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Sea of Words 

In the way that most things written harken to Homer, the Odyssey tells us of the joy of joining the sea to flee landlock-ness:

Straight from the direful coast to purer air

I speed my flight, and to my mates repair.

My mates ascend the ship; they strike their oars;

Swift oÕer the waves we fly; the freshening gales

Sing through the shrouds, and stretch the swelling sails.

There is naturally quite another side to the spread and slide of water on the planet, one noted by Joseph Conrad in The Nigger of the Narcissus as he described sailors tying down sails against a coming storm:

É the roar of the seas seething far below them sounded continuous and faint, like an indistinct noise from another world: the wind filled their eyes with tears and with heavy gusts tried to push them off from where they swayed in insecure positions. With streaming faces and blowing hair they flew up and down between sky and water. É Their thoughts floated vaguely between the desire of rest and the desire of life. É Their lips moved É but the winds tossed their words unheard upon the disturbed sea.

Modernity has wrapped man-at-sea in iron instead of wood, which has many pluses, but some minuses, too, as Herman Wouk explained in his World War II novel The Caine Mutiny:

The stormÕs best recourse in the contest for the shipÕs life is old-fashioned bogeyman terror. It makes ghastly noises and horrible faces and shakes up the captain to distract him from doing the sensible thing in tight moments. If the wind can toss the ship sideways long enough, it can probably damage the engines or kill them Ñ and then it wins. Because above all, the ship must be kept steaming under control. It suffers under one disadvantage as a drifting hulk, compared to the old wooden sailing ship: iron doesnÕt float.

With dangers of those sorts always lurking, it's not surprising that men who chose to face the sea would have unique attitudes toward their peers. Stephen Crane alluded to it in Open Boat:

It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. ... It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety É there was this comradeship that the correspondent É knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.

Richard Henry Dana, whose nonfiction Two Years Before the Mast was an antebellum best seller, spoke of this comradeship in more prosaic terms, the loss of one:

Then, too, at sea É you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. É You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.

Of course, when a man faces oceanic comforts and perils alone, he will likely anthropomorphize his surroundings. Here's the title character in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea:

He always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who lover her say bad things of her, but they are always said as though she were a woman.

In Peter Matthiessen's 1975 Far Tortuga, his protagonist is a Caribbean man who captains a turtle-hunting boat:

The men on deck watch their shipmates disappear. They do not speak for a long time. Raif picks up a torn net and begins to mend it, but soon his hands stop; he gazes out to sea.

ÒDat ocean look so old in de morning time.Ó

Then, of course, there's the ship herself. Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools is more about fools than ships, but even those self-absorbed types feel the communion between carrier and carried:

The passengers examined their ship with the interest and the strange dawning of affection even the ugliest ship can inspire, feeling that whatever business they had was not transferred finally to her hold and cabins.

In The Red Rover, James Fenimore Cooper was more effusive on the subject:

There is a high and exquisite taste É which may be likened to the sensibilities that an artist acquires. É It teaches him to detect those imperfections which would escape a less instructed eye and it heightens the pleasure with which a ship at sea is gazed at, by enabling the mind to keep even pace with the enjoyment of the senses.

Finally, there is the symbolism of that which sails on the sea -- and even the sea itself. Here are examples of "freedom symbolism," first championing governance, then its absence. The first is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Building of the Ship:

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

Then there is Captain Nemo, commanding the Nautilus in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can 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 masterÕs voice. There I am free.

Pardon some mixed-up metaphors: In the oceans of words out there, there are islands of books about those who deal with those afloat and what lies between the top of the water and the bottom. Islands named James Michener, Jack London, Eugene O'Neill, Marianne Moore, Patrick Bryan, William Brinkley, etc.:

Anchors aweigh.

Can't get enough of Ronnie Virgets? Watch him and his daughter's family (the Mackeys) compete on Family Feud, beginning Wednesday. Family Feud airs at 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday on WGNO TV 26.

click to enlarge In the oceans of words out there, there are islands of books - about those who deal with those afloat and what lies - between the top of the water and the bottom.
  • In the oceans of words out there, there are islands of books about those who deal with those afloat and what lies between the top of the water and the bottom.
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