island in Papua New Guinea. Nicknamed “Strong Charley” by the islanders, he falls in love with the King’s daughter, Princess Singdo, marries her and becomes king himself in time. He returned to Sweden when his wife died (from puerperal fever after her ninth child); the Swedish newspapers printed many pieces on his adventures.)]

Michele Desubleo, Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1654.

Odysseus (in his seafaring self a double of Jason, Captain of the Argo), is of course the pattern for both good outcomes and bad for the shipwrecked sailor scenario. He has already, or so he says, experienced monsters and magic, witches and demigoddesses, shipwreck and disorientation, suffered mutiny, and lost his crew to drowning, accidents, whirlpools, and man-eating monsters, before he sets foot on the island of the Phaeacians. This island, Scheria, as with other utopias, is almost too good to be true, enchanting but not quite enchanted, a land of miraculous peace and plenty.

With his raft dashed to pieces in a storm, he manages to make shore by swimming, assisted by a sea-goddess’s magic sash. Naked, wild-looking, crusted with salt, he encounters a bevy of beauties playing ball at the seaside. All the girls but one run away in terror. Princess Nausicaa stands her ground, a model of poise and self-possession. Only just ready for marriage (14ish, let’s say), she is younger than Odysseus’ son Telemachus and could be his daughter. Covering himself with an olive branch (“the first gentleman in Europe,” as James Joyce remarks), Odysseus addresses her as all shipwrecked sailors should address a strange woman to whom they have not been introduced: “Are you a goddess?”

She is not a deity, as it happens, merely a virtuous princess in need of a husband; her father even offers her in marriage to the sailor (who could, after all, be, indeed arguably is, a pirate), as well as his kingdom. Her name, suggestively, might mean “burner of ships,” someone who might, Cortez-like, prevent explorers from returning home. Disaster is averted by the proper behavior of both sailor and princess—he covers his nakedness and addresses her with reverence, she is careful to avoid island gossip by not bringing him into town with her. The suspicion and xenophobia, the flip side of hospitality, that Nausicaa describes could belong to a small village on a modern Greek island. (One might compare the doomed widow in Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek who is murdered for having an affair with a stranger.)

Some old salt might mock us behind our backs—
we have our share of insolent types in town
and one of the coarser sort, spying us, might say,
“Now who’s that tall, handsome stranger Nausicaa has in tow?
Where’d she light on him? Her husband-to-be, just wait!
But who—some shipwrecked stray she’s taken up with,
some alien from abroad? Since nobody lives nearby.
Unless it’s really a god come down from the blue
to answer all her prayers, and to have her all his days.
Good riddance! Let the girl go roving to find herself
a man from foreign parts. She only spurns her own—
countless Phaeacians round about who court her,
nothing but our best.”

She thus shows herself the equal to and double of Penelope, beset by suitors herself, and yet knowing how to avoid the stain of scandal.

Byron’s Haidée, on another (unnamed) Greek island, in the Cyclades, is both too innocent, including of the facts of life, and too sly for her own good, ending up as Don Juan’s lover but not his bride, and hiding him from her father, who is a pirate. When she dies of heartbreak (actually a sort of stroke or seizure; Byron himself was subject to these), we learn it is a double death, for she is with child. This is one infant who will never be washed onto the shores of light, but will sink with the vessel that carries it:

She died, but not alone; she held within
A second principle of life, which might
Have dawn’d a fair and sinless child of sin;
But closed its little being without light
And went down to the grave unborn . . .

Before she dies, Haidée has a series of vivid nightmares such as a shipwrecked sailor might, all suggestive of drowning or being a castaway, and imbued with the imagery, mythology, and lore of the sea:

She dream’d of being alone on the sea-shore
Chain’d to a rock; she knew not how, but stir
She could not from the spot, and the loud roar
Grew, and each wave rose roughly, threatening her;
And o’er her upper lip they seem’d to pour,
Until she sobb’d for breath, and soon they were
Foaming o’er her lone head, so fierce and high—
Each broke to drown her, yet she could not die.

And then about to die herself, she rather dreams that it is Don Juan who is dead:

. . . and the sea dirges low
Rang in her sad ears like a mermaid’s song.

In Byron this confusion of lover and beloved, of victim and rescuer, of the shipwrecked and the land-dweller, comes in the form of a dream.

If the tempest is the confusion of sky with the sea, empathy is the confusion of the spectator and the spectacle. In Homer, empathy lies not in the feelings of characters but in the poet’s similes, the confusion of vehicle with tenor (vessel and lading), perhaps never more thoroughly than in the Odyssey, at the simile that marks the recognition scene where Odysseus, the quintessential shipwrecked sailor, is reunited with his wife Penelope.

Although he has finally returned home to Ithaka and slaughtered the suitors, Odysseus must still prove his identity. An island queen has to be careful, for the sea is full of mirages and hallucinations; one must not get shipwrecked by a fata morgana. When Odysseus passes her test (knowing the secret of the rooted bed), husband and wife fall into each other’s arms, and Penelope breaks down in joy. It is she, though, who is compared to the shipwrecked sailor who reaches dry land: the sight of her husband is safe harbor and the port in the storm. It is one of the sea’s rare happy endings. I give the translation by George Chapman (of Keats’s Chapman’s Homer fame), published in folio from 1614–1615:

And as sad men at sea when shore is nigh,
Which long their hearts have wish’d, their ship quite lost
By Neptune’s rigour, and they vex’d and tost
’Twixt winds and black waves, swimming for their lives,
A few escap’d, and that few that survives,
All drench’d in foam and brine, crawl up to land,
With joy as much as they did worlds command;
So dear to this wife was her husband’s sight.

Tempests and enchanted islands are the stuff of the Odyssey (or at least Odysseus’ elaborate backstory). It’s tempting to consider whether Shakespeare knew the poem. He would have had other sources of these myths, through Ovid, Virgil, and others. Was he aware that Chapman was translating the Odyssey at the same time as he was embarking on the Tempest (first performed in 1611)? Was something in the air? Shipwreck runs through the plays, but with the Tempest, something seems to have changed.

VI. A Brave Vessel


John William Waterhouse, Miranda—The Tempest, 1916.


Shakespeare uses shipwreck as a plot device in both The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, allowing for separation of families at sea and confusion of identity. But the shipwreck, though described in harrowing detail (in The Comedy of Errors, a father and mother, each with one of their children, as well as a slave child each, are separated at sea, the father having lashed himself to the mast), has already happened before the play begins.

The Tempest, on the other hand, brings the storm to the stage. On Defoe’s 12-tone Wind-Scale, starting at zero for a stark calm, it is an Eleven. On the Beaufort scale, it is a 12: “that which no canvas can withstand.”

A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.
Enter a Shipmaster and a Boatswain.

MASTER. Boatswain!
BOATSWAIN. Here, Master. What cheer?
MASTER. Good, speak to th’mariners. Fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!

It is hard to imagine what the first audience would have felt or expected. The play might as easily have been titled The Enchanted Island, as Dryden does title it, when he rewrites it, with a handful of extra characters. We have, in a play of pure fantasy, a scene of terrifying realism. The play begins at the brink of disaster, and the audience must have felt both the thrill of terror being in its midst, and of course the pleasure of watching safely from shore. It begins not in an elaborate depiction of events, but speech shouted over the howling wind.

The realism was probably amplified by hair-raising accounts of a recent, actual shipwreck. The play debuted in 1611, shortly after the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture off of Bermuda. The ship, headed from Plymouth to supply Jamestown with provisions and settlers, was blown off course in a hurricane, and deliberately run aground on a reef in Discovery Bay so that it not sink. (All 150 aboard, and one dog, made dry land safely.) After nine months stranded on the island, the survivors managed to build ships to sail away. The accounts, with details ripe for the picking, arrived as Shakespeare was writing his play.

Elements of Shakespeare’s storm are familiar, from both literary and literal (or littoral) accounts—the differing reactions of seasoned sailors and landlubber passengers (the sailors know the danger they are in, while the aristocrats are getting in the way, helped perhaps only by not knowing the meaning of the word “founder”), and the moment of despair when the crew prays (“All lost, to prayers, to prayers!”) and everyone prepares to meet their maker. The Boatswain begs the aristocrats and the King, who are only in the way, to “keep below.” Not perhaps understanding the degree of peril, they are offended by his tone. When told to remember who is aboard (the King), the Boatswain declares with exasperation, “None that I love more than myself.”

Gonzalo, in the time-honored mode of the storm-tossed, casts his imagination to shore, wishing himself on land, “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground,” if only to die a “dry death.”

The closest contemporary equivalent to the violence and realism of this opening, segueing into an island-setting rife with enchantment, monsters, and spirits, an island moreover of uncer­tain geographical position—though somehow on the route between Tunis and Naples, that is to say roughly at coordinates of Lampedusa, Prospero’s island is also somehow close to the Bermudas—is the opening of the television series Lost (2004–2010), which likewise begins with a terrifying and realistic wreck, the crash of an airliner, depositing the hodgepodge assembly of passengers on a mysterious and possibly unreal island full of strange sights and sounds, including a smoke monster.

While Gonzalo is wishing for a dry death on the struggling ship, onshore, Miranda, whose name suggests both the wonderer and the wondered at, the beholder and the beheld, watches the ship with her father, Prospero. In fact we are shown scenes back to back that are happening at exactly the same time; if Shake­speare had been a filmmaker, he might have used a split screen.

Miranda skillfully paints a picture of the storm she is watching, as the sea is confounded with the sky, and for all we know (if we have ignored the playbill and its cast of characters), she could be a goddess pleading with a deity who is her sire, as Athena might plead with Zeus:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky would seem to pour down stinking pitch
But that the sea, mounting to th’welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out . . .

So far, this is striking but conventional in its way. Then Miranda does something extraordinary:

. . . O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. . . .

By literary precedent, she should be both entertained and glad to be safe and dry, even if she pities those at sea. But her imagination and her heart go out to those aboard and to the struggling vessel herself. She feels something new, empathy.

In fact not only does she suffer “with those I saw suffer,” but also, as if in apposition, regards the ship, one of the few nouns gendered in English: “a brave vessel / Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her.” A maiden ripe for marriage is of course a potential vessel herself who might soon carry a child; the purpose of the shipwreck is partly to bring her a suitable mate. The nobleman Gonzalo, perhaps taking on the salty talk of sailors, has in the previous tempest scene made obscenely clear the similarity between a ship and a woman’s body; a ship may be “as leaky as an unstaunched wench.”

While Shakespeare’s other plays that pivot on shipwreck are often about mistaken identities and the ensuing confusion, at the moment of shipwreck (and it turns out that the ship is not destroyed after all—it is an illusion) Miranda learns for the first time what her true identity is, she is the daughter of the Duke of Milan. Furthermore, her instinctive empathy with the passengers aboard the storm-tossed ship turns out to be not only imagina­tive, but imprinted from early childhood experience. She is herself, it turns out, a castaway. She learns from her father how they came to be on the island. During his description, Prospero drifts from talking about it in the past to reliving it in the present:

In few, they hurried us aboard a barque,
Bore us some leagues to sea, where they prepared
A rotten carcass of a butt, not rigged,
Nor tackle, sail, nor mast—the very rats
Instinctively have quit it: there they hoist us
To cry to th’sea that roared to us, to sigh
To th’winds, whose pity sighing back again
Did us but loving wrong. . . .

The account, including the vessel without means of propulsion or steerage, is chillingly similar to many accounts of the treacherous sea crossing refugees undergo (and which thousands have not survived) on the sea route from Turkey to Lesbos or other Aegean islands, or from Libya to Italy’s Lampedusa, packed onto flimsy dinghies by unscrupulous smugglers.

Looking back on this “sea-sorrow” from the safety of the present does not bring Prospero pleasure or relief. He had no need to cast his mind to shore during their time adrift, his grounding was present, his little daughter herself:

. . . O, a cherubin
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile,
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have decked the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned, which raised in me
An undergoing stomach to bear up
Against what should ensue. . . .

Prospero has arranged this shipwreck for a number of reasons—justice, vengeance, a way off the island—but one of them is to marry off his nubile daughter, who has a dangerous paucity, rather than Nausicaa’s plethora, of eligible suitors. Ferdinand, the prince who washes ashore, is only the third man she has ever seen (and the first she has ever sighed for). The other two are the monstrous Caliban, whose name is an anagram of “cannibal” and who has only just tried to rape her, and her own father.

The threat of incest is scarcely hinted at in this Shakespeare play, but there is another, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607), in which the danger is real, hanging heavily over the action from the very opening. There the daughter, a girl born at sea in a tempest, the child of shipwreck and vessel of hope, is named Marina.

VII. Miranda in the Looking Glass

Shakespeare may have taken over the Pericles halfway through; it appears to be a collaboration (probably with George Wilkins). The scene of the storm, where the ship, itself a sort of pregnant vessel, is laboring in heavy weather, and the wife in the “travails” of childbirth, is written with a sure hand. The prayers offered by Pericles, the prince in the storm (one might remember that Aeneas, nearly the bridegroom of Dido, is something of a Prince of Tyre himself), are at first familiar:

Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell! And thou, that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! . . .

but then diverge into an invocation to the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, to attend their “dancing ship.”

The midwife rebukes Pericles for his loud queries, with “Patience, good sir; do not assist the storm.” (Shakespeare must have thought this line good enough to “kidnap” and press into service in the Tempest, when the Boatswain addresses Antonio: “Do you not hear him? You mar our labour / Keep to your cabins! You do assist the storm.”)

Pericles thinks his wife, Thaisa, has died while giving birth to a daughter on a ship in a storm. As with Prospero, the little daughter gives him courage:

Courage enough. I do not fear the flaw.
It hath done to me the worst. Yet for the love
Of this poor infant, this fresh new seafarer,
I would it would be quiet. . . .

(“Flaw,” as in the Longfellow, again refers to a gust of weather—maybe a “fret of wind.”) This baby girl is thus twin to the baby boy of Lucretius’ imagination, the infant as shipwrecked sailor washed ashore. But Marina begins life not as a shipwrecked sailor, but a fresh-new sea-farer.

Pericles utters an ad-hoc blessing to the baby, that her stormy arrival may herald a serener life:

Now, mild be thy life,
For a more blustrous birth had never babe,
Quiet and gentle thy conditions, for
Thou art the rudeliest welcome to this world
That ever was prince’s child. Happy what follows!
Thou hast as chiding a nativity
As fire, air, water, earth, and heaven can make,
To herald thee from the womb.
Even at the first thy loss is more than can
Thy portage quit, with all thou canst find here.
Now, the good gods throw their best eyes upon’t!

Pericles leaves the infant at Tarsus in the care of others. As she grows, she turns out to be more beautiful than the couple’s own daughter, and they plot her murder. Marina, whose life is des­tined to be anything but smooth sailing, is “saved” by being kidnapped by pirates, who sell the unaccompanied minor into prostitution on Lesbos. She nonetheless manages to keep her virginity by unnerving men with her virtue, and the brothel hires her out as a music tutor to respectable young ladies. Marina is given her name because she is born at sea. (“When I was born the wind was north . . .”) It is natural that she, like all sea girls, is a singer.

Pericles is told by the foster parents in Tarsus that Marina is dead. He takes to sea in his grief, ending up on Mytilene (that is, Lesbos), so griefstricken, he can scarcely speak. The governor of Mytilene (Lysimachus) fancies that Marina, the virgin prostitute (in actuality a tempest-tossed princess), might be able to shake him out of his doldrums.

This is a fraught moment that can obviously go horribly wrong.

Rather than address her and ask if she is a goddess (again, the proper etiquette when meeting a strange woman on a Greek island), Pericles is mute. So it is up to Marina to address her father boldly and answer the question he has not asked:

MARINA. Hail, sir! my lord, lend ear.
PERICLES. Hum, ha!
MARINA. I am a maid, my lord
That ne’er before invited eyes, but have
Been gazed on like a comet. She speaks
My lord, that may be, hath endured a grief
Might equal yours, if both were justly weighed.

Consider the scene in which Ferdinand first addresses Miranda in The Tempest:

FERDINAND. Most sure, the goddess
On whom these airs attend! Vouchsafe my prayer
May know if you remain upon this island;
And that you will some good instruction give
How I may bear me here: my prime request,
Which I do last pronounce, is, O you wonder!
If you be maid or no?
MIRANDA. No wonder, sir;
But certainly a maid.

(The Neopolitan Prince Ferdinand is pleasantly surprised to find that she speaks his native language, that is to say, English.)

VIII. Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?


Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas 1899, 1899. (Public Domain)

In the Pericles/Marina recognition scene, Pericles is sufficiently startled by her appearance and her assertion of good parentage that he finally blurts out:

You are like something that—What country-woman?
Here of these shores?

Marina’s answer is a riddle. She is not of these shores, nor of any shores. To her father’s question, “Where do you live?,” she also answers with an enigma: “Where I am but a stranger: from the deck / You may discern the place.”

All land is, for Marina, a foreign shore. The sea-born Marina and the sea-borne Miranda are doubles: Miranda mirrors Marina. In a sense, it is Marina’s face Miranda sees in her looking glass—her own reflection reversed, the only woman she has ever laid eyes on. Even their names are near anagrams. So too their recognition scenes reflect and invert one another: The Tempest sets out with Miranda’s father revealing her parentage to her, and Pericles pivots with Marina revealing her parentage to her father. (It turns out the mother is actually alive, and the family, sea-scattered, is reunited. Marina marries the governor of Mytilene.)

Pericles was greatly admired by T. S. Eliot, whose poem “Marina” is from the point of view of the father:

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.

The poem opens with an epigraph in Latin from Seneca’s Hercules:

Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?
(“What place is this, what region, what shores of the world?”)

It is the question of every shipwrecked sailor on arriving in a new land.

Miranda, who like Marina is both the island and the ship, refugee and refuge, as she sees more human beings coming ashore, exclaims like an explorer, or even an astronomer, with a wild surmise: “O brave new world that has such people in’t!” The winds of danger that buffet Marina have been screened from Miranda. The Tempest is assured of its happy ending from the get-go, and the suggested threats (the tragedy of Dido’s false wedding is the ground against which the melody plays) are elaborately prevented. It takes all the magic at Prospero’s command to engineer a happy ending.

Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, the princess bride of shipwrecked sailor, the vessel carrying the cargo of life, now shipwrecked herself, washes ashore in her “close . . . caulked and bitumed” coffin. (From mythology, one might think of the infant Perseus and his mother Danae washed ashore on Seriphos in a wooden box, or Ishmael in Queequeg’s coffin in Moby-Dick.) She is now shipwreck as salvage—the coffin laden like a merchant ship with expensive embalming spices along with a note on a scroll. Thus, she arrives on the border complete with “a passport too!” as one of her finders on the shore off of Ephesus (modern Turkey) remarks. She, however, awakes disoriented:

O dear Diana,
Where am I? Where’s my lord? What world is this?

Odysseus, finally arrived home on Ithaka after 20 years of war and wandering, can scarcely believe it. As it happens, the first person he meets is a goddess. He addresses Athena, who is disguised as a shepherd boy:

. . . I pray to you like a god,
I fall before your knees and ask your mercy!
And tell me this for a fact—I need to know—
where on earth am I? what land? who lives here?

When they first arrive on Lesbos, the first question many refugees ask is, “Where am I?” As the International Rescue Committee has it, “Refugees who make landfall often do not believe they have arrived on Lesbos until they see the Greek flag.” The perilous journey, which in January of 2016 alone claimed the lives of nearly 250 people, can result in families being separated in the chaos, as well as sundered by death on, as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it, “the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.” That winter, the rector of the University of the Aegean (based in Mytilene), Stephanos Gritzalis, distressed at the drownings, invoked a line from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, hoping that “we would cease to see ‘the Aegean blossoming with bodies.’” It is a double quotation, though, since George Seferis uses the ancient Greek verbatim in “In the Manner of G.S.,” which also contains the famous line “Wherever I go Greece wounds me.” It ends with the only ship that sails being Agony 937.

As with literary shipwrecks, families, from Tyre, from Carthage, from Antioch, from Tarsus, from Troy, from Homs and Mosul, Damascus and Kabul, are divided; end up in Ephesus and Mytilene; on Chios and Lampedusa; people drown and are transformed into something not human by the sea, or make land and yet do not know where they are. Families wash up on differ­ent shores, separated in the chaos, children taken up on a Turkish coast guard boat, while the smuggler’s vessel speeds with the mother toward Greece. People lose their papers, their clothes, their passports, their identities.

Here is one of the many firsthand accounts of refugees arriving on the Aegean islands, this one from a 34-year-old Syrian asylum seeker (Independent, August 15, 2015):

We finally reached a highway and I knew we were close to the sea. I could smell the salt water.

I saw the boat was a dinghy. It only seated 40 people but there were 54 of us. The smugglers had lied. But they only want to get your money. They don’t care if you die.

We traveled on the sea for an hour. It was so slow.

We then came across another boat. We didn’t realize it was the police. We were told by friends not to stop because they will take you back to Turkey.

We don’t know the Greek language. We can’t understand what they are saying. They were saying stop the boat.

We held the children and we shouted at the police “we have children.” I thought to myself “let me reach the beach and anything you say I will do.”

The boat was punctured and we fall in the water. I was in the sea for 45 minutes before they pulled me out. If I live 200 years, I will never forget it.

These accounts puts one in mind of other people gathering on the shore of Turkey to travel westward, fleeing their war-ravaged city. This is how Virgil, at the end of book two of the Aeneid, describes the Trojan survivors gathering for exile. In the words of Aeneas:

I was surprised by the great number
Of new arrivals I found, women and men,
Youth gathered for exile, a wretched band
Of refugees who had poured in from all over,
Prepared to journey across the sea
To whatever lands I might lead them.
The brilliant morning star was rising
Over Ida’s ridges, ushering in the day.
The Greeks held all the city gates.
There was no hope of help. I yielded
And, lifting up my father, sought the mountains.

The literature of the sea suggests that in watching the distress of others from safety, we can do more than take pleasure in our own security. As Miranda suddenly knows, watching from shore, they could be us.
[1] This famous passage shows up again and again in literature, including this translation and elaboration of it in Robert Southey’s epic, Madoc, of 1805,

’Tis pleasant, by the cheerful hearth, to hear
Of tempests and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo terror to delight us;

Of course, this is hearing rather than seeing, audience rather than spectator, but the sense of tempest and ship as entertainment remains.

[2] From Robert L. Gale, A Henry Wadsworth Companion (Westport, 2003).
Some works consulted:

Andersen, Hans Christian. Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Trans. by Mrs. Henry H. B. Paull. London: Warne & Co., 1875 [1837].

Bellamy, Elizabeth Jane. Dire Straits: The Perils of Writing the English Coastline from Leland to Milton. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927–1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

Blumenberg, Hans. Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence. Trans. by Steven Rendall. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT University Press, 1996.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Introduction by John Richetti. New York: Penguin Classics, Reissue Edition April 29, 2003 [1719].

——— . The Storm. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005 [1704].

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994 [1850].

Fagles, Robert. (trans.) Homer’s Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Hamblyn, Richard. The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.

Huler, Scott. Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry. New York: Crown, Random House, 2005 (reprint edition).

Lombardo, Stanley (trans.). Virgil’s Aeneid. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

McConnell, Frank D. (ed.). Byron’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Letters and journals, Criticism, Images of Byron. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

Mezey, Robert. (ed.). Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Classics. 1998.

Milton, John. Complete Poems. Ed. by John Leonard. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Morrison, James V. Shipwrecked: Disaster and Transformation in Homer, Shakespeare, Defoe, and the Modern World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Nicoll, Allardyce. (ed.) Chapman’s Homer: The Odyssey. With a new preface by Garry Wills. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000 [1956].

Page, Frederick. (ed.). Byron: Poetical Works. New Edition, corrected by John Jump. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970 [1904].

Quennell, Peter (ed.). Byron: A Self-Portrait: Letters and Diaries (2 vols.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.

Riding, Christine. “Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime.” In Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.): The Art of the Sublime. Tate Research Publication: January 2013. Accessed 15 March 2017.

Shakespeare, William. Pericles: Prince of Tyre. Folger’s Library Shakespeare. Ed. by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

———. The Tempest. Ed. Martin Butler. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Stallings, A.E. (trans). Lucretius: De Rerum Natura. London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. London: Penguin Classics, 2004 [1897].

Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002.

This essay will appear in The Culture of Ships and Maritime Narratives, edited by Chryssanthi Papadopoulou, to be published by Routledge in 2019 as part of the BSA Series in Modern Greek & Byzantine Studies.