On April 15, 1912, on her maiden voyage, the British steamer Titanic, the world’s largest and most luxurious ship, struck an iceberg in mid-Atlantic and sank. The White Star Line’s ships had previously suffered major wrecks and loss of life in 1854, 1873, and 1893. But 1,500 people, more than half the Titanic’s passengers, died, and she took two hours and forty minutes to sink–long enough for those on land, hearing the news, to imagine many dramas–long enough for a movie, and there were several blockbusters.
Steven Biel, a cultural historian, claims there’s an old saying: “The three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic.” From 1912-13, more than a hundred songs about the Titanic were published and many “sermons in verse” submitted. Newspapers experienced “a flood of these contributions.” The April 18th New York Times suggested that “To be deeply and sincerely moved . . . is far from being the only requisite,” and by April 30th “it does seem time to say again that to write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.”
Thomas Hardy was asked to write a poem to be read at a charity concert in aid of the Disaster Fund. In a letter to his beloved friend Florence Henniker on April 21st, he commented “I was thinking–the immediate cause of the thought being the disaster to the Titanic, in which I have lost two acquaintances–that we feel it such a blow when friends go off before us, as if we were never going ourselves at all: when the same journey is only postponed for us by a few years.” He was already imagining himself on the inevitably fatal crossing: life’s journey to death.
On April 24th Hardy wrote The Convergence of the Twain. It was first published as part of the souvenir program for the charity event. A headnote read: Improvised on the Loss of the Titanic, and it was then only 30 lines long, not the 33 we read today. It was utterly different from other poems that have surfaced from the days immediately following the disaster.
The differences run deep. Some of the other poems contain images somewhat similar to Hardy’s. On April 20th, Harper’s Weekly printed “The Titanic” by M. C. Lehr, in which the iceberg appears as sinister foreign enemy:
And there in shrouded silence steals
The stealthy espion of the sea,
Whose frozen mask afar conceals
The dark decree of destiny.
but in which the sea-worms, far from indifferent, actively mourn the dead . . .
Until the heaving depths of slime
And clinging beauties of the deep
Shall mold a monument sublime
Unto your ceremented sleep.
. . . unless the “clinging beauties” are meant to be mermaids.
All the typical poems mourn the dead and make examples of their bravery. They, rather than the ship, sleep at the bottom. On April 21st, the Chicago Tribune printed Harriet Munroe’s “A Requiem,” which ends:
Lovers of life, who life could give,
Sleep softly where ye lie!
Ours be the vigil! Help us live,
Who teach us how to die.
Joseph Brodsky argues that Hardy’s poem was written before the facts were known, before the controversy and court cases. He calls it a “visceral response.” Perhaps more literally visceral was Stephen Phillips’ In Memoriam, in which the ship, rather gruesomely, is a body whose ribcage cracks open:
. . . They split, they split in twain, those armored ribs,
Arbors and terraces and pleasure domes
All to the deep . . .
Joseph Conrad published “Some Reflections, Seamanlike and Otherwise, on the loss of the Titanic,” on which he had shipped a manuscript of his latest novel to his American publisher, only to have it lost at sea. He, like many, moralized about “the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.”
Most of the poems decry human pride and vanity, though not as briefly and elegantly as Hardy does in his first stanza. Fred Baldwin published “Who Was To Blame? Lines on the Loss of the Steamship Titanic” in the Christian Advocate on April 25th:
In part the spirit of this prideful age–
Our blind, insatiate lust of luxury;
Our false disdain of all simplicity;
Our wild and senseless rage for speed . . .
And some personify the Punisher in various ways. In “The Harvest of the Sea,” Charles Hanson Towne imagined a jealous Sea who craves passionate, brave souls to warm her:
The grey Sea laughed– and drew those brave men down,
And braver women who but mocked at Death,
Seeing that Love went with them. These the souls
The awful Sea desired! These the hearts
She waited for in that stupendous hour!
They were enough to warm the Artic wastes,
To fill with furnace heat the frozen zones,
And fire the very Sea that was their grave.
And in Brand Whitlock’s “The Titanic,” the disaster was a “sublime, stupendous, bitter joke of a dark ironic Spirit”:
. . . The awful laugh
Rang through the dreadful reaches of the Void.
After which the men of “our intrepid Northern race” all died bravely.
Not everyone approved of this outpouring of sentimentality. George Bernard Shaw bemoaned “an explosion of outrageous romantic lying,” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fought with him bravely in print.
Hardy, in his poem, did not describe the human journey he referred to in his note to Henniker. He did not spend a syllable on human suffering, nobility, or bravery. There are no dead, nor is the ship haunted by its new, less demanding passengers–however slimy. To me the poem seems even devoid of what David Yezzi calls Hardy’s “ghostly nostalgia,” which would soon come to infuse Hardy’s poetry, following his wife Emma’s death in November. Since Hardy did not write about the disaster the way everyone else did, much scholarship has discussed what he was writing about, and the consensus is that the poem should be read as a portrait of Hardy’s ill-fated marriage. There is a very strong case for this interpretation.
The “creature of cleaving wing,” angel or osprey, suggests the Titanic at speed, her sharp prow cutting the water into wings. “Cleaving,” however, is the perfect word for Hardy to invoke both the hopes and disappointments of marriage. “To cleave” means “to split or separate,” but has come to be the same word (from a different Old English origin) as “to adhere.” In the King James Bible: “a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife: they twain shall be one flesh”; and in the wedding vow: “to cleave only unto her.”
Many clues to this interpretation are sunken in what R. P. Blackmur called the poem’s “extraordinary coiling imagery,” beginning with its title. The “twain,” a Germanic word related to twin, was often used by Hardy for lovers that are both a pair and separated, as in “Side by Side”:
Thus side by side
They seemed united
As groom and bride,
Who’d not communed
For many years–
Lives from twain spheres
With hearts distuned.
“Convergence” suggests “coiling” and circling round as well as turning towards, as in a sphere or ring, a perfect circle. In The Destined Pair Hardy sketched his essential romantic myth:
Two beings were drifting
Each one to the other . . .
. . . the tracks of their feet
Were arcs that would meet . . .
and then wondered:
Would Fate have been kinder
To keep night between them?
And in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, the ill-fated Tess and Angel are “All the while . . . converging, under an irresistible law, as surely as two streams in one vale.” Angel is Tess’s “missing counterpart” who “wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange-destinies.” These convergences, and the “two hemispheres” with which the poem ends, come from Plato’s Symposium, in Aristophanes’s playful new creation myth in praise of Love: human beings, originally actually spherical in form, were punished by the gods by being split into two hemispheres, and we are always seeking our other half with intense yearning for “meeting and melting into one another, becoming one instead of two.” Hardy’s work is replete with variations of mismatched or separated pairs, wrote Ian Ousby: “His poetry, in particular, rings the changes” on what Hardy described as the “singular expectancies, confrontings, and excitements” of meeting the opposite sex. “The Titanic’s collision with the iceberg is a stark and extreme version of these encounters . . . The ship meets its antithesis, and the result is not synthesis . . .” but disaster. The Convergence of the Twain “offers a paradigm . . . of a particular type of sexual relationship that fascinated (Hardy): . . . destined and inevitable… based on deep affinity, and yet (that) leads to destruction.”
The feminine ship has feeling–the ship is “smart”: astute, fashionable, brisk and stinging. She grows in “hue”, but the Ice is white, and in the dark, invisible. They are alien to each other, but also to us, who cannot see or rather foresee the heat and sparking of their “welding” (nearly “wedding”). Even Hardy’s “anon” has a twin meaning: soon but not now; and archaically: at union, at one: at once.
Hardy’s finding his wife Emma seemed to him fated, and their marriage designed for his gradually increasing suffering. After her sudden death, Hardy mourned rather than blamed her (or himself), Donald Davie explained, because “remorse, and reproach also, are from the poet’s point of view irrelevances.” They were meant for each other, however badly.
There is a great deal more of this in the criticism written about the poem, and I am convinced by it, but I want to draw attention to something else. Hardy was agnostic, but at a time when the embers of universal belief burned brighter than they do today. He worked as a church architect until age 34, spoke of the essential “Gothic art-principle” in which he had been trained, and designed this poem in the repeating triplets that in a Gothic nave surround us with symbols of the Holy Trinity. “Cold currents third”–even a word like thrid, an archaic form of thread, resembles three and third enough to reinforce the triangularity and triplets that pervade and define this poem, in spite of its twinning. The “twain” have converged like an arch, like the rib of a vault or the hull of a ship. Nave and navigation are from the same root, the main part of the church resembling an inverted boat. After the poem’s first publication Hardy inserted lines 13-15, the lines that ask the question (“What does this vaingloriousness down here?”) answered in Stanza 6. Emerson Brown, scholar of medieval literature, pointed to the way this addition makes the poem 33 lines long, and line 33 echoes the 33-year-old Christ’s last words: “consummatum est.”
When “consummation comes” in Hardy’s poem, he sends 1,500 souls to the bottom with an obscene pun. To “come” has borne its sexual connotation since the 17th century, at least. Consummation, “with the highest or the utmost,” traditionally means the fulfillment of the marriage contract by sexual intercourse.
The “jar” of intercourse was only faintly felt by the Titanic’s passengers. One survivor wrote “. . .there came what seemed to me nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that . . . no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another.” Brodsky heard a reference to broken jars, like the smashed pitchers that commonly, in 19th-century paintings, symbolize a broken maidenhead. Davie heard the machismo of Victorian engineering (and we may hear the sexuality) in the way the poem’s “rhythms slide home like pistons inside cylinders, ground exactly to fractions of a millimeter.”
The agnostic Hardy assumed the medieval role of God the Architect, measuring the cosmos (or his poem) with calipers. His work was already dense with symbolic buildings. In Far from the Madding Crowd, parts of the church itself, the gargoyles, mock human sentiments and plans when an unusually strong rainstorm sends a cascade down through one of them, destroying Sergeant Troy’s belated tribute in flowers on Fanny’s grave and all but floating her coffin. The architect becomes one with the body of his church in The Church-Builder, when, ruined by its expense, he hangs himself from one of its beams. In The Heiress and the Architect, the male “arch-designer” (described as “cold, clear”–an iceberg!) rationally brings about his warm, foolish female client’s disenchantment and–she sinks into despair.
Hardy took the concept of a blind, unconscious, purposeless force or Will from Arthur Schopenhauer, as an alternative deity to the personal God of the Bible. This Will is both inherent and transcendent. It drives human history, but for Hardy it cares only for the patterns it makes, not their consequences, as “The Spirit of the Years” explains in Hardy’s 1904 verse drama, The Dynasts:
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.
Masterful human design, what Emerson Brown, Jr. called in Hardy his “ruthless artistry”, may have created the Titanic so that she could only meet with disaster, but it is all we have with which to modulate the designs of “The Immanent Will, that stirs and urges everything.”
In “Nature’s Questioning,” Hardy/Mother Nature asks:
Has some Vast Imbecility,
Mighty to build and blend,
But impotent to tend,
Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry?
. . . No answerer I . . .
But in the Convergence of the Twain Hardy does answer. His “ruthless” artistries, by contrast with Eternal ones, are wrought consciously and in concrete form. By welding together his most fundamental convictions about the shape and trajectory of human life with a time-honored symbolic structure symbolizing suffering, sacrifice and transcendence, Hardy built an unsinkable poem.
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