The Oxford Book of the Sea 
edited by Jonathan Raban.
Oxford, 524 pp., £17.95, April 1992, 9780192141972
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The last few years​  have been rich in Oxford Books, and I have read three of them: 18th-Century Verse and 18th-Century Women Poets, both edited with great skill and erudition by Roger Lonsdale, and Travel Verse, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. When I say ‘read them’ I mean I have dipped copiously, as one usually does with anthologies, sometimes taking years to digest the whole. They all addressed a finite but considerable field (there were many more women, much better poets, than I had supposed) and it seemed to me that they did so most successfully. The fourth to come my way was the Book of the Sea, and this time I read the whole collection right through, together with the preface; perhaps this was not the cleverest way of dealing with the book.

Before ever I began my heart felt for the editor. Pope had not gone far into his Homer before he hoped that somebody would hang him, and the same wish may well have filled Mr Raban’s bosom: the subject is so enormous and it has been considered time out of mind from so many points of view – physical, metaphysical, oceanographical, navigational, as a place for battle, swimming, fishing, drowning, shipwreck – that the boldest mind might falter. It appears that his first intention was to put together a book about the sea and the sea only, not about men’s doings on it or on its shore: Rachel Carson’s splendid The Sea Around Us was a perfect example of this kind of writing, deeply informed, lucid, accessible; so were the works of some others who deal with the physics of waves and the like without growing too mathematical; and the limits could be made to include Poe’s ‘Maelstrom’, Belloc on the Portland Race and a few more. They were to be supplemented by other pieces in which the sea was the essence of the matter.

Yet even if Mr Raban’s first notion had been realised it would probably have made but a slender volume. As it is, the much fuller book begins with the strangely and partly comprehensible extract from the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer, which is as much about the farer as the sea, and then goes on to Canto XII of The Faerie Queene, in which the water is only the medium for one of those interminable allegorical voyages in which the Pilgrim just manages to escape such perils as the Gulfe of Greedinesse, the Rocke of Reproach and the quick sand of unthriftiness: little more real suspense than there is in Paradise Lost, but at least this was an ocean well-stocked with monsters:

No wonder, if these did the knight appall;
For all that here on earth we dreadful hold,
Be but as bugs to fearen babes withall,
Compared to the creatures in the seas entrall.

After Spenser a little Hakluyt, the obligatory Psalm 107, some Chapman, Donne, Dryden and so to Addison, whose Spectator essay, in the editor’s opinion, raised the sea, with its ‘agreeable horrour’, to the category of Sublime, thus (with a great deal of help from Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful) doing much to fix the attitude that is still current.

Yet I feel that Raban may be mistaken: it is true that I cannot off-hand quote any earlier pieces of verse or prose celebrating the sea’s sublimity, but there are many paintings that did so long before Addison: one has but to think of the younger Van de Velde’s Resolution in a gale, close-hauled under courses, making her way into a sea as sublime as even Turner could have wished. Then again he cites Falconer’s The Shipwreck as an epic that tries to marry the theories of Addison and Burke (‘agreeable horrour’ in the one, and in the other ‘terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime’) with the management of a ship in a storm. Fair enough, but he goes on to say that the poem ‘wallows fashionably in delightful horror’ and that just does not seem to me the case: Falconer certainly does ‘deplore/Th’ impervious horrors of a leeward shore’, but his people, with three exceptions, come to a vividly described and very far from delightful end in which he took no pleasure at all.

Up until about this time Raban seems to have found little to suit his purpose; but once sea-bathing, seaside holidays, Romanticism and sailing for pleasure, usually in small boats, were firmly established, a great wealth or at least a great quantity of writing became available for the anthologist. Not much of it, however, was of the pure, solely marine nature that the editor had thought of in the first place, nor was much of it very good; and once the obvious splendours were set in place, the choice of the rest must have posed many a problem. Broadly speaking, the sea has produced few Cobbetts: in this collection I remember only Franklin and Dana as being capable of giving a spare, direct account of the ocean upon which they travelled. Many of the others, including those who, like solitary yachtsmen, know a great deal about the sea, seem, when confronted with its immensity, to despair of making themselves understood in an ordinary voice; they tend to strike attitudes, to write in a shout, using many exclamation marks and flogging the pathetic fallacy for all and more than it’s worth: the relentless tide, the savage breakers, the gale ‘shouting and moaning then in anger and torment as we steadily pressed our iron into its ponderable body’.

To return to the necessary choices: I thought Walter’s account of Anson’s squadron in the Le Maire Strait very fine – this was a true sea-man’s sea – and Cowper’s ‘Castaway’ (related to an incident in Walter) prodigious. Then there was ‘The Ancient Mariner’, wrecked for me in boyhood by rote-learning, a dislike for the pseudo-archaic ‘unhand me, grey-beard loon’, and by parodies; but now, having just finished Richard Holmes’s admirable Coleridge: Early Visions, I read it again, and very glad I am that I did so. The sea, the ship and her company may not belong to this world in any literal sense, but at times they blaze with a most uncommon splendour.

And how thoroughly enjoyable Byron can be; indeed, it seems to me that the sea comes off better at the hands of poets than of those whose prose strives earnestly upwards, and this applies to modern or fairly modern poets too (though it must be admitted that Pound’s attempt on The Seafarer is more like fumed oak than could be wished: ‘This he little believes, who aye in winsome life/Abides ’midst burghers some heavy business’). Elizabeth Bishop is a delight to read; Thom Gunn contributes a charming piece on surfriding; and Marianne Moore, considering the sea as a grave, has a line

the birds swim through the air top speed,
            uttering catcalls as herefore

that completely deflates A.R. Wetjen, who comes just before her and who says ‘At the last, when you have sailed long enough and far enough, you come to understand that the sea is everything. It is calm and restless, stormy and laughing, many-hued and one-coloured, salty and fresh, warm and cold, an enemy and a friend, a help and a hindrance, a tragedy and a jest ... It is like a woman, a beautiful warm-eyed woman, with magic hands and a whispering voice, with a warm heart and a sad smile; a woman you love ...’ The thing about women is more general than I had supposed, and sometimes it reaches surprising heights: this is from John Fowles’s Shipwreck: ‘No other element has such accreted layers of significance for us, such complex archetypal meaning. The sea’s moods and uses sex it. It is the great creatrix, feeder, womb and vagina, place of pleasure; the gentlest thing on earth, the most maternal, the most seductive whore, and handsomely the most faithless.’

There are of course many, many pieces of admirable prose: Melville, a strange man if ever there was one and apt to use strange expressions such as ‘our urn-like prow’, which would have made Nelson stare: a fine satirical young Scotswoman called Frances Calderon de la Barca whose Life in Mexico (1843) I shall certainly send for; Stephen Crane, so good and true; Gosse; Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others by the score. But it is the verse that stays in my mind as the most valuable part of the book.

This may to some extent be because verse is more self-sufficient, self-contained, and can be cut, as so often it has to be cut for an anthology of this kind, without mortal danger. The extract from Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, for instance, stands quite well by itself. Whereas prose, particularly continuous narrative, may suffer very much indeed. Dana and his shipmates had a perfectly horrible time trying to round the Horn eastward in winter: again and again they had to turn back because of icebergs; they had no chronometer; observations were rare; they were snowed upon, rained upon, soaked by heavy seas, never dry. And we are in the midst of this delightful horror when all at once, with only a slight blank to show the cut, we are most disconcertingly on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The same can be said of several other passages. Unless you know about Cherry-Garrard and his The Worst Journey in the World it is very difficult to make out what is going on at all, or why.

There are those who took no delight in the sea. Johnson’s views on the sailor’s life are well known, and here Boswell, describing their voyage from Skye to Coll, states that he was ‘quite in a state of annihilation’. Coleridge, going to sea for the first time (he had already written ‘The Ancient Mariner’), was exceedingly disappointed; and Lamb, in a closely-reasoned essay accounting for dissatisfaction at a first sight of the sea, says ‘Who, in similar circumstances ... has not been tempted to exclaim with Charoba, in the poem of Gebir, ‘Is this the mighty ocean? is this all?’ Auden had no great opinion of it either: in The Enchaféd Flood he observes: ‘The sea, in fact, is that state of barbarous vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation 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.’

Yet what they missed, poor souls: not only the greater part of the world’s surface, not only Leviathan and the Portuguese man-of-war, but the urgent, living sheet in one’s hand, the tiller under the crook of one’s knee, the profound satisfaction of going about with a perfectly smooth economy and filling on the other tack.

Away and away I sail in my light boat;
My heart leaps with a great gust of joy

wrote Lu Yu in the 12th century, and one knows exactly what he meant.

These delights and many others are gathered in the present anthology, together with a mass of more intellectual pleasures, the result of the most painstaking scientific research (William Baseom had to drive an amphibious vehicle through the surf on the roughest beach in the States, right through, to measure the huge breakers on the outer bar and then get back alive: this he did again and again); and although the ideal Book of the Sea, the whole sea and nothing but the sea, has yet to be written, this foretaste of it makes a very agreeable companion.

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