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In a manner Mr. Conrad's book marks an epoch, since it is written in praise of ships, by a man who has sailed them, whose style and shapes shall be sailed no more. It is, as it were, a last chanty sung to those proud canvas wings by which England clove her way to power: to her mastery of the seas and then to the wealth of them. Mr. Conrad's day was after that of the sailed fighting ships, its significance lies in its coincidence with the dying...
In a manner Mr. Conrad's book marks an epoch, since it is written in praise of ships, by a man who has sailed them, whose style and shapes shall be sailed no more. It is, as it were, a last chanty sung to those proud canvas wings by which England clove her way to power: to her mastery of the seas and then to the wealth of them. Mr. Conrad's day was after that of the sailed fighting ships, its significance lies in its coincidence with the dying out of the type of men and the stamp of spirit which manned them; with the gradual transference of our sea-borne trade from the hands of islanders to those of aliens...
Of the change, and its menace to our dominion of the seas, Mr. Conrad is acutely and regretfully conscious. Looking in that mirror of the sea he can discern one altered face, the face of a people disinclined for discomfort, unstirred by the promise of great adventure, no longer inspired by the future, inflating itself contentedly by the fireside with the memories of its achievements while others slip in unobserved to steal the reins of power out of its indolent hands. With the passing of the sailing ship has passed, or is passing, the manner of men who sailed her, men to whom the ceaseless, unrelenting struggle with the sea was a joy and a glory as well as a trade, who faced the implacable oceans, the inexorable winds, as knights of old faced an enemy, praying that he might be worthy of their valor and address.
These men it was who gave us the command of the sea, because no other country could produce them of the same kind or in like quantity. France, Spain and the Netherlands, despite their splendid seamen, had to succumb at last, not to our guns nor to our money, but to the stuff we bred and could go on breeding. Now there is no more demand for it. That stuff, of which Mr. Conrad is a typical example, looks on the dirt, the unloveliness, the dull certainty of steaming with more than a landsman's disgust. Steam and iron have robbed the sea of its romance, as villainous saltpeter robbed knight-errantry. The equalizing up, or down, of ability has reduced soldiering and seamanship to a journeyman's trade, which anyone may master with application, and the born seaman has to look elsewhere for his adventure, and his species is forsaking the sea-shore.
It is this change which makes Mr. Conrad's book mark an epoch, for no one could better express the mingled tenderness and resolution of the old spirit. "It is a serious relation", he says, "that in which a man stands to his ship", which he "shall learn to know with an intimacy surpassing the intimacy of man with man, to love with a love nearly as great as that of man for woman, and often as blind in its infatuated disregard of defects". He feels that love so finely that he hates to see a ship in dock "shut off from freedom . . . hunted about from wharf to wharf on a dark, greasy, square pool of black water as a brutal reward at the end of a faithful voyage ", and feels it so deeply that the treachery of the sea is for him rather to the ship than to the men who sink with her. And this detached point of view, this romantic thinking, he extends to all things of the sea. He remembers gales by their human physiognomies; by their dignified austerity, by their woebegone misery, their catastrophic splendor, their draped mystery, their ominous menace; some as ghouls bent on sucking your strength away, some as wild cats clawing at your vitals. He thinks of the great winds as benignant or malignant rulers, and in describing them indulges occasionally in that adjectival profusion which sometimes detracts from the effect of his fine prose, which, at its best, will bear comparison with anything in the language. His skill as a story-teller may be found in every chapter, but especially in the history of "The Tremolino ". It is a tale that R. L. Stevenson would have loved to tell in just the same fashion.