Monday, July 26, 2021

Analysis: Henry David Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck”

 


Has there ever been a person, when they first came to any ocean, who did not take a moment to just stand and see? Whether on a calm day as the wide expanse curves on the horizon with waves rolling in long hypnotic sweeps, or whether it’s a day of storms and mighty crests crashing against rocks, one can’t but stop and gape at the power of something beyond ourselves. When Henry David Thoreau set out to go to Cape Cod to look at the sea and ponder and write about its majesty, he found that the day before he arrived, a ship full of emigrants from Ireland had been beaten violently on the harsh rocky shores and more than a hundred people had lost their lives. Irish mourners flocked to the scene, traveling the same path with Thoreau, yet it was the local villagers and how they went about the business of recovering the corpses that seemed to fascinate Thoreau. In “The Shipwreck”, Thoreau explains how people who live near the waters of Cape Cod have become pragmatic in the aftermath of the sea’s brutality, and how Thoreau’s view of the sea has this same detachment of the harshness in common with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



As Thoreau walked down to the beach, he saw the local farmers and tradesmen bringing wagons down, loaded with rough-hewn boxes to be used as coffins. There had only been twenty-eight bodies founds of the one hundred and forty-five perished. The locals were busily engaged in finding the rest beneath the largest part of the wreckage which lay onshore. Yet Thoreau “witnessed no signs of grief, but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting” (1) as the men went about nailing down lids or trying to identify certain bodies sought by the Irish who had come to find them. Others were collecting sea-weed for fertilizer, taking it higher up on shore so it would not be lost in the tide “though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it, and they might at any moment have found a human body under it (Thoreau 1). Even though there was a tragic event just beyond their homes, the people living by the sea understood the importance of gathering what one could from the ocean. The locals had acquired a great deal of resilience to cope with the horrors that living by the ocean and near one of the deadliest shores demanded of them. They became people who were able to detach themselves from what the harsh sea spat out in order to do what had to be done for those who couldn’t do it for themselves. Yet, Thoreau conjectures, for all their pragmatism and seemingly being unaffected, once the funeral procession had passed on and the mass graves covered, it was the local villagers who “would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up its dead, and their imaginations and sympathies would supply the place of mourners far away, who as yet knew not of the wreck” (1). Thoreau muses that the inhabitants should have a crest on their family shields of a wave and the datura plant, “which is said to produce mental alienation of long duration” (1) which is the only way they could deal with what the sea brings them. With the dreadfulness of the multitude of corpses around him on the beaches, Thoreau seems to cope by wondering about man’s relationship to the sea, as well as how that may fit into the afterlife, much like the wonderings of the Mariner about the sea in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Thoreau, too, appears to take on the detachment shown by the locals at seeing so many dead at one time. He notes that when “corpses might be multiplied, as on the field of battle, till they no longer affected us in any degree, as exceptions to the common lot of humanity” (Thoreau 1). He goes on to think about how while these poor bodies are ravaged in the ocean, that perhaps they really have sailed into a safe port in Heaven (Thoreau 1) and it doesn’t matter that their corpses are “dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean” (Thoreau 1). Thoreau ends “The Shipwreck” by writing of another trip to the same beach much later on a calm day. The breezes from the water brought an enjoyable coolness and the water was crystal clear. He looked down and “could see the sea-perch swimming about” (Thoreau 1). The harshness of the sea had been replaced by a calm and beautiful ocean. This same scenario occurred in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The sea turned on the sailors just as it had turned on the emigrants coming from Ireland. Instead of tossing them and cracking the ship against the rocks, Coleridge’s mariners were caught in a lull in the middle of the ocean, just as dangerous when food and water run out and there is no breeze to sail by. Just as Thoreau did, Coleridge, through his mariner, ponders the afterlife and whether the dead sailors’ souls flew “to bliss or woe!” (Coleridge 1), and whether the pilot who comes to greet him will give him a blessing to wash away his sin of shooting the albatross. Another similarity in the two works is found with how as terrible as the sea can be, both Thoreau and Coleridge saw the beauty the sea can also give in the same way as the mariner looks down into the calm water and glimpses the water-snakes “move in tracks of shining white” (Coleridge 1). The sea can be both terrible and beneficial and those sailing upon it or making a living close to the coast have learned to live in harmony with the nature of the ocean in good or horrible times.

Thoreau was able to witness just one moment of tragedy in one particular day in the lives of the people of Cohasset. He glimpsed their resiliency and how they have learned to live and work near the sea, as well as the pragmatism that has evolved in their character. Thoreau writes about this unyielding practicality of the local inhabitants and how they went to work after a terrible shipwreck, and how all of mankind has the ability to cope with the brutality of the sea, by also seeing the ocean’s beauty as found in Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. When next one stands on a seashore, take a deep breath and see.


 

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Bartleby.com www.bartleby.com/41/415.html 

Thoreau, Henry D. “The Shipwreck.” Cape Cod, 2010. The Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org/files/34392/34392-h/34392-h.htm

Image: 

"Ardgour Shipwreck - Scotland" by Dave Holder is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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