By the Margin of the Great Deep
George William (“A. E.”) Russell
WHEN the breath of twilight blows to flame the misty skies,
All its vaporous sapphire, violet glow and silver gleam
With their magic flood me through the gateway of the eyes;
I am one with the twilight’s dream.
When the trees and skies and fields are one in dusky mood,
Every heart of man is rapt within the mother’s breast:
Full of peace and sleep and dreams in the vasty quietude,
I am one with their hearts at rest.
From our immemorial joys of hearth and home and love
Strayed away along the margin of the unknown tide,
All its reach of soundless calm can thrill me far above
Word or touch from the lips beside.
Aye, and deep and deep and deeper let me drink and draw
From the olden fountain more than light or peace or dream,
Such primeval being as o’erfills the heart with awe,
Growing one with its silent stream.
On this topic, seamen always repeat the same thing. Thus, in one of his last essays, Conrad confessed: “The monotony of the sea is easier to bear than the boredom of the shore.” And earlier on, in a short story (which, paradoxically, is a masterpiece of disturbing and suspenseful ambiguity), he described the feeling of peace and relief experienced by a sea captain who, after a long stay ashore, finds himself again with a good ship under his feet: “And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea, as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and the singleness of its purpose.”
Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 439
Patrick O’Brian on the same:
“Never mind the disappointment. Salt water will wash it away. You will be amazed how unimportant it will seem in a week’s time — how everything will fall into place.”
It was the true word: once the Surprise had turned south about Ceylon to head for the Java Sea, the daily order seized upon them all. The grind of holystones, the sound of swabs and water on the decks at first light; hammocks piped up, breakfast and its pleasant smells; the unvarying succession of the watches; noon and the altitude of the sun, dinner, grog; Roast Beef of Old England on the drum for the officers; moderate feast; quarters, the beating of the retreat, the evening roar of guns, topsails reefed, the setting of the watch; and then the long warm starlight, moonlit evenings, often spent on the quarterdeck, with Jack leading his two bright midshipmen through the intricate delights of astral navigation. This life, with its rigid pattern punctuated by the sharp imperative sound of bells, seemed to take on something of the nature of eternity as they slanted down towards the line, crossing it in ninety-one degrees of latitude east of Greenwich. The higher ceremonies of divisions, of mustering by the open list, church, the Articles of War, marked the due order of time rather than its passage; and before they had been repeated twice most of the frigate’s people felt both past and future blur, dwindling almost into insignificance: an impression all the stronger since the Surprise was once more in a lonely sea, two thousand miles of dark blue water with never an island to break its perfect round: not the fainest smell of land even on the strongest breeze — the ship was a world self-contained, swimming between two perpetually-renewed horizons.
O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise, 260
Despite having never truly been to sea, aside from a few (too few) days spent on the schooner Bowdoin during a high school summer, I feel this pull. It’s the same that calls me into the woods and should be given more heed.
I’ve been working on some more substantive posts. Unfortunately, my ambition often outstrips my time and my talent, and thus these tend to languish incomplete in various notebooks scattered around my office. Often the cause is an insidious perfectionism that causes me to reject ideas when they’ve been half-expressed, neglecting the fact that it is the precisely the willingness to say things haltingly and poorly that will allow me to one day say them well.