Coincidentally: Down to the Sea in Ships

The Coverdale Translation of Psalm 107:23 sonorously extols them “that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters.” These lines have rolled over many bodies being committed to an ocean grave. A grieved prince of Wales read those words at the funeral of Lord Mountbatten. Nothing in literature is older than the saga of the sea.

Start with Genesis. Even those who deny that the Spirit of the Lord moved on the face of the waters, assume that all life started as acquatic amoebae and shrimps that gradually got legs. I can think of no more brilliant example of genius on the subject than Ronald Knox’s essay on “The Greeks at Sea,” the whole point of which is that the ancient Greeks really did not like sailing. They wrote gorgeously stolid Dorian odes to the waves and hymned of the Hellespont and Aegospotami as we do today in travel brochures, but with foreboding. The Jews were even more suspicious of the great waters and thought that the Red Sea’s best moment was when it split. Otherwise, it was just a playground for the unpredictable Phoenicians.

Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts us, too, especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this: The United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan officially protested the ship’s sinking on May 13, 1915, which was the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage between the Duke of Suffolk and Queen Mary Tudor, widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, after she spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles. There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown (1842-1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “…the place for the slaying of Itylus/The feast of Daulis, the Thracian sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that Swinburne did not end up in it.

With the sea, as with the undulating waves themselves, there seems to be no up without a down. On July 31, 1793, when Captain Robert Gray arrived in Boston harbor from his second circumnavigation of this shining planet, those of a certain political stripe in the cheering crowd were soon silenced by news of Thomas Jefferson’s resignation as secretary of state on the same day. In a similar vein, the happy progress of the Panama Canal was mitigated by yellow fever. The building of the Suez canal for the improvement of portage was far more benighted. Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805-1894), pioneer of its construction, had been sent as the French minister plenipotentiary to negotiate with Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) during the Italian Risorgimento. They were born in the same year, and in the year of the negotiations, a son named Charles was born to de Lesseps. When Charles attained his majority, he and his father were found guilty of misusing investment monies, which took much of the thrill out of the sight of ships sailing through the new canal. Of course, Ferdinand’s putterings in Panama were a total bust.

The first and last voyage of the Titanic in 1912 did not increase confidence in seafaring; but most of the world has forgotten, if it ever remembered, the loss of 1,000 lives in the sinking of a Japanese steamer in the same year. Over exercised numerologists may darkly warn that the numerical sum of 1912 is 13, but all was not grim, or unlucky if you will, in that year. On his 40th birthday, September 1, 1912, while sailing out of Belfast on the King Frederick VII, Captain Daniel Saunders recovered from the sea incarnadine a bottle containing a message. His crewmen gathered about and all fell silent at what they read: It was the notice of Captain Saunder’s birth written by his own father.

So the sea is not consistently as cruel as the darker bits of Greek narrative poetry would have it. There have been times, pace A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when “the rude sea grew civil.” But that was only in fancy, when a mermaid sang on a dolphin’s back. They that occupy their business in great waters should not be incredulous when real raging waves grow civil at a rebuke from their very God.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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