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In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee,
Walled round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.
A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
The steep square slope of the blossomless bed
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses Now lie dead.In such heavy anapests the anonymous third-person speaker goes on to describe the garden's desolation, its paths overgrown with weeds, its dilapidated structures, its bygone roses reduced to thorns. The ruined landscape lies exposed now to the remorseless abrasion of wind, storm, and sun. The speaker goes on to imagine two lovers wandering among the once blossoming garden paths a hundred years earlier, only to conclude that "love deep as the sea as a rose must wither." The poem ends as follows:
All are at one now, roses and lovers,
Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.
Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
In the air now soft with a summer to be.
Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,
When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter
We shall sleep.
Here death may not deal again for ever;
Here change may come not till all change end.
From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
Till a last wind's breath upon all these blowing
Roll the sea.
Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till the terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.
(Swinburne, pp. 210-13)The anapests here produce an almost intolerable, pounding effect on the inner ear, evoking the harsh rhythm of the sea as it wears down the earth with its surf and storms, until rhythm itself succumbs to ruination in the remorseless paradox of the concluding half-verse: "Death lies dead." What is imagined here is something other than the triumph of geological time over human time. It is the sea's noumenal core reabsorbing the entire geophenomenal realm into its anachronic element. In its extreme projection of the fate of past ruins, the poem effectively deschematizes the forms of human intuition, with the result that the generative and degenerative law of death that informs mortal time is overturned or cancelled out in and by the sea.
Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.We should give full weight to the words "it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing," which affirm that human beings need an earthly foundation for their perspectives, just as they need an earthly foundation for their buildings. The inhuman nature of the sea--of the this in the middle of which you cannot stand yet from within which the poem situates its speech act, precisely in the act of saying this--is revealed as the poem sinks beneath the water's phenomenal surface in the final verses:
men lower their nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave,
and row quickly away--the blades of the oars
moving together like the feet of water spiders as if there were no such thing as death.
The wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx-- beautiful under networks of foam,
and fade breathlessly while the sea rustles in and out of the seaweed;
the birds swim through the air at top speed, emitting catcalls as heretofore--
the tortoise shell scourges about the feet of the cliff, in motion beneath them;
and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses and noise of bell buoys,
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink--
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor consciousness.
(Moore, Complete Poems, pp. 49 - 50)The light and descriptive texture of these verses makes the abyss whose surface they float upon all the more sinister in its nihilism. Moore's poem is in many ways more perturbing than Swinburne's in that it involves no hyperbolic temporal projections. The "neither-nor" of its conclusion--"neither with volition nor consciousness"--uncovers the end time in the everyday presence of the sea, whose brilliant surface veils an underworld of extinction in which no spirits carry on an afterlife. The poem perturbs in another way as well, for if the sea's subsurface element marks the limit of volition and consciousness, what are we to make of the men who are unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave when they lower their nets? Confined to their superficial perspective, caught up in their daily activities "as if there were no such thing as death," are they not in some sense dead to the mortality that defines their condition? Is it only by looking deliberately into the abyss of what we stand in the middle of that we come alive to the world? And is that what poetry is in Moore's concept of its vocation--a transphenomenal way of looking that sees an inhuman darkness beneath the phenomena themselves?
Now nothing but the wind
moves in the rain-pocked face
of the swollen waters, though far below
where the giant squid lie hidden in shy tangles,
the whales, heavy-bodied as angels,
their fins like vestiges of wings,
sing some mighty epic of their own--
a great day when ships would all withdraw
the harpoons fail of their aim, the land
dissolve into the waters, and they would swim
among the peaks of the mountains, like
eagles of the deep, while far below them, the old
nightmares of earth would settle
into silt among the broken cities, the empty
basket of the child would float
abandoned in the seaweed until the work of water
unraveled it in filaments of straw,
till even that straw rotted
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for,
sending their jets of water skyward
in the clear conviction they'd spill back
to ocean with their will accomplished
in the miracle of the rain: And the earth
was without form and void, and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And
the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters.
(pp. 156- 57)It is a prehuman and prehistorical Spirit that answers the prayers of the whales here. An earth without form after the end of the world is humanly inconceivable, since we are creatures of form and perspective; yet this is as close as we will get to an image of its pre- or postformal facticity--even if, or perhaps even because, the image traffics in multiple perspectives and contains a number of anthropomorphisms. Epics, prayers, convictions, accomplished wills are all attributed to the liberated whales, whose ecstatic deliverance from human oppression we share in here only through the poem's humanization.
He was steadying himself on my shoulder with a strong grip, while his other arm, flung up rigidly, pointed a denunciatory finger at the immense tranquility of the ocean. After his first exclamation, which stopped the swing of our oars, he made no sound, but his whole attitude seemed to cry out an indignant "Behold!" . . . I could not imagine what vision of evil had come upon him. I was startled, and the amazing energy of his immobilized gesture made my heart beat faster with the anticipation of something monstrous and unsuspected. The stillness around us became crushing.Let's freeze the Danish captain in his demonstrative gesture for a moment and remark that he is pointing to the this in the middle of which one cannot stand. The account continues:
Something startling, mysterious, hastily confused was taking place. I watched it with incredulous and fascinated awe, as one watches the confused, swift movements of some deed of violence done in the dark. As if at a given signal, the run of the smooth undulations seemed checked suddenly around the brig. By a strange optical delusion the whole sea appeared to rise upon her in one overwhelming heave of its silky surface where in one spot a smother of foam broke out ferociously. And then the effort subsided. It was all over, and the smooth swell ran on as before from the horizon in uninterrupted cadence of motion, passing under us with a slight friendly toss of the boat. Far away, where the brig had been, an angry white stain undulating on the surface of steely-gray waters, shot with gleams of green, diminished swiftly without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun. And the great stillness after this initiation into the sea's implacable hate seemed full of dread thoughts and shadows of disaster. (The Mirror of the Sea, pp. 257- 58)This was Conrad's initiation into the sea's irresponsibility, its refusal or inability to respond to human appeal. On that day he realized that "the sea has no generosity. No display of manly qualities--courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness--has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power" (p. 251). In short, he realized that the sea is unearthly. Whereas the earth sympathizes with human virtue, in the sense that it rewards backbreaking labor with generous harvests, or gives us the ground on which to build our destinies, commemorate our achievements, and honor our dead, the sea is dumb to human petition. It defies any and all humanization. "The amazing wonder of the deep," writes Conrad, "is its unfathomable cruelty" (p. 259).
The captain of the brig lowered his rigid arm slowly, and looked at our faces in a solemnly conscious silence, which called on us to share in his simple-minded, marvelling awe. All at once he sat down by my side, and leaned forward earnestly at my boat's crew, who, swinging together in a long, easy stroke, kept their eyes fixed upon him faithfully.
"No ship could have done so well," he addressed them firmly, after a moment of strained silence, during which he seemed with trembling lips to seek for words fit to bear such high testimony. "She was small, but she was good. I had no anxiety. She was strong. Last voyage I had my wife and two children in her. No other ship could have stood so long the weather she had to live through for days and days before we got dismasted a fortnight ago. She was fairly worn out, and that's all. You may believe me. She lasted under us for days and days, but she could not last for ever. It was long enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was left to sink at sea on such a day as this." (Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, p. 258)Conrad remarks that there was "nothing wanting" in the captain's improvised "funeral oration"--"neither piety nor faith, nor the tribute of praise due to the worthy dead"--and that "by the merits of his sea-wise forefathers and by the artlessness of his heart, he was made fit to deliver this excellent discourse" (ibid.). Brought forth by the captain's human breath, that discourse would have dissipated in the air and been forgotten long ago by now had Conrad not written down its intent for us. Indeed, The Mirror of the Sea as a whole could be read as an expansive dilation of the captain's "excellent discourse," given the book's stated intention to honor the dead--be they seamen of the past or the worthy ships in which they had served. In his author's note of 1919, Conrad declares that "this book . . . is the best tribute my piety can offer to the ultimate shapers of my character, convictions, and, in a sense, destiny--to the imperishable sea, to the ships that are no more, and to the simple men who have had their day" (p. 135).
Excerpted from The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison Copyright © 2003 by Robert Pogue Harrison. Excerpted by permission.
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