In saying this, I do not intend to scant the particular evocative qualities of, say, mountains or forests or cornfields or streams. For instance, I have said here before that I would be happy to spend eternity lying beneath the boughs of a tree on a sunny day as the fluttering leaves -- in kaleidoscopic shades of green, shot through with sunlight, set against a blue sky -- whisper and rustle overhead in a soft breeze. "The wings/Of doves among dim branches far above." "Noon a purple glow."
Still, the coming-to-the-end-of-things feeling that haunts seasides is unique in its reverie-inducing qualities. The feeling is equivocal and complex. You may feel that you have exhausted all possibilities by arriving at the margins of land. On the other hand, you may feel, as you gaze outward, that the possibilities are endless. It depends on the day. It depends on how your life has turned out.
The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush
Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable. A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.
While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.
Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).
Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)
My beloved poets of the 1890s seem to have existed in a state of perpetual reverie. "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream." Hence, it is not surprising that, in their poems, we often encounter them sunk in thought in lonely autumn seaside villages or reclining on deep-green hillside swards above deep-blue harbors. I find this very alluring.
Brittany was the favorite place of escape for Ernest Dowson. Here is the final stanza of his "In a Breton Cemetery," which has appeared here in the past:
And now night falls,
Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
And dear dead people with pale hands
Beckon me to their lands.
But Dieppe, not Brittany, was the quintessential seaside destination of the poets of the Nineties. It offered them the best of both fin de siècle worlds: a hint of urban decadence (bars and casinos) in a dreamlike natural landscape consisting of, by turns, fog, blinding sunlight, and mist. All unfolding on the edge of eternity. With lurid sunsets.
The pale grey sea crawls stealthily
Up the pale lilac of the beach;
A bluer grey, the waters reach
To where the horizon ends the sea.
Flushed with a tinge of dusky rose,
The clouds, a twilit lavender,
Flood the low sky, and duskier
The mist comes flooding in, and flows
Into the twilight of the land,
And darkness, coming softly down,
Rustles across the fading sand
And folds its arms about the town.
Arthur Symons, Amoris Victima (Leonard Smithers 1897). According to a note which accompanies the poem in his Collected Works, Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on August 22, 1895.
As I have observed in the past, no one does this sort of thing better than the Nineties poets. Of course, they are regarded as quaint and old-fashioned caricatures by moderns, who can only evaluate the past in terms of their own debilitating and distancing irony. They cannot conceive of the possibility that the poets of the Nineties wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.
Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)
I sometimes imagine myself in my final years. I see myself living in a small seaside town. Any town, any sea, any country will do. Each day I walk slowly along a promenade beside the sea. The tides go in and out. Along the promenade, at intervals, are deciduous trees. Any type will do. Each year, until the end, I watch the leaves come and go and the tides go in and out. All possibilities will have been exhausted. Yet the possibilities will still be endless.
September in Great Yarmouth
The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.
Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.
Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.
The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'
Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).
Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"
My daily walk takes me past a large meadow that slopes gently down for a quarter-mile or so to a bluff beside Puget Sound. The meadow is covered with tall grasses, with a wild rose bush here and there. At this time of year a single patch of purple-pink and purple-white sweet peas -- a rough circle about 30 or 40 feet in diameter -- is abloom in the center of the meadow, about halfway to the edge of the bluff. Beyond the meadow the water stretches away to green-blue islands and to the Olympic Mountains.
The world is indeed Paradise. Which we tend to forget. I know I do.
O is it death or life
That sounds like something strangely known
In this subsiding out of strife,
This slow sea-monotone?
A sound, scarce heard through sleep,
Murmurous as the August bees
That fill the forest hollows deep
About the roots of trees.
O is it life or death,
O is it hope or memory,
That quiets all things with this breath
Of the eternal sea?
Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Elkin Matthews and John Lane 1892). Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on June 20, 1890. It is part of a six-poem sequence titled "At Dieppe."
Richard Eurich, "Fawley Beach" (1939)