Lost at Sea

Why shipwrecks have engaged the poetic imagination for centuries.

Less than a month before his 30th birthday, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. A summer storm overtook his sailboat, and the poet never made it from Livorno, where he had been visiting Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, to Lerici, where his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, waited. Shelley’s body washed ashore weeks later, ravaged by the sea and scarcely recognizable.

The bright beauty of Edward Onslow Ford’s marble monument for the poet, completed in 1892, did its best to obscure this ravaging. Fixed in irenic composure, Shelley now rests on a bronze plinth above a weeping muse flanked by two winged lions at University College Oxford. His cold marble eyes are forever closed; his right arm stretches across his slender, supine body to meet his left; one of his sublunary legs is folded beneath the other. The monument became one of the high altars of the cult that developed around the Romantic. Rival accounts of Shelley’s shipwreck and drowning circulated for decades, including one persistent legend that his heart resisted crematory fire, only to be removed and preserved by a friend.

The narrative of Shelley’s life was revised so that all of its features foreshadowed his shipwreck. His early love of sailing, beginning with paper boats made from bank notes, became ominous; his earlier brushes with shipwrecks—most notably in the decade before he died, on the Rhine River with his wife and on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron—ceased to be signs of providence, becoming instead portentous siren songs. Lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest were even taken for his epitaph: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Shelley’s poetry was not spared this revision. His elegy for John Keats, written a year before his own death, was suddenly taken for prophecy. The final stanza of “Adonais” laments: “My spirit’s bark is driven, / Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng / Whose sails were never to the tempest given.” Shelley, like Keats, was understood to have been prematurely and tragically “borne darkly, fearfully, afar.” His shipwreck came to symbolize both his life and work, not only his death.

Shipwrecks have engaged the poetic imagination for centuries. Remnants of several million shipwrecks are estimated to rest on the ocean floor. When sailing was the only way of navigating the world, shipwrecks were fierce, living terrors; even now, as other modes of transportation dominate travel, shipwrecks maintain their prominence in metaphors of isolation and ennui as well as in images of wreckage and destruction. Ships themselves still wreck in poetry, but so, too, do relationships, souls, and states.

Ubiquitous as the sea itself, the metaphor endures even as its referent has diminished. The antecedents of these modern literary wrecks come from ancient sources. Sea-faring Odysseus barely survived a shipwreck engineered by Poseidon’s wrath. The Apostle Paul shipwrecked four times, once on the way from Caesarea to Rome, the only shipwreck narrated in the Bible. These early wrecks inspired Shakespeare and Shelley and remain strangely powerful, as symbols of both survival, with castaways living to tell the tale, and terror, presenting unsettling or unresolved visions of death.

Even Emily Dickinson, whose life was practically landlocked, was seized by the shipwreck metaphor. “If my Bark sink / ’Tis to another sea —,” she wrote, “Mortality’s Ground Floor / Is Immortality.” Borrowing the first two lines from Transcendentalist poet Ellery Channing, she married the wrecked, drowned soul-ship with the stable, grounded metaphor of the house. The soul’s death is like a sinking ship, falling beneath the surface of one sea and resting on the floor of another.

Dickinson contrasts the safety of the shore with the chaos of the sea. That same distinction interested Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “Crusoe in England,” which fixates on the liminal status of castaway. Bishop’s Robinson Crusoe, already rescued and returned to Britain, muses, “Now I live here, another island, / that doesn’t seem like one.” Abraded by time and the death of his companion Friday from measles, Crusoe remembers his former island home. He says, “I’d have / nightmares of other islands / stretching away from mine, infinities / of islands, islands spawning islands.”

Bishop was well acquainted with islands, but also with shipwrecks of the kind that cast Robinson Crusoe away. In 1919, when she was only eight years old, she was aboard a steamer headed from Boston to Yarmouth that wrecked in the fog. No one died, but the accident did link Bishop to her great-grandfather, who drowned in a shipwreck off Sable Island in 1866, and to one of her most beloved poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose epic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” chronicled a shipwreck off the British coastline.

Thirty-five stanzas long, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” marked Hopkins’s return to poetry after seven years of devoting himself to his vocation as a Jesuit priest. Conflicted about his writing and his call to the priesthood, Hopkins had destroyed his earlier poems and vowed never to write again. But when the Deutschland foundered on the Kentish Knock at the mouth of the Thames in 1875, and took the lives of five nuns fleeing religious persecution in Germany, Hopkins was moved by the tragedy. He felt that his writing was blessed by the suggestion of a superior that someone write a poem to honor the dead.

One hundred and fifty-seven passengers died when the Deutschland wrecked, but Hopkins was concerned chiefly with those escaping Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. “Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;” he wrote, dedicating the poem “To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875.”

The dedication is integral not only to Hopkins’s understanding of this particular shipwreck but, moreover, to his sense of every soul at sea in this world. For Hopkins, the Deutschland’s fate presented an essential task of theodicy: the need to reconcile “[t]he all of water,” capable of callously taking human lives, with the mercy of God, who made the world and its violent seas. The poem’s first stanza addresses “Thou mastering me / God! giver of breath and bread; / World’s strand, sway of the sea.” It is the first of many aquatic accounts of God, whom Hopkins calls “master of the tides.”

Elizabeth Bishop took bits of Hopkins’s poems as epigraphs for her poetry and even wrote an essay on his meter, but it was his shipwreck poem that consumed her. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is the shipwreck sundered: literal description and detail of the ocean liner’s wreck are gradually, relentlessly severed from the metaphor of the soul adrift in the world.

While for Hopkins the shipwreck was a theological challenge, for Bishop it was a poetic challenge. She was forced to reconcile poetry’s past with its present, to find new meaning for language that was becoming anachronistic. The poet could no longer document wrecks, but needed to invent new connotations for them, so unlike Hopkins, Bishop occupied herself with survivors.

For Bishop, the sea’s greatest danger is no longer death, but solitude and isolation. “Crusoe in England” considers how the soul, always already shipwrecked, can speak of its survival. As W.S. Merwin writes in “The Shipwreck”: “The tale is different if even a single breath / Escapes to tell it. The return itself / Says survival is possible.” Survivorship and testimony, then, come to define the modern shipwreck poem; less attention is given to the action of wrecking and more to its aftermath.

One of kari edwards’s poems begins with the ominous declaration that “there is a shipwreck on each side of innuendo.” She describes how “tears gather around the collective / shadow of shadows;” pooling into seas deep and dangerous enough for wrecks. The shipwreck of edwards’s poem is not nautical but emotional: its three block stanzas dramatize the self as a ship at sea. When the narrator says she is “trying to read the consequential future, apply anything to anything,” she is navigating a life adrift between “wretched normality and remote productivity.”

The same unmooring haunts Keith Waldrop’s “Shipwreck in Haven.” One sequence in the trilogy he called Transcendental Studies, the poem unfolds under an epigraph from Erasmus: “I can’t swim at all, and it is dangerous to converse with an unaccustomed Element.” The sea is largely absent from Waldrop’s long, fragmented poem, visible only through the safety of windows, relegated to a rumor in fairytales and fishing stories, like those of a “vicar, who used to tell us the story of Robinson Crusoe.” So antiquated are the dangers of the sea that they can only be imagined, not faced. The speaker mocks an addressee: “You claim the dearest wish of your // life is to sink into a soul-freezing / situation of horror.”

By Waldrop’s telling, shipwrecks no longer threaten travel, only dreams. No longer Dickinson’s bark sinking beneath the ocean, modern shipwrecks are relationships dissolved, careers run aground, lives unmoored. When Waldrop won the National Book Award in 2009 for Transcendental Studies, he explained in interviews that the poems in the collection, including “Shipwreck in Haven,” had been constructed through a collage method. Collecting words like a bowerbird, he arranged the bits and phrases he gathered from prose works into the colossus that is Transcendental Studies.

Along the way, Waldrop revised the romantic image of shipwreck into a postmodern metaphor. No longer does one seek “rambles and adventures among the rocky banks,” for “waves and their whelps” appear only in dreams and waking nightmares. Nostalgia forever washes Shelley ashore in his glistening marble monument and keeps Robinson Crusoe forever cast away on his island home, but Waldrop resists these wistful fallacies to catalog the actual threats of daily life that make the metaphor of shipwreck worth preserving: terror and dread, anonymity and solitude.

Originally Published: July 9th, 2013

Casey N. Cep has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

  1. June 8, 2016
     Cynthia A. Murray-Beliveau

    Thank you for this essay--it helped me understand just a bit of the Wreck of the Deutschland.