Sunday, June 6, 2010

At Sea In An Open Boat: Louis MacNeice And W. R. Rodgers

The metaphor of life as a sea voyage is a time-honored one.  In these two poems, Louis MacNeice and W. R. Rodgers see it as a perilous voyage in an open boat, amidst looming waves, in an icy sea, beneath a tilting sky . . .


Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge --
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch --
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church --
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose record shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life.  Put out to sea.

"Thalassa" was found in Louis MacNeice's papers after his death in 1963.  The date of its composition is unknown.  (An aside: "Thalassa!  Thalassa!" (or, "Thalatta!  Thalatta!")  -- the cry of the Greek mercenaries in Xenophon's Anabasis -- is explored by Tim Rood in his delightful The Sea! The Sea!: The Shout of the Ten Thousand in the Modern Imagination.)

The following poem is by W. R. Rodgers (1909-1969), who, like MacNeice, was born in Northern Ireland.  He and MacNeice were acquaintances.

     Life's Circumnavigators

Here, where the taut wave hangs
Its tented tons, we steer
Through rocking arch of eye
And creaking reach of ear,
Anchored to flying sky,
And chained to changing fear.

O when shall we, all spent,
Row in to some far strand,
And find, to our content,
The original land
From which our boat once went,
Though not the one we planned.

Us on that happy day
This fierce sea will release,
On our rough face of clay,
The final glaze of peace.
Our oars we all will lay
Down, and desire will cease.

                    Caspar David Friedrich, "The Sea of Ice" (1824)


Rusty Mason said...

I prefer Thalatta! to Thalassa! for the war cry. The Attic reminds me also of hard war and hard spears, the other of the sound of waves only.

Nice site, thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rusty Mason: thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words. I like your distinction between the alternative versions of the word. I guess I'm partial to Thalassa, for the reason you state.

Thanks again.