( Originally Published 1908 )
The sea ever baffles description. It is a living thing, pulsating with energy, and, possessed of a subtle consciousness, elusive and full of moods — changeable as woman and as incomprehensible. Now it is tender and appealing ; again distant and cold. Perhaps it is because of its essentially feminine traits that it so beguiles. Certainly it fascinates as nothing else fascinates in Nature.
There is what may be called a sense of the sea, which is indefinable. No lesser body of water, no other aspect of Nature affords this. It is in the air, like a touch of autumn, and we know it as much through feeling as through seeing. The coast is saturated for some distance inland with this presence of the sea, much as the beach is soaked with salt water. It is music and poetry to the soul and as elusive as they, wrapping us in dreams and yielding fugitive glimpses of that which we may never grasp, but which skirts, like a beautiful phantom, the mind's horizon. Like music, it is an opiate, and unlocks for us new states of mind in which we wander, as in halls of alabaster and mother-of-pearl, but where, alas, we may not linger. We can as readily sound the ocean as fathom the feelings it inspires. It is too deep for thought. As often as the sea speaks to us of the birth of Venus and of Joy, so also does it remind of Prometheus bound and the thrall of Nature.
Who can recall those impressions of the sea which were his as a child — a relish, a vividness, perhaps never experienced in after life? What wonderful thing was the pure white sand; what fascinating objects the sea-shells and the boom of the surf, what thrilling music ! No longer is it that simple strain, but inwrought with hopes and fears and memories. The children on the beach play in an ocean of their own ; we cannot put foot on their shore, try as we will. Sometimes, as the salty fragrance is wafted over the sands, one is on the point of regaining that lost consciousness, and then it eludes and is gone. Never again shall we find that alluring and altogether wonderful sea upon which we happened in childhood. Yet who knows but in some auspicious moment we may come upon one still more entrancing.
With an east wind the sea is always musical. It breaks forth in its solemn chant, as though the wind were an influence that awakened memories of the immeasurable past, and inspired this primitive song. From a distance it comes like a rhythmical murmur upon the horizon, and it is strange how this sound will fall upon unheeding ears, and then with what suddenness one becomes aware of it. At times it loses its rhythmical character and becomes a sort of recitative. One imagines the venerable sea to be muttering of its epic past — to be relating that wonderful saga.
Yesterday the sea was glass. It lay tranquil as if never again could its surface be ruffled. So indefinite was the sky-line it was difficult to tell which was sky and which water,-- a dream-ocean, a charming vision, which was to dissolve like a mirage of the desert.
This morning how it was changed ! Up from the shore came a muffled and ominous growl. As one approached, this ceased, and there was instead the spitting and hissing of little waves a sound of irritation and suppressed anger. The sea was leaden, aggressive, formidable. It was as if some troubled spirit had entered there it was possessed of a devil. This unrest is savage and terrible like that of a caged tiger. The eye turns with relief to the imperturbable rock, which seems to confine and restrain the angry waters. The granite rests in unalterable calm, sphinxlike, on the edge of the watery desert. It stands for the constant and enduring, as it forever confronts the inconstant and changeful sea. They are two opposing forces : the sea coy, arch, coquettish, now bewitching and full of her beautiful wiles, now disdainful and imperious, again mad, tempestuous, hurling herself in her wild passion ; the granite grim, massive, unconquerable.
Late in the afternoon the wind is blowing from the north, the sky has cleared and the sea is sapphire, dotted with whitecaps ; yesterday, opal, this morning leaden, and later, sapphire. It is no longer formidable, rather is it cold and distant. The face of the waters is a peculiarly pertinent figure of speech, for the sea is as a face reflecting all moods. In the glare of noonday, ocean and landscape seem to discharge themselves of feeling, that is to say, they are barren to the eye and unproductive of feeling in us. But in the atmosphere of sunset and twilight they are again expressive. The quality of light may be compared to the timbre of sound. Sometimes as at noon it is like the blare of brass, and, again, it has the softness of wood-winds, the tenderness of violins and cellos.
The receding day carries with it the disquieting influences, and night exorcises the demons of unrest. They scurry away with the sunset clouds on the horizon like fleeing witches. As if in obedience to some silent command, the sea becomes passive. He must be distraught indeed who can look at it now without coming under the spell of the hour — the serene hour. It is as if the passion and strife of life had been succeeded by the beautiful calm of death. To gaze on the mute and motionless ocean at ebb-tide is to be inevitably inspired to reflection, so potent is the suggestion of repose. Apparently the forces of Nature have conspired together for peace.
Death ? Nay, rather transfiguration, for now the sea is illumined by a golden radiance. Stretches of burnished copper and molten gold merge one into the other; areas again of liquid silver, and beyond, the vast ethereal blue. Out of the coves shadows come creeping and stealing over the water, silently advancing to overwhelm the rose and copper and gold, while these recede and slip out to sea, growing fainter and fainter until they are absorbed in the all-pervading dusk. In the succeeding darkness one beholds, not the sea, but a vast bottomless pit, Dantesque and terrible.
Above all else it is the immense vigor of the sea which appeals to us. We are made to feel the play of cosmic forces. The long stretch of rocky coast is rude and Titanic ; the expanse of ocean suggests that chaos from which the earth has gradually been redeemed. The waters piling themselves up are as elemental and chaotic as nebulae or the seething envelopes of the sun. It is in-credible they should be hitched to the gentle moon, and should follow that pale phantom like a leashed panther, now purring, now growling, but obedient always. The mountains impress one with their age, the sea with its agelessness. Here at least is something which appears superior to Time. It is no more youth than it is age the formless, without beginning and without end, but always that superabundant vigor, power, freedom.
Denuded woodland and disfigured landscape bring to mind that iron Necessity which it is not pleasant to see advertised. But the sea is unimproved. It is the universal solvent, and dissolves the trivial, the commonplace, the mean, and gives an heroic cast to whatever it touches. One needs, however, to observe it from the shore and to have that vantage which is derived from being on land. In mid-ocean it is too entirely dominant there is nothing to afford contrast. It is like the moon — so fair at a distance, such desolation upon its surface. One can be alone on the mountains and find them friendly, but who would choose to be alone in mid-ocean? There is a sense of isolation, a disassociation, as if one had, in fad, severed connection with earthly affairs altogether; hour after hour and day after day the same inscrutable desert of water, which begins everywhere and ends nowhere.
Yet how inviting it appears when the glittering sunbeams dance on a gently rippling surface. It seems an expression of irrepressible gaiety as if all the joyousness in Nature had come to the surface here. The twinkling dance of the innocent waves who can recall the tragedies now?
The gulls appear to enjoy some favoritism, as though they were kin to the sea-its very own. To them it is altogether friendly ; they find it always congenial. Whether the breeze blows north or south, it is all the same. In the last gale it was next to impossible to keep one's feet in the full force of the wind, but the gulls sustained them-selves with ease. Over the gray-green sea the clouds appeared to rest like a cowl. The thunder of the waves drowned all else and shut one off from the world; consciousness was swallowed up in the din and tumult. In vast mountainous billows the swirling waters rushed for the shore and dissolved in spray. I stood in the lee of the rocks, bracing myself against the gale a reed shaken by the wind and saw flocks of coots riding at ease in the maelstrom beyond. Always facing the wind, they sank into the troughs and rose again, were lost to view as the crests broke over them, and reappeared in the old position. Ships would have dragged their anchors where these coots rode at ease, anchored by heaven knows what power.
Where the surf broke with its terrible thunder, countless crabs, urchins, starfish and whelk reposed in the rockweed and Irish moss. Were they aware of the storm? Did the anemones shut their doors or open them wider in view of a feast?
The marvelous pools in which they live have no resemblance to the surface of the sea, but suggest the bottom of the deep limpid, dark and still. Each is a world by itself, inhabited by a strange order of beings: dull nomads, which drift with the waves, or cling, they know not how, to something, they know not what. If there is any event in their life it is the rise of the tide. In all likelihood they do not know our day and night, are not impressed by these phenomena; but the flood is their day, the ebb their night. Small whelk stud the rich background of sea-mosses like precious stones, some gamboge, some orange, others white as marble or banded with black. There are colonies of sertularia tinted a delicate mauve, solitary sea-urchins of heliotrope, and starfish, some luminous pink, others deep rose-madder. These hues are characteristic of sea life, as of lichens and mushrooms and the lower orders in general ; not crude colors, red and blue, but delicate gradations. Now and again a single jellyfish, stranded by the receding tide, a spectral diaphanous creature, hovers ghostlike in the liquid atmosphere of his strange world. It is all of an antediluvian and prehistoric character, associated with the beginning of things with an age of fishes rather than an age of man. The deathless sea takes no note of the flight of time; it still brings forth only brood upon brood of slimy, goggle-eyed things.
What a harvest, this of the sea ! After a storm all craft put out. The lobstermen in their dories take in the lobster-pots and replenish the bait, while the dory rises and sinks on the long swells. Fleets of mackerel boats and schooners bound for the Banks after cod and haddock creep along the horizon-line. On the beach men rake up the Irish moss, flung ashore in the storm, and spread it on old sails to bleach in the sun. Others haul kelp for the fields, while women gather driftwood. So great a resource is the ocean ; so many gleaners there are.
The sea is humanized and redeemed somewhat by the presence of these workers. It is agreeable to reflect that while it nourishes them, they in turn do not mar it. Man communicates the character of his mind and aims to the landscape; enriches it by his labor on the farm, and disfigures it again in a thousand ways, till it is as barren and sordid as his own thoughts. But upon the deep he makes no impression. It is virgin ever. It overpowers him by its stern music lifts him for a time a little above the sordid and commonplace. The sailor ashore is not the same man he is out there. He must needs have courage, for he must meet the sea. Portuguese, Swedes, Finns poor stuff for poems in their sailor boarding-houses ashore. But hear how they face the winter gales. Learn the actual experience which makes up that life. The sea invests the poorest, meanest man with heroic qualities. That is his stage; there he looms large. Oil-skins and sou'wester are but his make-up.
I take home a piece of driftwood, for no ordinary fire, but to kindle the imagination, for it is saturated with memories and carries with it the enchantment of the sea. To light this is to set in motion a sort of magic-play. True driftwood has been seasoned by the waters and mellowed by the years. Not any piece of a lobster-pot, or pleasure yacht, or, for that matter, of any modern craft at all is driftwood. It must have come from the timber of a vessel built in the olden time when copper bolts were used, so that the wood is impregnated with copper salts. That is merely the chemistry of it. The wood is saturated with sun-shine and moonlight as well, with the storms and calms of the sea its passions, its subtle moods; more than this, it absorbed of the human life whose destiny was involved with the vessel the tragedy, the woe. It had two lives — a forest life and a sea life. By force of tragedy alone it became driftwood. Winter and summer the sea sang its brave songs over the boat and chanted her requiem at last as she lay on the ledge. This fragment drifted ashore out of the wreck of a vessel, out of the wreck of great hopes, out of the passion of the sea.
Driftwood, then, is to be lighted in a spirit of reverence. No ordinary blaze, rather is it an altar fire to Poseidon, to whom were immolated the victims; to Aphrodite born of the waves. Rather is it the funeral pyre of a sea-bird, now to rise again from its ashes. It is not to warm the hands, this magic sea-fire, which has borrowed the emerald and sapphire and azure of the waters and reflets still the phosphorescent gleam which lay in the wake of the vessel, but to kindle some feeling and to nurture vague dreams. To set match to this pyre is to invoke the spirit of the deep, to hear the crooning of some distant surf, the hissing of the fretful spray; to conjure up again the wondrous opaline sea.
Somewhere on this phantom ocean rides a phantom bark with all sails set, which reflect, now a rose-pink, now the faintest imaginable golden sheen, and disappear in the dusk. Perchance there flits over the mind a haunting recollection of that lost sea of childhood that sea of virgin impressions to vanish also into the dusk of oblivion.