The Enchafèd Flood - Part One - W. H. Auden


The Sea and the Desert


O Adam when blew God that bitter breath
On Earth's Plain; blew He likewise on sea-deep?

I wiss not. Like to cragged desolate waste,
We lately passed, is sea-steep's haggard face.

C. M. Doughty, Adam Cast Forth

Revolutionary changes in sensibility or style are rare. The most famous is, perhaps, the conception of "amor" which appeared in Europe in the twelfth century. The disappearance, during the sixteenth, of allegory as a common literary genre is another. The complex of attitudes and styles which emerges towards the end of the eighteenth century and is called, more conveniently than accurately, Romanticism is a third.

These chapters are an attempt to understand the nature of Romanticism through an examination of its treatment of a single theme, the sea.

* * * * * *

Near the beginning of the fifth book of The Prelude, Wordsworth describes in some detail a dream. It is, perhaps, an indication that, to him, this dream was of particular importance, that the 1805 and the 1850 versions differ. In the first it is assigned to a friend, in the second to Wordsworth himself. This is the 1805 text.

. . . once upon a summer's noon,
While he was sitting in a rocky cave
By the sea-side, perusing, as it chanced,
The famous History of the Errant Knight
Recorded by Cervantes, these same thoughts
Came to him; and to height unusual rose
Whilst listlessly he sate, and having closed
The Book, had turned his eyes toward the Sea.
On Poetry and geometric Truth,
The knowledge that endures, upon these two,
And their high privilege of lasting life,
Exempt from all internal injury,
He mused: upon these chiefly: and at length,
His senses yielding to the sultry air,
Sleep seiz'd him, and he pass'd into a dream.
He saw before him an Arabian Waste,
A Desart; and he fancied that himself
Was sitting there in the wide wilderness,
Alone, upon the sands. Distress of mind
Was growing in him, when, behold! At once
To his great joy a Man was at his side,
Upon a dromedary, mounted high.
He seem'd an Arab of the Bedouin Tribes,
A Lance he bore, and underneath one arm
A Stone; and, in the opposite hand, a Shell
Of a surpassing brightness. Much rejoic'd
The dreaming Man that he should have a guide
To lead him through the Desart; and he thought,
While questioning himself what this strange freight
Which the Newcomer carried though the Waste
Could mean, the Arab told him that the Stone,
To give it in the language of the Dream,
Was Euclid's Elements, "and this," said he,
"This other," pointing to the Shell, "this Book
Is something of more worth." And, at the word,
The Stranger, said my Friend continuing,
Stretch'd forth the Shell towards me, with command
That I should hold it to my ear; I did so,
And heard that instant in an unknown Tongue,
Which yet I understood, articulate sounds,
A loud prophetic blast of harmony,
An ode, in passion utter'd, which foretold
Destruction to the Children of the Earth,
By deluge now at hand. No sooner ceas'd
The Song, but with calm look, the Arab said
That all was true; that it was even so
As had been spoken; and that he himself
Was going then to bury those two Books:
The one that held acquaintance with the stars,
And wedded man to man by purest bond
Of nature, undisturbed by space or time;
Th' other that was a God, yea many Gods,
Had voices more than all the winds, and was
A joy, a consolation, and a hope.
My friend continued, "strange as it may seem,
I wonder'd not, although I plainly saw
The one to be a Stone, th' other a Shell,
Nor doubted once but that they both were Books,
Having a perfect faith in all that pass'd
A wish was now ingender'd in my fear
To cleave this Man, and I begg'd leave
To share his errand with him. On he pass'd
Not heeding me; I follow'd, and took note
That he look'd often backward with wild look,
Grasping his twofold treasure to his side.
Upon a Dromedary, Lance in rest,
He rode, I keeping pace with him, and now
I fancied that he was the very night
Whose Tale Cervantes tells, yet not the Knight,
But was an Arab of the Desart, too;
Of these he was neither, and was both at once.
His countenance, meanwhile, grew more disturb'd.
And looking backwards when he look'd, I saw
A glittering light, and ask'd him whence it came.
"It is," said he, "the waters of the deep
Gathering upon us," quickening then his pace
He left me: I call'd after him aloud;
He heeded not; but with his twofold charge
Beneath his arm, before me full in view
I saw him riding o'er the Desart Sands,
With the fleet waters of the drowning world
In chase of him, whereat I wak'd in terror,
And saw the Sea before me; and the Book,
In which I had been reading, at my side.

(Book V. 56 - 139)

Here are the three pairs of symbols:

(1) The desert and the sea.

(2) The stone of abstract geometry, and the shell of imagination or instinct, which between them offer alternative routes of salvation from the anxiety of the dreamer, a promise which is not realised.

(3) The double-natured hero, half Bedouin, i.e. Ishmael, the exile, the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, and half Don Quixote, i.e. the dedicated man, the Knight of Faith, who would restore the Age of Gold.

The Sea

The second verse of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis runs as follows:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

On the first day God said, Let there be Light, on the second He

made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.

And on the third He gathered the waters under the heaven

unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas.

Similarly in one of the Greek cosmologies, the beginning of everything was when Eros issued from the egg of Night which floated upon Chaos.

The sea or the great waters, that is, are the symbol for the primordial undifferentiated flux, the substance which became created nature only by having form imposed upon or wedded to it.

The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder our of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse. It is so little of a friendly symbol that the first thing which the author of the Book of Revelation notices in his vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of time is that "there was no more sea."

In consequence, though the metaphor of the ship of state or society appears early, it is only employed when society is in peril. The ship ought not to be out of harbor. Thus Horace writes

O navis, referent in mare te novi
fluctus. O quid agis! Forliter occupa

O ship, new billows are carrying you out to sea. What are you doing? Struggle to reach port.

(Odes 1.14)

The ship, then, is only used as a metaphor for society in danger from within or without. When society is normal the image is the City or the Garden. That is where people want and ought to be. As to the sea, the classical authors would have agreed with Marianne Moore. "It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing; But you cannot stand in the middle of this." A voyage, therefore, is a necessary evil, a crossing of that which separates or estranges. Neither Odysseus nor Jason goes to sea for the sake of the voyage; the former is trying to get home and, if it were not for the enmity of Poseidon, the father of the monster Cyclops, it would be soon over, which is what Odysseus most desires; the latter is trying to capture the Golden Fleece, which is in a distant country, to bring back to his own. It if were nearer and no voyage were necessary, he would be much relieved. (The Christian conception of time as a divine creation, to be accepted, and not, as in Platonic and Stoic philosophy, ignored, made the journey or pilgrimage a natural symbol for the spiritual life. Similarly the injunction "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" and the distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of this world contradicts the classical hope of the perfect polis. But, so far as I know, the pilgrimage of the pious soul is never symbolized in early Christian literature by a sea-voyage.

The state ship that deliberately chooses the high seas is the state in disorder, the Ship of Fools, as in Barclay's adaptation of Brant's Narrenschiff:

Lyke as a myrrour doth represent agayne
The fourme and figure of manners countenaunce
So in our ship whall he se wrytn playne
The fourme and figure of hys mysgovernaunce.

What ship is that with so many owners and strange tackle? It is a great vessel. This is the ship of Fools where saileth both spiritual and temporal of every calling some. This ship wanteth a good pilot, the storm, the rocks and the wrecks at hand; all must come to naught for want of good government.

This looks similar to the the behaviour of the Jumblies, but how differently the reader is expected to feel toward the latter -

They went to sea in a sieve, they did.
In a sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day
In a sieve they went to sea!
And when the sieve turned round and round
And everyone cried, "You'll all be drowned!"
They called aloud, "Our sieve ain't big,
But we don't care a button! We don't care a fig1
In a sieve we'll go to sea."

Similarly, in the Anglo-Saxon poems, The Wanderer and the Seafarer, the mariner is to be pitied rather than admired, for he

heart weary
Over ocean streams must for long
Stir with hands frost-cold sea
Rove paths of exile.

No protecting kinsman
Can bring comfort to the soul in loneliness.
Full little he thinks who has life's joy
And dwells in cities and has few disasters,
Proud and wine-flushed, how I, weary often,
Must hide my time on the brimming stream.

The sea is no place to be if you can help it, and to try to cross it betrays a rashness bordering on hubris, at which a man's friends should be properly concerned.

Nequicquam dues abscidit
prudens Oceano dissociabili
terras si tamen impiae
non tangenda rates transiliunt vada.

Vain was the purpose of the god in severing the lands by the estranging sea, if in spite of him our impious ships dash across the depths he meant should never be touched.
(Horace, Odes I.3)

There is a famous passage in the 26th canto of Dante's Inferno which is interesting not only for its beauty, but because the legend of Ulysses' last voyage appears to be Dante's own invention.

Ulysses is in Hell for having been an Evil Counsellor. Dante begins rather mysteriously

I sorrowed then, and sorrow now again when I direct my memory to what I saw; and curb my genius more than I am wont lest it run where Virtue guides it not.

Ulysses in describing his end says: 'Neither fondness for my son nor reverence for my aged father, nor the due love that should have cheered Penelope could conquer in me the ardor that I had to gain experience of the world, of human vice and worth." To his fellow-mariners he had argued, "Consider your origin: ye were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge."

Ulysses behaves like the typical Romantic Marine Hero, which in Tennyson's version of the same story he, indeed, becomes, but to Dante, clearly, his action was not only reprehensible but, as the last sentence shows, essentially the original sin of Adam, and in his speech to his fellows, he is once more, as earlier at Troy, the Evil Counsellor whose words echo the words of the Serpent to Eve. Perhaps, too, Dante's opening remarks indicate that the same temptation to the concupiscence of curiosity was his own.

The handling of the symbols of sea and storm by Shakespeare provides us with a bridge between what, for convenience, one may call the classic attitude and the romantic. The subject has been so exhaustively and sensitively studied by Mr. Wilson Knight in The Shakespeare Tempest as to make much further comment superfluous. As Wilson Knight demonstrates, in most of Shakespeare's plays there are two antithetical symbolic clusters. On the one hand tempests, rough beasts, comets, diseases, malice domestic and private vice, that is, the world of conflict and disorder; on the other hand music, flowers, birds, precious stones and marriage, the world of reconciliation and order. In the earlier plays the stormy sea is more purely negative, with a reflection of human conflict or the fatal mischance which provides evil with its opportunity (e.g. Othello). In the last plays, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, however, not only do the sea and the sea voyage play a much more important role, but also a different one. The sea becomes the place of purgatorial suffering: through separation and apparent loss, the characters disordered by passion are brought to their senses and the world of music and marriage is made possible. There is, however, one extremely important difference in the relation of the actors to the sea from that which our period exhibits, namely, that the putting to sea, the wandering is never voluntarily entered upon as a pleasure. It is a pain which must be accepted as cure, the death that leads to rebirth, in order that the abiding city may be built. Deliberately to seek the exile is still folly. Thus, in The Winter's Tale the good old counselor Camillo advises the young lovers Florizel and Perdita to enlist the help of Leontes rather than to elope.

A course more promising
Than a wild dedication of yourselves
To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores, most certain
To miseries enough: no hope to help you,
But as you shake off one to take another;
Nothing so certain as your anchors, who
Do their best office, if they can but stay you
Where you'll loath to be.

(The Winter's Tale, IV.4)

The distinctive new notes in the Romantic attitude are as follows.

(1) To leave the land and the city is the desire of every man of sensibility and honor.

(2) The sea is the real situation and the voyage is the true condition of man.

The port we sail from is far astern and, though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers. And yet our final haven was predestined ere we stepped from the stocks of creation. Let us not give ear to the superstitious gun-deck gossip about whither we may be gliding for, as yet, not a soul on board of us knows - not even the commodore himself - assuredly not the chaplain - even out professors' scientific surmisings are vain. On that point, the smallest cabin boy is as wise as the captain.

(White Jacket)

(3) The sea is where the decisive events, the moments of eternal choice, of temptation, fall, and redemption occur. The shore life is always trivial.

(4) An abiding destination is unknown even if it may exist: a lasting relationship is not possible nor even to be desired.

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs l
égers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalit
é jamais ils ne s'écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons

But the true voyagers are only those who leave
Just to be leaving; hearts light, like balloons,
They never turn aside from their fatality
And without knowing why they always say, "Let's Go!"

(Baudelaire, Le Voyage)

The Desert

Like the sea, the desert is the nucleus of a cluster of traditional associations.

(1) It is the place where the water of life is lacking, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel's vision.

(2) It may be so by nature, i.e. the wilderness which lies outside the fertile place or city. As such, it is the place where nobody desires by nature to be. Either one is compelled by others to go there because one is a criminal outlaw or a scapegoat (e.g. Cain, Ishmael), or one chooses to withdraw from the city in order to be alone. This withdrawal may be temporary, a period of self-examination and purification in order to return to the city with a true knowledge of one's mission and the strength to carry it out (e.g. Jesus' forty days in the wilderness), or it ma be permanent, a final rejection of the wicked city of this world, a dying to the life of the flesh and an assumption of a life devoted wholly to spiritual contemplation and prayer (e.g. Thebaid).

(3) The natural desert is therefore at once the place of punishment for those rejected by the good city because they are evil, and the place of purgation for those who reject the evil city because they desire to become good. In the first case the desert image is primarily related to the idea of justice, i.e. the home of the dragon or any lawless power which is hostile to the city and so be the place out into which the hero must venture in order to deliver the city from danger. An elaboration of this is the myth of the treasure in the desert guarded by the dragon. This treasure belongs by right to the city and has either been stolen by force or lost through the city's own sin. The hero then performs a double task. He delivers the city from danger and restores the precious life-giving object to its rightful owners.

In the second case, when the desert is the purgative place, the image is primarily associated with the idea of chastity and humility. It is the place where there are no beautiful bodies or comfortable beds or stimulating food and drink or admiration. The temptations of the desert are therefore either sexual images raised by the devil to make the hermit nostalgic for his old life or the more subtle temptations of pride when the devil appears in his own form.

(4) The natural wilderness may lie not only outside the city but also between one city and another, i.e. be the place to be crossed, in which case the image is associated with the idea of vocation. Only the individual or community with the faith and courage which can dare, endure, and survive its trials is worthy to enter into the promised land of the New Life.

(5) Lastly, the desert may not be barren by nature but as the consequence of a historical catastrophe. The once-fertile city has become, through the malevolence of others or its own sin, the waste land. In this case it is the opportunity for the stranger hero who comes from elsewhere to discover the cause of the disaster, destroy or heal it and become the rebuilder of the city and, in most cases, its new ruler.

The Romantic Sea and the Romantic Desert


(1) Both are the wilderness, i.e. the place where there is no community, just or unjust, and no historical change for better or for worse.

(2) Therefore the individual in either is free form both the evils and the responsibilities of communal life. Thus Byron writes of the ocean:

Man marks the earth with ruin his control
Stops with the shore.

(Childe Harold)

And Captain Nemo, the commander of the submarine Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, cries:

The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah, sir; live, live in the bosom of the waters. There only is independence. There I recognize no master's voice. There I am free.

And so Carmen tempts Don José to leave the fertile plain for the barren lawless mountains.

Tu n'y d
épendrais de personne.
Point d'officer
à qui tu doives obéir
Et point de retraite qui sonne
Pour dire
à l'amoureux qu'il est temps de partir.

Le ciel ouvert
La vie errante
Pour pays l'univers
Et pour loi ta volunt
Et surtout la chose enivrante

La liberté!

You would depend on nobody;
not a single officer whom you must obey
and not a single retreat which sounds
to tell the lover
that it is time to leave.

The open sky, the roaming life
for a country, the universe;
and for law, one's own free will,
and above all, the intoxicating thing


(Meilhac and Hal
évy, Carmen)

Both, in fact, are characterized by the absence of limitations, of "les arrêts de la vie," (the judgments of life) the Ocean-chart that the Bellman bought describes them well.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank"
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best
A perfect and absolute blank!"

(3) But precisely because they are free places, they are also lonely places of alienation, and the individual who finds himself there, whether by choice or fate, must from time to time, rightly or wrongly, be visited by desperate longings for home and company. So Ishmael, however he may convince himself that "in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God - so better is it to perish in that lonely infinite that be ingloriously dashed upon the lea, even if that were safety," nevertheless, as he squeezes out the whale sperm with his hands, he is compelled to reflect that "Happiness is not in the intellect or the fancy - but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country." So Ahab, on that final beautiful day before his encounter with Moby Dick, softens and calls despairingly to Starbuck: "Stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and child in thine eye. . . . It is a mild, mild wind, and a mild-looking meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay." Even that most passionate Don Quixote of absolute freedom, the Rimbaud of Bateau Ivre, is forced to confess

Je regrette l'Europe aux anciens parapets

I yearn for Europe with its ancient parapets

and to remember nostalgically a time of a more restricted loneliness when on a black cold pond

Un enfant accroupi, plein de tristesse, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.

A squatting child, full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

And so too in his moment of greatest anguish when the Ancient Mariner is

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!

he looks up yearningly to the moon and the stars and the blue sky which says the Gloss, "belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes." And when he repents, and the ship begins to move again, he is refreshed by the sound of the sails

A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.


As places of freedom and solitude the sea and the desert are symbolically the same. In other respects, however, they are opposites. E.g. the desert is the dried-up place, i.e. the place where life has ended, the Omega of temporal existence. Its first most obvious characteristic is that nothing moves; the second is that everything is surface and exposed. No soil, no hidden spring. The sea, on the other hand, is the Alpha of existence, the symbol of potentiality.

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save the
e –
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters wash'd them power when they were free,
And many a tyrant since; their shores obey
The stranger, slave, or savage; their decay
Has dried up realms to deserts:
not so thou;
Unchangeable, save to they wild waves' play,
Time notes no wrinkle on thine azure brow:
Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now.
(Childe Harold, Canto IV)

Its first most obvious characteristic is its perpetual motion, the violence of wave as tempest; its power may be destructive, but unlike that of the desert it is positive. Its second is the teeming life that lies hidden below the surface which, however dreadful, is greater than the visible: "As this appalling ocean surrounds on the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horror of the half-known life."
(Moby Dick)

The sea, then, is the symbol of primitive potential power as contrasted with the desert of actualized triviality, of living barbarism versus lifeless decadence.

The Oasis and the Happy Island

The sea and the desert are related to the city as its symbolic opposites. There is a third image, in the case of the sea the happy island, and in the case of the desert the oasis or rose garden, which stands related to both. It is like the city in that it is an enclosed place of safety and like the sea-desert in that it is a solitary or private place from which the general public are excluded and where the writ of law does not run. The primary idea with which the garden-island image is associated is, therefore, neither justice nor chastity but innocence; it is the earthly paradise where there is no conflict between natural desire and moral duty.

Thus Pindar sings in the second Olympian of the land of Hyperboreans

In sunshine ever fair
Abide the Good and all their nights and days
An equal splendor wear.
And never as of old with thankless toil
For their poor empty needs they vex the soil
And plough the watery seas
But dwelling with the glorious gods in ease
A tearless life they pass.

And Euripides in Hippolytus

To the strand of the Daughters of the sunset,
The apple tree, the singing and the gold;
Where the mariner must stay him from his onset
And the red wave is tranquil as of old;
Yea beyond that Pillar of the End
That Atlas guardeth, would I wend.

And the same nostalgia is common among the romantics, for l'innocent paradis, plein de plaisirs furtifs,- the sinless paradise of stolen joys - where

tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté
Luxe, calme et volupté.

all is order and leisure
Luxury, beauty and pleasure.

This image, in turn, has two possibilities. Either it is the real earthly paradise, in which case it is a place of temporary refreshment for the exhausted hero, a foretaste of rewards to come or the final goal and reward itself, where the beloved and blessed society are waiting to receive him into their select company; or it is a magical garden, an illusion created by black magic to tempt the hero to abandon his quest, and which, when the spell is broken, is seen to be really the desert of barren rock, or a place of horror like Calypso's Island, Klingsor's garden, or the Isle of Venus. (Maeldune's crew, when they first sight these islands, expect to enjoy themselves, i.e. they expect to be tempted to stay and be untrue to their mission, which is one of vengeance. What happens, however, is that the islands turn out to be places of danger which make them kill each other or commit suicide, i.e. they turn their aggressive feelings away from the absent object against themselves. Thus the islands become the means by which Maeldune and they are taught through suffering from hate that hate is hateful.)

The Romantic Oasis-Island

The image of the happy Prelapsarian Place appears often enough in Romantic literature but charged usually with a hopeless nostalgia. The examples which the romantic actually encounters turn out to be mirages or disappointing and dangerous deserts like the Encantadas of which Melville writes:

Change never comes neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows. No voice, no low, no howl is heard: the chief sound of life here is a hiss. In no world but a fallen one could such a land exist.

Where the population consists of
Men - 0
Anteaters - Unknown
Man-haters - Unknown
Lizards - 500,000
Snakes - 500,000
Spiders - 10,000,000
Salamanders - Unknown
Devils - Do. Do.

Eldorado turns out to be a reef, the island of Cythera is

- un terrain des plus maigres,
Un désert rocailleux troublé par des cris aigres

an island barren in terrain,
A mere deserted rock, disturbed by piercing cries
(Baudelaire, Voyage à Cythère)

When at last they landed on the shore where the Snarks were to be found

- the crew were not pleased with the view
Which consisted of chasms and crags.

And the natural surroundings of Lady Jingly Jones are in keeping with her lovelorn condition

On that coast of Coromandel
In his jug without a handle
Still she weeps and still she moans
On that little heap of stones.

The tempestuous liquid sea is dangerous enough but when it approaches the condition of the solid desert it is worse. E.g. the sand-bank of the Kentish Knock in The Wreck of the Deutschland (Gerard Manley Hopkins ) and the iceberg in Melville's poem

Hard Berg (methought), so cold, so vast,
With mortal damps self-overcast;
Exhaling still thy dankish breath -
Adrift dissolving, bound for death;
Though lumpish thou, a lumbering one -
A lumbering lubbard loitering slow,
Impingers rue thee and go down
Sounding they precipice below,
Nor stir the slimy slug that sprawls
Along thy dead indifference of walls.

And the Ancient Mariner's punishment begins when the sea becomes a counterfeit desert.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

To the romantic, that is, childhood is over, its island is astern, and there is no other. The only possible place of peace now lies under the waters.

Where lies the final harbor whence we unmoor no more? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them, the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
(Moby Dick)

The images of the Just City, of the civilized landscape protected by the Madonna, the "Fior', fronde, erbe, ombre, antri, onde, aure soavi" (flowers, leaves, grass, woods, grots, rills, gentle air - Petrarch) which look at us from so many Italian paintings, and of the rose garden or island of the blessed, are lacking in Romantic literature because the Romantic writers no longer believe in their existence. What exists is the Trivial Unhappy Unjust City, the desert of the average from which the only escape is to the wild, lonely, but still vital sea. The Desert has become, in fact, an image of modern civilization in which innocence and the individual are alike destroyed.

The Level Desert

None of the writers we are discussing had much good to say for the laissez-faire democracy. Rimbaud's poem on that subject expresses an attitude shared by most of them.


The flag is in keeping with the unclean landscape, and our jargon drowns the sound of the drums.

At certain centres we will encourage the most cynical prostitution. We will crush logical rebellion.

Let us go to dusty and exhausted countries - put ourselves at the service of monstrous industrial or military exploitations.

"To our next meeting - here - no matter where?"

Conscripts of good intentions we shall have a ferocious philosophy. Dunces shall be devotees of knowledge, sybarites enthusiasts for comfort; and for this busy world there shall be no dissolution.

This is real progress! Forward! March!
(Les Illuminations)

And Baudelaire foresaw a democratic future when "the son will run away from the family not at eighteen but at twelve, emancipated by his gluttonous precocity; he will fly; not to seek heroic adventures, not to deliver a beautiful prisoner from a tower, not to immortalize a garret with sublime thoughts, but to found a business, to enrich himself and to compete with his infamous papa" and the daughter, "with an infantile wantonness, will dream in her cradle that she sells herself for a million.

They did not feel like this because they disbelieved in individual freedom, but precisely because, passionately believing in it, they saw urban democracy as they knew it, destroying the heroic individual and turning him into a cypher of the crowd, or a mechanical cogwheel in an impersonal machine.

What Baudelaire stigmatizes as l'esprit belge, what Jack Chase means when he says, "let us hate the public and cleave to the people," what Lear means by They in such a limerick as

There was an old man of Whitehaven
Who danced a quadrille with a raven
They said: It's absurd
To encourage this bird
So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven.

is dealt with most fully by Kierkegaard:

The man who has no opinion of the actual moment accepts the opinion of the majority, or if he is quarrelsome, of the minority. But it must be remembered that both majority and minority are real people, and that is why the individual is assisted by adhering to them. A public, on the contrary, is an abstraction . . . A public is neither a nation, nor a generation, nor a community, nor these particular men, for all these are only what they are though the concrete; no single person who belongs to the public makes a real commitment; for some hours of the day, perhaps, he belongs to the public - at moments when he is nothing else, since when he is really what he is he does not form part of the public. Made up of such individuals, of individuals at the moments when they are nothing, a public is a kind of gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void which is everything and nothing.
(Thoughts on the Present Age)

So, too, Wordsworth saw the London crowds:

The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end.
(Prelude, VII.700 - 704)

Again, although it has struck many readers as unjust, Coleridge was imaginatively correct in allowing all the companions of the Ancient Mariner to die. The latter has sinned by shooting the Albatross, but the sin is a personal act for which he can suffer and repent. The rest of the crew react collectively as a crowd, not as persons. First they blame him because they think he has killed the bird that made the breeze to blow, then they praise him for having killed the bird that brought the fog and mist, and then when the ship is becalmed, they turn on him again and hang the albatross around his neck. That is to say, they are an irresponsible crowd and since, as such, they can take no part in the Mariner's personal repentance, they must die to be got out of the way.

The Mechanized Desert

If, in the overlarge, industrialized cities against which the romantic poets protest, the masses during their hours of leisure lack any real common bond of love or commitment and turn into crowds, in their working hours they tend to become mere instruments of their particular function, to have no existence over and above what they do to earn their living.

With the exception of the Beaver, the Bellman's crew in The Hunting of the Snark have no names, only jobs, Boots, Maker of Bonnets and Hoods, Barrister, Billiard Marker, Banker, Butcher, and Baker (the reason why the last is said to have forgotten his name, we shall consider later). It is not that they are passionate about these jobs, dedicated to them by a personal choice, no, these are just what they happen to do. The best portrait of this depersonalized technician is the Carpenter of the Pequod, "a strict abstract" who "works by a deaf and dumb spontaneous literal process, a pure manipulator: his brain, if he ever had one, must have early oozed along with the muscles of his fingers." He is a solitary who has no relationships with human beings, only with wood and his tools, without being a simple individual. Then he continually talks to himself, but is incapable of a real dialogue of self with self, only a meaningless stream of free associations set off by the actions of his fingers, soliloquising "like the whirring wheel - to keep himself awake."

Drat the file, and drat the bone! That is hard which should be soft, and that is soft which should be hard. So we go, who file old jaws and shinbones. Let's try another. Aye, now this works better (sneezes). Halloa, this bone dust is (sneezes) - why it's (sneezes) - yes, it's (sneezes) bless my soul, it won't let me speak! This is what an old fellow gets now for workint in dead lumber. Saw a live tree, and you don't get this dust; amputate a live bone, and you don't get it (sneezes). Come, come, you old Smut, there, bear a hand, and let's have that ferule and buckle-screw; I'll be ready for them presently. Lucky now (sneezes) there's no knee-joint to make; that might puzzle a little; but a mere shinbone - why it's easy as making hop-poles; only I should like tot put a good finish on. Time, time; if I but only had the time, I could turn him out as neat a leg now as ever scraped to a lady in a parlor . . . There! before I saw it off, now, I must call his old Mogulship, and see whether the length will be all right; too short, if anything, I guess. Ha! that's the heel; we are in luck; here he comes, or it's somebody else, that's certain.
(Moby Dick, chapter CVIII)

What has happened, in fact is the disappearance of a true community, i.e. a group of rational beings associated with the basis of a common love. Societies still exist, i.e. organisations of talents for the sake of a given function. Communities and societies are not identical, i.e. a cello player in a string quartet, who hates music because he must eat and playing the cello is all he knows, is a member of a society; he is not a member of the community of music lovers, but i a healthy culture societies exist as differentiated units inside a common community.

In a society, where the structure and relation of its members to each other is determined by the function for which the society exists and not by their personal choice, the whole is more real than the sum of its parts. In a community, on the other hand, which is determined by the subjective verbs Love or Believe, I always precedes We. In a closed traditional community this fact is hidden, because the I is only potential. The believer by tradition is unconscious of any alternative to his belief - he has only heard of one kind of snark, and therefore cannot doubt. The further civilization moves towards the open condition in which every man is conscious that there are snarks that have feathers and bite and snarks that have whiskers and scratch, the sharper becomes the alternative: either personal choice and through the sum of such choices an actual community or the annihilation of personality and the dissolution of community into crowds.

A cartoon by Charles Addams which appeared some years ago in The New Yorker illustrates admirably the urban situation in which individuality is lost. It shows a residential street in New York. Along the pavement a motionless line of spectators is staring at a little man with an umbrella engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a large octopus which has emerged from a manhole in the middle of the street. Behind the crowd two men with brief-cases are walking along without bothering to turn their heads and one is saying to the other, "It doesn't take much to collect a crowd in New York."

The cartoon contains three groups:
(1) The majority crowd, no member of which dares move unless the rest do so, so that all remain passive spectators and not one steps out to help the man in trouble and, by doing so, to become an individual.
(2) The minority crowd who are, indeed, acting (they are walking, not standing still) but whose actions and feelings are negatively conditioned by the majority, i.e. what they do is not their personal choice, but whatever it may be that the majority does not do.
(3) The single man struggling with the octopus. He is a real individual, yet even with him, the question arises: "Would he be standing out there in the street by himself if the octopus had not attacked him?" i.e. if he had not been compelled by a fate outside his personal control to become the exceptional individual. There is even a suggestion about his bourgeois umbrella of a magician's wand. Could it be possible that, desiring to become an individual yet unable to do so by himself, he has conjured up a monster from the depths of the sea to break the spell of reflection, and free him from being a member of the crowd?

It is not only the little man in the bowler hat, however, who is in danger of loss of individuality. As Nietzsche perceived, the brilliant scholarly mind is, in modern civilization, even more threatened -

However gratefully one may welcome the objective spirit - and who has not been sick to death of all subjectivity and its confounded ipsissimosity - in the end, however, one must learn caution, even with regard to one's gratitude, and put a stop to the exaggeration with which the unselfing and depersonalizing of the spirit has recently been celebrated, as if it were the goal in itself, as if it were a salvation and glorification - as is especially accustomed to happen in the pessimist school, which has also in tis turn good reasons for paying the highest honors to "disinterested knowlege." The objective man, who no longer curses and scolds like the pessimist, the ideal man of learning in whom the scientific instinct blossoms forth fully after a thousand complete and partial failures, is surely one of the most costly instruments that exist, but his place is in the hand of one who is more powerful. He is only an instrument - we may say he is a mirror, he is not "purpose in himself." The objective man is in truth a mirror. Accustomed to the prostration before everything that wants to be known, with such desires only as knowing and reflecting imply - he waits until something comes, and then expands himself sensitively, so that even the lightest footsteps and gliding past of spiritual beings may not be lost on his surface and film. Whatever "personality" he still possesses seems to him accidental, arbitrary, of still oftener disturbing: so much has he come to regard himself as the passage and reflection of outside forms and events. He calls up the recollection of "himself" with an effort. He readily confounds himself with other people, he makes mistakes with regard to his own needs, and here only is he unrefined and negligent. Perhaps he is troubled about the health, or the pettiness and confined atmosphere of wife and friend, or the lack of companions and society - and indeed, he sets himself to reflect on his suffering, but in vain! His thoughts already rove away to the more general case, and tomorrow he knows as little as he knew yesterday how to help himself. He does not now take himself seriously and devote time to himself: he is serene, not from lack of troubles, but from lack of capacity for grasping and dealing with his trouble. The habitual complaisance with respect to all objects and experiences, the radiant and impartial hospitality with which he receives everything that comes his way, his habit of inconsiderate good nature, of dangerous indifference to Yea and Nay . . . Should one wish Love or Hatred from him - and I mean Love and Hatred as God, woman and animal understand them, he wil do what he can, and furnish what he can. But one must not be surprised if it should not be much - if he should show himself just at this point to be false, fragile, and rather un tour de force, a slight ostentation and and exaggeration. He is only genuine so far as he can be objective; only in his serene totality is he still "nature" and "natural." His mirroring and eternally self-polishing soul no longer knows how to affirm, no longer how to deny; he does not command; neither does he destroy. "Je ne méprise presque rien" - he says with Leibnitz: let us not overlook nor undervalue the presque!
(Beyond Good and Evil)

If a community dissolves, the societies, which remain so long as human beings wish to remain alive, must, left to themselves, grow more and more mechanical. And such real individuals as are left must become Ishmaels, "isolatoes, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each isolatoe living in a separate continent of his own"; Hamlet is at the mercy of reflection and melancholia.

What it feels like to be such an isolatoe, who cannot take the crowd way and become a grain of the desert sand, but is left standing alone in the wide waste, is described similarly but most of them.

Thus Coleridge:

A grief without a pang, void, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear -
O Lady! In this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle wooed,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze - and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudiness, starless lake of blue,
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Thus Baudelaire:

Rien n'égale en longeur les boiteuses journées
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L'ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l'immortalité.

- Désormais tu n'es plus, o matière vivante!
Qu'un granit entoure d'une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d'un Sahara brumeux,
Un veiux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l'humeur farouche
Ne-chante qu'aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

Nothing is longer than the limping days
When under heavy snowflakes of the years
Ennui, the fruit of dulling lassitude,
Takes on the size of immortality.

- Henceforth, o living flesh, you are no more!
You are of granite, wrapped in a vague dread,
Slumbering in some Sahara's hazy sands,
An ancient sphinx lost to a careless world,
Forgotten on the map, whose haughty mood
Sings only in the glow of setting sun.

Thus Melville:

It is a damp drizzly November in my soul; - I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet . . . it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off.
(Moby Dick, chapter I)

And Mallarmé in a sentence:

La chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres.

The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books.

The grand explanatory image of this condition is of course Dürer's Melancholia. She sits unable to sleep yet unable to work, surrounded by unfinished works and unused tools, the potential fragments of the city which she has the knowledge but not the will to build, tormented by a batlike creature with a board, bearing figures, and, behind her, a dark sea, a rainbow and a comet.
What is the cause of her suffering? That, surrounded by every possibility, she cannot find within herself of without the necessity to realize one rather than another. Urban society is, like the desert, a place without limits. The city walls of tradition, mythos and cultus have crumbled. There is no direction in which Ishmael is forbidden or forcibly prevented from moving. The only outside "necessities" are the random winds of fashion or the lifeless chains of a meaningless job, which, so long as he remains an individual, he can and will reject. At the same time, however, he fails to find a necessity within himself to take their place. So he must take drastic measures and go down to the waters, though in a very different sense from those f which St. John of the Cross speaks:

Y' el cerco sosegaba
Y la caballeria
A vista de las aguas descendia

The seige was intermitted and the cavalry dismounted at the sight of the waters.
("Song of the Soul and the Bridegroom")

For the waters to which Ishmael goes are bitter and medicinal.

God help me! save I take my part
Of danger on the roaring sea,
A devil rises in my heart
For worse than any death to me.
(Tennyson, "The Sailor Boy")

Fleeing to the ship where "the sons of adversity meet the children of calamity and the children of calamity meet the offspring of sin," yet, at least, facing a common death, he and they are bound into a true community, so unlike the landsmen children of Abel of whom Baudelaire says

Race d'Abel tu crois et broutes
Comme les punaises des bois.

Race of Abel, you grow and graze
Like wood fleas.

And then out to sea, for there in the ocean wastes, the Paternal Power may still be felt though but as dreadful tempest, and there still dwell the Mother-Goddess though she appear but in her most malignant aspects, as the castrating white whale to Ahab, as the Life-in-Death to the Ancient Mariner

Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,

as the ghoul Ice-maiden to Gordon Pym.

And now we rushed into the embrace of the cataract where a chasm threw itself open to recieve us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow.

Or, worst of all, the dreadful Boojum of Nothingness. Shipwreck is probable, but at least it will be a positive Death.

Je partirai! steamer balancant ta mâture
Lève l'ancre pour une exotique nature!
Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs
Croit encoure à l'adieu supreme des mouchoirs!
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages,
Sont-ils de ceux qu'un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots . . .
Mais, ô mon couer, entends les chants des matelots!

I will leave! Steamer swaying your exotic masts
Raise your anchor for an exotic nature!
A Boredom, saddened by cruel hopes,
Still believes in the final farewell of the handkerchiefs!
And, perhaps, the masts, inviting storms
Are among those that a wind leans over lost wrecks,
Without masts, without masts, and no fertile islets . . .
But, oh my heart, listen to the song of the sailors!