In this centenary month of the sinking of the Titanic we welcome Mark Richardson, literary professor and blogger, on a poem that dips into deep and strange waters to quite astonishing effect.
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 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 Titanic had, of course, sunk one month earlier on April 15. Hardy later 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, I suspect, than many of us are willing to concede—stranger both in its phrasings and in its thought. We should find this poem astonishing.
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” . . .
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
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, well, 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.” “Consummation” denotes (as the OED tells us) the perfection or completion of an act; a fitting or inevitable outcome. I take Hardy seriously, here.
An “accident” the wreck of the Titanic may have been, but Hardy chooses to see it, as the first stanzas of the poem suggest, as a representative accident (to borrow a useful phrase from Kenneth Burke). That is to say, the accident was not really “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 Schopenhaurian word shortly). 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. Hardy declines to adhere to any single context for “interpreting” the event (Christian, philosophical, or 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 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.
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