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“The Convergence of the Twain”: Thomas Hardy’s “Titanic”

April 23, 2012

“Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation” (1841) 

*  *  *

From a water-stained copy (sad tribute!) of Volume XXI of Harper and Brothers' Anniversary Edition of Hardy's complete works.

Thomas Hardy first published “The Convergence of the Twain” in the program printed for a “Dramatic and Operatic Matineé in Aid of the ‘Titanic’ Disaster Fund,” held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on May 14, 1912 (at two o’clock, to be precise). In fact, he served as a member of the committee that organized the event. The R.M.S. Titanic had, of course, sunk one month earlier on April 15. “The Convergence of the Twain” next appeared in The Fortnightly Review in June. It was then printed in a special limited edition—prepared by the American bibliophile & author George Barr McCutcheon, as Hardy’s editor, Samuel Hynes, notes—in August 1912. Hardy collected the poem in his 1914 volume Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries. Ever since, it has found safe harbor in all the usual anthologies, though what the poem itself harbors remains stranger than many of us are willing to concede—stranger both in its phrasings and in its thought. We should find this poem a little astonishing.

—————I
—–In a solitude of the sea
—–Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

—————II
—–Steel chambers, late the pyres
—–Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

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

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

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

———-VI
—–Well: while was fashioning
—–This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

———-VII
—–Prepared a sinister mate
—–For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

———-VIII
—–And as the smart ship grew
—–In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

———-IX
—–Alien they seemed to be;
—–No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

———-X
—–Or sign that they were bent
—–By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

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

I suspect that few people, in 1912, spoke of the Titanic and the iceberg as having “converged” (as who should say, “You see, this big steamship and this giant iceberg just sort of converged“). Hardy starts with a title that re-describes the wreck in such a way as to nudge us toward the supposition underlying the poem: this was something other than a mere accident. He sees in the meeting of ship and iceberg an appalling fitness. And not simply a “convergence,” but, as Hardy later says, a “mating” (as if by things espoused)—indeed, a “consummation.” Set aside, for the moment, the sexual connotations awakened, in that word, by the metaphor of “mating.” (The poem may or may not control these.) “Consummation” denotes (as the OED tells us) the perfection or completion of an act; a fitting or inevitable outcome.†

An “accident” the wreck of the Titanic may have been, but Hardy chooses to see it, as the first stanzas of the poem indicate, as a representative accident (to borrow a useful phrase from Kenneth Burke). That is to say, the accident was not thoroughly “accidental.” Human vanity and pride brought it on: this is precisely the sort of trouble men are always getting themselves into (such is the implication); it is “characteristic” of us. Or else the “Immanent Will” that stirs and urges everything brought it on (more about that quasi-Schopenhaurian term later). Or maybe the Spinner of the Years—say, Clotho, one of the Fates—brought it on. God forbid we should regard the affair as nothing but a sorry, senseless botch, or as the product of mere human “error.” Hardy declines to adhere to any single context for “interpreting” the event (Christian, philosophical, pagan-fatalistic). But he just as surely declines to avoid “interpreting” it—framing it up, as he does, in his three differing vocabularies. The wreck simply must have been a thing somehow ordained, by whatever agency. So intelligible an event was it, in fact, that Hardy had already composed his poem some two or three weeks after the ship went down. He was as ready for the R.M.S. Titanic as the iceberg itself.

Thomas Hardy

Of course, the inclination to find “meaning” in the casualties of our lives is as eminently human as vanity and pride. This poem is an instance of that inclination. Insofar as this is the case, it’s appropriate to the occasion (i.e., to the “Dramatic and Operatic Matineé in Aid of the ‘Titanic’ Disaster Fund”). But given that the poem chastens us, humbles us (if for nothing else than for our pride and vanity), it must have struck some, in May 1912, as very cold comfort. Norman Page, in his Oxford Reader’s Companion to Thomas Hardy, makes a similar point: “The human loss and suffering involved [in the wreck] earn scarcely a mention, and here Hardy’s treatment of the theme must have been curiously out of line with the response of the majority. For him the sinking becomes a grim and ironic lesson in the vanity of human wishes.” Page goes so far as to suggest that Hardy “appropriates” the event, thereby making it “his own”: “the specificity and topicality [shrink] in relation to the poem’s philosophical framework. One can only wonder,” Page drily observes, “what the audience at Covent Garden made of it.” Cold comfort, as I say.

Anyhow, as things go in proper tragedies, so go they in “The Convergence of the Twain”: the all-too-human protagonists get what they deserve. And the poem affords the right kind of reader a weird catharsis—an uncanny sort of satisfaction that I will account for later. Few survivors of the wreck would have reckoned it an “august event” (where “august” means “inspiring mingled reverence and admiration,” as the OED has it; or “impressing the emotions or imagination as magnificent; majestic, stately, sublime, solemnly grand; venerable, revered”). But Hardy does so reckon it, and he expects the right kind of reader to do the same. The general scheme of things is self-correcting: vanity begets humility; vanity humbles itself. All is bleakly right with the world. I don’t consider any of this a failure of taste on Hardy’s part. One is impressed, instead, with the insignificance of human affairs; we are buffeted about by forces unthinkably immense.

But now to the details of “The Convergence of the Twain.”

————I
—–In a solitude of the sea
—–Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

The third line echoes 1 John 2: 16: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Here opens a Christian frame of reference that, some might say, sorts uncomfortably with the other ones Hardy will employ (whether in reference to the “Immanent Will” or to “The Spinner of the Years”). I wouldn’t have thought “solitude” a countable noun, but Hardy makes it one. The Titanic resides now in “a solitude of the sea,” not “the solitude”—quite as if some peculiar place had been held for her, as in fact the poem will suggest it has been.

Image from an advertisement for the White Star line.

Whatever the case, this “solitude” has been held for her to “couch” in, and “stilly” couch in at that. I want to fetch in an archaic sense for the verb “couch” here, or at any rate to find the verb bearing some such sense as operates in the following citation from the OED (which illustrates the verb in its transitive mood): “That your vanity may be hereafter coutched” (from Robert Macward’s The true Non-conformist in answere to the Modest and free conference betwixt a Conformist and a Non-conformist, about the present distempers of Scotland. By a lover of truth [1671]). To “couch” a thing (here) is to put it down, to quell it, to suppress it, to lower it in dignity (OED senses 10-11). But of course, in the poem the verb is intransitive, and “to couch” (intransitively) means to lie at rest, as the Titanic does. But “to couch” (intransitive) is also to bow down, to submit, to succumb (OED senses 16-17). The themes Hardy sounds in the poem bring all these senses out (anyway, the themes allow for them).

The verb “couch” is modified, wonderfully, by a somewhat rare adverb: “stilly” (we encounter that word more often in its adjectival office). How better to suggest the silence and appalling inertness of the ship, where it now couches? What had the power to move thousands of men and women now moves not at all. The Titanic is said “stilly” to couch “deep from human vanity.” That phrase primarily means “deep owing to human vanity,” but I suppose there may be a subsidiary meaning: human vanity no longer has the Titanic to gaze on, for good or for ill, as a thing to brag about or be chastened by (save for its immortal presence in this poem). Its full import will remain occult to, or kept from, such vain, unteachable wretches as framed it (which is to say: humankind). Does anyone suppose Hardy thought men and women really capable of learning a lesson? If so, let him or her read “Christmas 1924.”

The syntactical inversions serve Hardy well, here; I do not think any necessity of meter or rhyme forces them on the poet. The subject falls last, at the end of that six-stress, creaking, alexandrine hull of a third line: “she.” That is to say, the sentence, suspended until the last of its twenty-eight syllables, comes to a kind of wonderfully demonstrative point: you see, there “she” is—deep from human vanity.

Hardy speaks of the Pride of Life that “planned” the Titanic, not the Pride of Life that “built” her. This may seem unremarkable, but to speak of “planning” (as against “building”) takes in, and impugns, a great many more folk, I should think, than the builders: the very conception of such a vessel is damned. It takes the whole of a nation, of a culture, to “conceive” such a thing—to summon it up as a desideratum, as a possibility. Hardy generalizes the Pride of Life (on good scriptural authority, after all). He implicates all of us in it.

—————II
—–Steel chambers, late the pyres
—–Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

“Salamandrine”: the word is ironic, in that salamanders are comfortably amphibian, whereas the Titanic most assuredly was not (it was too fully “submarine” in execution: never to dock again). Further ironies arise from the (ancient) folkloric association of salamanders and fire (such associations as allow Joseph Addison, in Spectator 281, to speak of “a certain Salamandrine Quality” in the heart of your typical coquette that makes it “capable of living in the midst of Fire and Flame, without being consumed, or so much as singed”). The fires that fueled the great steam engines of the Titanic once kept the whole enterprise afloat and lively. But now “cold currents” thread their way through (or “thrid”) the chambers of the engines, which have become funereal “pyres” as against locomotive ones (“pyre” derives from the same sources, in Latin and Greek, that give us pyrotechnics, pyromania, etc.). But wait: before the sinking the steel chambers of the engines were already “pyres,” as if they drove the ship’s passengers to death—which in fact they did.‡

The rhymes, here, affiliate the lyric poem we are reading—the “lyre” Hardy is strumming—with the cold, dead pyre of the ship itself. Deep ocean currents now make its engine rooms sing; the rhythmic tides mark the time signature. In other words, if Hardy makes a lyric out of the Titanic, well, so do the tides themselves; in finding harmonies in this jangle of a wreck, the poet simply follows suit. The syntax, as in stanza one, is striking for its inversions. Cast the sentence back into a subject/verb/object form and you get: Cold currents thrid the steel chambers (lately the pyres of the ship’s salamandrine fires) and turn them into lyres, making weird music of the tides. But lodging the grammatical subject of the sentence (“currents”) at the head of  that ungainly alexandrine—with a spondaic, alliterative knock (“cold currents”)—brings into sharper focus what now stands so awfully in contrast to the fiery vitality of the lives that made, and the life that was, the Titanic. And at last we have, of course, the most obvious irony: icy water threads its way through chambers where (very lately) flames once roared.

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

“Glass” takes its place as a verb (a role seldom assigned it after the 19th century). Hardy so constructs the sentence laid into this stanza as (again) to place its subject at the head of the long third line. This structure “glasses” or mirrors the structure of stanza two: the “cold currents thrid,” “the sea-worm crawls.” In terrestrial graveyards we inevitably find what William Empson once called the “miraculous corpse worm” (that familiar engine of decay and emblem of death); well, in the depths of the ocean—in the tomb the Titanic has become—we have the sea-worm. That creature may be “dumb,” but it speaks with eerie eloquence. Look into the glass (of this poem) now, you opulent, vain, proud men and women, and tell us what you see: the much-fabled worm of mortality (and the vanity of human wishes). Our sea-worm is as “indifferent” to social degree (let’s say) as the worm Hamlet famously speaks of (in 4.iii):

Hamlet. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
Claudius. What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet. Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

As with kings, so with the robber barons and baronesses of the Titanic. The lines mock (and still “glass”) the opulent; they mock us all, in our Pride of Life. Hardy wrote the poem, as I say, to be printed in the program of  a fund-raiser held to support survivors of the wreck. I doubt if they expected to be delivered so sobering a sermon as this. As I say, whatever else the wreck may have been, it is not, as Hardy frames it in “The Convergence of the Twain,” senseless. The wreck makes perfect sense, or anyway can be made to. But in short order, as we’ll see, Hardy soon sets aside a “Christian” frame of reference—whereby vanity is pulled down and “pride of life” (as in the Gospel of John) duly chastened and punished—for other ones (philosophical and, later still, fatalistic).

But again to the poem.

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

Ever-varying the relation of sentence to stanza, Hardy now sets his subject in the first position: “jewels.” The series “bleared and black and blind” works perfectly: all three terms modify “sparkles” (and by proxy “jewels”), but in curious ways. “Bleared” means, in OED sense one—and in connection with seeing and things seen—”Of the eyes: Dimmed with tears, morbid matter, or inflammation.” And of course we immediately move from bleared to blind (via an alliterative bridge in “black”). Available also, as the whole poem bears on the line, is this sense of “bleared”: “Mentally blinded, deceived” (OED 3). In any case, the point is that things meant to be seen (sparkling jewels, lately doubled in the dressing mirrors of the opulent) are now, by attribution, themselves not merely unseen but unseeing. The jewels “lie lightless” and “blind”: neither lighted nor giving off light (sparkles) nor taking in light. And what of the “design”? The Titanic was “planned” in the Pride of Life; the jewels its opulent passengers wore were “designed / To ravish the sensuous mind.” The primary meaning of “ravish,” here, is to carry off into “ecstasy” and “delight” of a decidedly “sensuous” kind, which compounds the sin of vanity with the sin of fleshly indulgence. (“Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels,” says Paul in Colossians 2:18, “intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.”) But all the darker implications of the verb “ravish” are also at work: to lay waste to; to seize and plunder; and so on. The lines impeach the jewelers and the bejeweled alike; all are too much given over to the “senses” and to pleasure (as also to vanity and pride). “Sensuous mind” may seem like a paradox of sorts (mind is typically opposed to the body, where the senses have their seat). But no, the idea here is that the men and women who inhabited these doomed cabins had sensuousness too much on their minds.

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

“Moon-eye” is the colloquial name for an ocular disease afflicting horses (uveitis). Here’s the Dictionary Rusticum (1726), as cited in the OED: “Moon-eyes, a disease in horses bearing that name, because at certain times of the moon, they will seem very well, but at other times cover’d over with a white phlegm, which is the worst sort of blindness that is.” On further inquiry I find that the “moon-eye” is also a fish native to freshwater lakes in North America; but that species has no place at the bottom of the Atlantic or in “The Convergence of the Twain.” Certainly in this context “moon-eyed” means “having sight that is better at night” (OED 2a), or perhaps simply large-eyed (OED 2b). Whatever the case, the bodies and “gilded gear” (or accoutrements) of the now sightless “opulent” are nonetheless seen, “gazed” upon, and also “queried” (in a moralizing way): “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” Well, indeed. How thoroughly out of place so terrestrial a thing as human vainglory is, 12,415 feet below the waves! The gazing, curious fishes are “dim,” which I suppose indicates something about the general gloom and obscurity of the waters they inhabit; a quality of the environment has here been transferred to the fish themselves (dim fish in dim waters dimly gazing, etc.).

But the question the moon-eyed fish ask is not rhetorical, and it doesn’t go unanswered. What does this vainglory 12,415 feet under (as against the usual “six feet under”)? Well . . .

—–Well: while was fashioning
—–This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

———-VII
—–Prepared a sinister mate
—–For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

As used here, “fashioning” oddly pertains (grammatically) more to the ship than to the men who planned and built it. It is as if “to fashion” were a stative and intransitive verb; it is as if the ship were somehow self-fashioning—as if it organically grew (an idea that recurs in stanza VIII). And to be sure, Hardy here calls the ship a “creature of cleaving wing,” not merely animating it but paradoxically attributing to it a limb (“wing”) more peculiar to creatures who inhabit the air. The phrase “so gaily great” must refer to the ship. But it dangles a bit grammatically, and this fleeting suspension allows for the thought that the “Shape of Ice” also is gay and great (as befits any mate prepared for the R.M.S. Titanic).

I have spoken of the scriptural and Christian vocabularies on which Hardy draws. Here he leaves all that behind. The “pride of life,” and its punishing reduction, are no longer the matter. Instead, we have to do with something called “The Immanent Will.” Scholars of Hardy tell us that he read Arthur Schopenhauer closely and owned a copy of the philosopher’s greatest work, The World as Will and Idea (also translated as The World as Will and Representation). Almost certainly Hardy draws on it here. I beg the pardon of any bona fide philosopher under whose eyes this commentary on “The Convergence of the Twain” may fall. Because there’s nothing for it but that I must have a go at Schopenhauer.

Detail. Title page of of the Haldane/Kemp translation.

On Schopenhauer’s account, “will” names that animating force, that vitality or energy, which manifests itself in all the myriad forms of the world. These forms are expressions (or iterations) of “will,” and it is only once men and women arrive on the scene, with a faculty called “reason,” that the notion arises that “will” is, or ever can be, truly individuated. That individuation is illusory; the notion that it exists is entirely peculiar to man. Our imposition onto “will” of “ideas” falsifies the world we inhabit, and of which we are inextricably a part. The subject/object split is itself a fiction—a fiction, moreover, that inevitably gives rise to conflict and strife. “It is only the knowledge of the unity of will as thing-in-itself in the endless diversity and multiplicity of the phenomena,” says Schopenhauer in section 28 of The World as Will and Idea, “that can afford us the true explanation of that wonderful, unmistakable analogy of all the productions of nature, that family likeness on account of which we may regard them as variations on the same ungiven theme.” The cosmos is, in truth, a kind of roiling unity to which Schopenhauer gives the name “will.” Will always find its level (so to speak). But it has no aim that we can discern—its “theme” is “ungiven”—and no tendency of which we are the aim. Schopenhauer writes (in section 63 of the book):

The world, in all the multiplicity of its parts and forms, is the manifestation, the objectivity, of the one will to live. Existence itself, and the kind of existence, both as a collective whole and in every part, proceeds from the will alone. The will is free, the will is almighty. The will appears in everything, just as it determines itself in itself and outside time. The world is only the mirror of this willing; and all finitude, all suffering, all miseries, which it contains, belong to the expression of that which the will wills. . . Accordingly with perfect right every being supports existence in general, and also the existence of its species and its peculiar individuality, entirely as it is and in circumstances as they are, in a world such as it is, swayed by chance and error, transient, ephemeral, and constantly suffering; and in all that it experiences, or indeed can experience, it always gets its due. For the will belongs to it; and as the will is, so is the world. Only this world itself can bear the responsibility of its own existence and nature—no other; for by what means could another have assumed it?

I quote here from Haldane and Kemp’s translation (London 1883-86); it is the one Hardy knew.

What does any of this tell us about the R.M.S. Titanic, or about “The Convergence of the Twain”? Notice how, for Hardy, the “Immanent Will” so orders things that the ship will have, for its “mate,” the very “Shape of Ice” that will sink it. If this will “urges everything,” as Hardy and Schopenhauer alike say, then the iceberg, the waters out of which the iceberg crystallizes, the men who plan and build the Titanic, nay, the Titanic itself (“growing” “creature” that it is): all of these things, all of these apparently dissociated phenomena, are essentially unified. To be sure, ordinary men cannot see the underlying unity. But it is there. Only “for [a] time” are the ship and its “mate” (the iceberg) “far and dissociate.” The self-executing justice that derives from the underlying unity I speak of here—and which allows us to say, with Schopenhauer, that “the world itself is the judgment of the world”—will see to the “consummation” in due course.

———-VIII
—–And as the smart ship grew
—–In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

———-IX
—–Alien they seemed to be;
—–No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

———-X
—–Or sign that they were bent
—–By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

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

The ship and the iceberg only seemed to be “alien.” Merely “mortal” eyes, which is to say human ones, couldn’t see what united them—couldn’t see that the ship and its mate were, in fact, “twin halves of one august event.” Why? Because, as Schopenhauer says, human knowledge is “limited”: we “[see] not the inner nature of things, which is one, but its phenomena as separated, disunited, innumerable, very different, and indeed opposed.” But the “opposition” of the phenomena of the world—say, a ship here and an iceberg there—is merely apparent and not real. Consider that we have now moved from “the twain” to “twin halves.” This is entirely fitting, given that the ship and the iceberg must have, as do all “twins,” a common genesis—”The Immanent Will” that “urges everything.” Yes, they are fated to “mate.” But this “mating” will be but the realization, in Time, of an indivisible and “intimate”—of an always already there—(re)union. The Titanic is a thesis, the iceberg its antithesis; they imply and contain one another. They are “welded” together. And here we strike upon the implications of that last line, which speaks of the wreck as a “consummation.” I said a few words about this above. I will say a few more now.

Schopenhauer claims that if “we desire to know what men, morally considered, are worth as a whole and in general, we have only to consider their fate as a whole and in general. This is want, wretchedness, affliction, misery, and death.” No serious and sympathetic reader of Hardy would cavil at this. Nor at what follows: “Eternal justice reigns; if [men] were not, as a whole, worthless, their fate, as a whole, would not be so sad. In this sense we may say, the world itself is the judgment of the world. If we could lay all the misery of the world in one scale of the balance, and all the guilt of the world in the other, the needle would certainly point to the centre.” And, I would add, we would have our “consummation” in the sense that Hardy ultimately means it in “The Convergence of the Twain”: a “fitting, crowning, or inevitable outcome”; a “perfection” of things, such as they are (as the OED has it)—a pointing toward, a convergence toward, “the centre.” We would (again) see that things apparently “dissociate” and unconnected are in fact “twinned,” of one origin and one end. True, the wreck of the Titanic occasioned untold human suffering. But if we would know men, if we would know ourselves, we must concede that this was no accident and no surprise. Yes: “eternal justice reigns.” Terrible as its verdicts may be, they bear an awful splendor; they must satisfy us; hence the strange catharsis afforded by Hardy’s poem, a possibility I hinted at above.

Grant that some such views as these inform “The Convergence of the Twain.” If so, the (almost satisfied) detachment Hardy maintains from the catastrophe makes sense. This detachment is what leads Nelson Page to point out that “the human loss and suffering involved [in the wreck] earn scarcely a mention [in the poem].” Page notes, as we’ve seen, that “Hardy’s treatment of the theme must have been curiously out of line with the response of the majority.” Of course it must have been. The considerations with which I opened these ruminations now find their resolution. The metaphors governing the poem (“convergence,” “mating,” “twinning,” “consummation,” “intimate welding”); the apparently unstable mixture in it of Christian, quasi-Schopenhaurian, and “fatalistic” vocabularies (as I say, the Greek Moirai “Clotho,” a spinner, probably informs the ante-penultimate line in the poem); the idea impressed upon us that the ship and the iceberg both obey, or heed, an irresistible imperative (“Each one hears”); the fact that Hardy immediately takes the long view, touching hardly at all on the particulars of the suffering; the queer tone of the poem, which moves from admonition to wonder to a kind of gratifying (and cathartic) awe at the “august event” it contemplates (a wreck in which 1,514 person died, be it remembered):—all of these elements fall into place; all are perfectly intelligible.

What does this vaingloriousness at the bottom of the ocean? Well: “the world itself is the judgment of the world.” Complain and wail if you like. But it is probably better to adopt the strange, stoic attitude so well exemplified in “The Convergence of the Twain.” “Evil will bless,” says Emerson in “Uriel,” and “ice will burn.” Learn to be content.

Before signing off, I’ll attend to a few more verbal details. It is possible that necessities of rhyme compel Hardy to shift, a bit abruptly, into the present tense in his last stanza: “each one hears” what “The Spinner of the Years” just “said.” The ship and iceberg might better have been imagined to have “heard” what was “said.” But then we’d have no rhyme; and we’d also miss the felicity of that forever-in-the-present-tense “coming” of the “consummation” and “jarring” of the “hemispheres.”

I should add that I’ve heard it argued, more than once, that Hardy so constructs his stanzas—two trimeter lines stacked atop that hull of an alexandrine—as to suggest the silhouette of a ship. Maybe. I find relatively little profit in the idea. Where, after all, does it really get us? Hardy, a great one for nonce forms and hetero-metric stanzas, almost never writes what we sometimes call “concrete poems” (poems that typographically resemble what they are “about,” as do “Easter Wings” and “The Altar” by George Herbert). Nevertheless, if the reader believes we are to see in Hardy’s eleven stanzas some haunting image of the ship they concern, I’ll not object. The Titanic has as fitting a habitat in the printed pages of Satires of Circumstance as it ever had in port or at sea.

One more note on technique. I mentioned already how various, and nicely regulated, are the relations of sentence to stanza in the early phases of the poem. I’d point out here that, having kept to one sentence per stanza through his first five, Hardy “changes up,” as baseball pitchers say. Stanzas six and seven involve a single sentence; stanza eight is given its own (again); stanza nine contains the shortest sentence deployed in the poem (“Alien they seemed to be”), where by “sentence” I mean a grammatically independent unit; and then, following that (“No mortal eye…” etc.), we trail our way, quite fluidly and without a strongly felt full stop, all the way through to the consummation.

“Consummation” also has a meaning in theological or eschatological contexts: the end of the world (“From the first Chaos to the last day, and the Consummation of all things,” writes Thomas Burnet in A Review of the Theory of the Earth, and of its Proofs [1690]). But I suspect that doesn’t figure into the present context.

Also worth noting, perhaps, is that the most common salamander found in Britain and northern Europe is the “fire salamander” (Salamandra salamandra), so-called owning to its fire-orange spots.

N.B.: You’ll find an on-line “Encyclopedia Titanica” here. For readings of other poems by Thomas Hardy within The Era of Casual Fridays, click here. As always, I welcome any comments.

Again, from a water-stained copy of Volume XXI of the Anniversary Edition.

Postscript:

As an afterthought [Aril 28], I append here the opening lines of The Dynasts, so that the curious may (perhaps) judge better Hardy’s debts to Schopenhauer. I take the text from an electronic edition of the poem at Project Gutenberg.

THE OVERWORLD

[Enter the Ancient Spirit and Chorus of the Years, the Spirit
and Chorus of the Pities, the Shade of the Earth, the Spirits
Sinister and Ironic with their Choruses, Rumours, Spirit-
Messengers, and Recording Angels.]

SHADE OF THE EARTH

What of the Immanent Will and Its designs?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

It works unconsciously, as heretofore,
Eternal artistries in Circumstance,
Whose patterns, wrought by rapt aesthetic rote,
Seem in themselves Its single listless aim,
And not their consequence.

CHORUS OF THE PITIES [aerial music]

Still thus?  Still thus?
Ever unconscious!
An automatic sense
Unweeting why or whence?
Be, then, the inevitable, as of old,
Although that SO it be we dare not hold!

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Hold what ye list, fond believing Sprites,
You cannot swerve the pulsion of the Byss,
Which thinking on, yet weighing not Its thought,
Unchecks Its clock-like laws.

SPIRIT SINISTER [aside]

Good, as before.
My little engines, then, will still have play.

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

Why doth It so and so, and ever so,
This viewless, voiceless Turner of the Wheel?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

As one sad story runs, It lends Its heed
To other worlds, being wearied out with this;
Wherefore Its mindlessness of earthly woes.
Some, too, have told at whiles that rightfully
Its warefulness, Its care, this planet lost
When in her early growth and crudity
By bad mad acts of severance men contrived,
Working such nescience by their own device.—
Yea, so it stands in certain chronicles,
Though not in mine.

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

Meet is it, none the less,
To bear in thought that though Its consciousness
May be estranged, engrossed afar, or sealed,
Sublunar shocks may wake Its watch anon?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Nay.  In the Foretime, even to the germ of Being,
Nothing appears of shape to indicate
That cognizance has marshalled things terrene,
Or will [such is my thinking] in my span.
Rather they show that, like a knitter drowsed,
Whose fingers play in skilled unmindfulness,
The Will has woven with an absent heed
Since life first was; and ever will so weave.

SPIRIT SINISTER

Hence we’ve rare dramas going—more so since
It wove Its web in the Ajaccian womb!

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Well, no more this on what no mind can mete.
Our scope is but to register and watch
By means of this great gift accorded us—
The free trajection of our entities.

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

On things terrene, then, I would say that though
The human news wherewith the Rumours stirred us
May please thy temper, Years, ’twere better far
Such deeds were nulled, and this strange man’s career
Wound up, as making inharmonious jars
In her creation whose meek wraith we know.
The more that he, turned man of mere traditions,
Now profits naught.  For the large potencies
Instilled into his idiosyncrasy—
To throne fair Liberty in Privilege’ room—
Are taking taint, and sink to common plots
For his own gain.

SHADE OF THE EARTH

And who, then, Cordial One,
Wouldst substitute for this Intractable?

CHORUS OF THE EARTH

We would establish those of kindlier build,
In fair Compassions skilled,
Men of deep art in life-development;
Watchers and warders of thy varied lands,
Men surfeited of laying heavy hands,
Upon the innocent,
The mild, the fragile, the obscure content
Among the myriads of thy family.
Those, too, who love the true, the excellent,
And make their daily moves a melody.

SHADE OF THE EARTH

They may come, will they.  I am not averse.
Yet know I am but the ineffectual Shade
Of her the Travailler, herself a thrall
To It; in all her labourings curbed and kinged!

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Shall such be mooted now?  Already change
Hath played strange pranks since first I brooded here.
But old Laws operate yet; and phase and phase
Of men’s dynastic and imperial moils
Shape on accustomed lines.  Though, as for me,
I care not thy shape, or what they be.

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

You seem to have small sense of mercy, Sire?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Mercy I view, not urge;—nor more than mark
What designate your titles Good and Ill.
‘Tis not in me to feel with, or against,
These flesh-hinged mannikins Its hand upwinds
To click-clack off Its preadjusted laws;
But only through my centuries to behold
Their aspects, and their movements, and their mould.

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

They are shapes that bleed, mere mannikins or no,
And each has parcel in the total Will.

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Which overrides them as a whole its parts
In other entities.

SPIRIT SINISTER [aside]

Limbs of Itself:
Each one a jot of It in quaint disguise?
I’ll fear all men henceforward!

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

Go to.  Let this terrestrial tragedy—

SPIRIT IRONIC

Nay, Comedy—

SPIRIT OF THE PITIES

Let this earth-tragedy
Whereof we spake, afford a spectacle
Forthwith conned closelier than your custom is.—

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 3:03 AM

    Extremely well explicated. A timely read. Thank you.

    • April 23, 2012 3:05 AM

      Thank you. Delighted to hear you enjoyed the essay.

      Best,
      Mark

  2. April 23, 2012 12:17 PM

    This is close reading at its best, Mark. Terrific work. I’ve always puzzled over the ‘two hemispheres’. Specifically two, as if there might have been three or more. What are these hemispheres? Are they merely geographical, in which case is it not just a fancy way of saying ‘the whole world’? Or are they the ‘twin halves’, implying that in some crazy geometry a ship and an iceberg might together constitute a perfect sphere? ‘[C]onsummation’ is normally a bringing (or coming) together: a consummation devoutly to be wished. But the poem’s own glorious moment of consummation—its climax—is jarring, as it acknowledges the breaking apart of the ship’s and the world’s ‘intimate welding’.

    • April 23, 2012 1:50 PM

      Thanks, Tim. And my congratulations on the new book, which I have in hand now. A fine job the press did with it. As for those two hemispheres: not something I’d much noticed (that phrasing I mean), though I may now get myself up for a postscript on your provocation.

      Yours,
      Mark

  3. October 16, 2013 1:50 PM

    Hi Mark, I’m investigating this text as part of an undergraduate degree and would love to know where you discovered Thomas Hardy was a member of the committee regarding the “Dramatic and Operatic Matinee in Aid of the Titanic Event”, along with his relationship with the other members at all? Also, how do you know Hardy had penned the poem two/three weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. As an added bonus, any reviews from the time/conversations between Hardy and W T Stead [perished aboard the Titanic] that you know off would be great. Thanks, Daniel.

    • October 29, 2013 12:11 AM

      Hi Daniel,

      The details as to TH & the benefit for the Titanic survivors, and also as to how quickly he wrote The Convergence of the Twain, are readily available in good biographies of TH, and also in TH’s autobiography (originally published under the name of his second wife, though TH wrote it). See also:

      All the data is there.

      Good luck with your research, and thanks for stopping by! Sorry for the tardy reply. i’ve been swamped these past few months.

      Best,
      Mark

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