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We’d Rather Have the Iceberg than the Ship

By A.E. Stallings

Rachel Zucker’s timely post on the timeless immediately brought a certain poem to mind. Then when I saw Kathleen Rooney’s post about the Titanic (sinking like an Oreo in milk!), I thought she had beat me to the punch. The Titanic looms large (as it were) in our household, on account of our having a six-year old boy who can’t get enough of large ships and disasters. Because of bedtime stories such as the Usborne Young Reading Titanic, I happen to know that the Titanic embarked on her doomed maiden voyage ninety-nine years ago today, and went down on the 15th of April, 1912. As Kathleen’s post points out, the event has ceased to be a news item and become a legend. But it is interesting how quickly this happened. Was a poem part of that process?

Kwame Dawes rightly directs us to define timely and timeless. All poems are rooted in a moment in time; some, as my friend Rachel Hadas would say, “float free of their occasion.” This, perhaps, is one of the aspects of greatness. News that stays news. How many of the slew of poems occasioned by 9-11, for instance, have earned a place in the anthologies, much less the canon? A few? Any? (Feel free to correct me here.)

Yet one of Thomas Hardy’s most anthologized poems, “The Convergence of the Twain,” is based on this “current event,” the sinking of the Titanic. The poem’s first appearance in print, published in “the program of the ‘Dramatic and Operatic Matinee in Aid of the ‘Titanic’ Disaster Fund,’” given at Covent Garden Theatre (Thomas Hardy A to Z, by Sarah Bird Wright), was just over a month after the event itself. Yet this piece is enshrined in anthologies, and has achieved an immortality denied the actual doomed vessel (as opposed to her eternal ghost.) Nor was this event merely a newspaper item to Hardy; his wife had lost two acquaintances in the tragedy.

Click here, to read the poem.

It is in one of Hardy’s nonce stanzas, this one consisting of rhymed tercets, with two short lines (trimeters) followed by a long one (hexameter). But as we read through the poem, this form becomes a startling embodiment of the poem’s theme: the two short lines, we realize, are arguably half lines, hemistiches, two twains that converge together to form the long line, the hexameter, a measure which has, in English, a certain finality to its heft. Wedding become welding.

The opposite of the timeless is the dated. But maybe what makes the timely timeless is just being really, really good. Also, perhaps what enabled Hardy to write such a fine poem so fast was that this event just happened to speak to Hardy’s own obsessions: the clash of the modern with the ancient (that Shape of Ice!), of the mechanized with nature, and of man’s deaf will with blind, inexorable fate.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 10th, 2011 by A.E. Stallings.