Still, one cannot underestimate the calming effect of having an expanse of water to look out on, whether it be bright blue and glittering, iron grey, or any of the infinite variations in between. The sight has lightened my soul on innumerable occasions. "Given my heart/A change of mood/And saved some part/Of a day I had rued," as Robert Frost wrote of a different landscape.
"The sea is a mirror, not only to the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but to all one's dreams, to all one's speculations. . . . The sea tells us that everything is changing and that nothing ever changes, that tides go out and return, that all existence is a rhythm; neither calm nor storm breaks the rhythm, only hastens or holds it back for a moment."
Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands (1918), page 296.
Yet there is, withal, an abiding otherness to the sea.
The Tuft of Kelp
All dripping in tangles green,
Cast up by a lonely sea
If purer for that, O Weed,
Bitterer, too, are ye?
Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).
I have often encountered tufts of kelp along the strand, high and dry amid the flotsam and jetsam, and they do have a strange and otherworldly aspect to them. They emanate a sense of loneliness that goes beyond being out of their element.
John Brett, "The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs" (1871)
The sea's impassive face may induce serenity and reverie, but that impassivity is a mask: upon it and below it lie strangeness and mystery. Arthur Symons speaks of the sea as a mirror of the sky, but I think of the sea and the sky as parallel and complementary unfathomable worlds whose depths we can never plumb. We mustn't be seduced or misled by Science, which is always willing to provide us with "explanations" that tell us nothing. Scientists possess no knowledge that can touch the secrets of the sea and the sky.
By the Sea
Why does the sea moan evermore?
Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
All earth's full rivers cannot fill
The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.
Sheer miracles of loveliness
Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
Blow flower-like; just enough alive
To blow and multiply and thrive.
Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
Are born without a pang, and die
Without a pang, and so pass by.
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875). Rossetti uses the word "blow" (lines 9 and 10) in its common pre-20th century sense: "to blossom."
John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)
When I went out for a walk this past Wednesday afternoon, the sky was a dull grey-white. I found myself wishing for a brilliant blue sky. I then realized how misguided I was. The world is always just what it is, and is perfect just as it is. Who am I to cavil if it fails to meet my expectations? I felt ungrateful.
As I walked, I noticed how lovely the deepening green boughs of the trees looked swaying against the grey sky. The swallows paid the dull sky no mind: they curved and dived above the tall wild grasses in the meadows, taking their evening meal. "Sheer miracles of loveliness" indeed surround us on all sides and at all times.
The World Below the Brine
The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle,
openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of
light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and
the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by
beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1860).
Whitman and Rossetti lived in the 19th century, a time that lacked our access to the technology that now enables us to see in vivid detail the heretofore "unlooked-on bed" of "the world below the brine." But mere seeing is not the end of the story, is it? The wonder expressed by Whitman and Rossetti remains, for that wonder is a product of the recognition of the other mysterious beings with whom we share the world.
John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)
Today, I was given a sunny day, although I had not asked for it. Beside the path down which I walked, I saw white field daisies, pink-purple sweet peas, and the white blossoms of blackberry bushes. Puget Sound and the sky were blue on top of blue, merging in the distance. Which was mirroring which?
"[A]s ecstasy is only possible to one who is conscious of the possibility of despair, so the sea, as it detaches us from the world and our safeguards and our happy forgetfulnesses, and sets us by ourselves, as momentary as the turn of a wave, and mattering hardly more to the universe, gives us, if we will take them, moments of almost elemental joy."
Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands, page 297.
I would respectfully disagree with Symons to this extent: it is not solely the sea that has the capacity to provide us with "elemental joy." Nor would I qualify "elemental joy" with "almost."
The message of all these worlds -- earth, water, and sky -- is the same: Never take anything for granted.
On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.
Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 48.
John Brett, "The Norman Archipelago (Channel Islands)" (1885)