2 the Convergence of the Twain

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  The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the ‘Titanic’) I In a solitude of the sea Deep from human vanity, vanity – emptiness, worthlessness  And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she. stilly couches she – she lies quietly  II Steel chambers, late the pyres chambers – parts of the engine; late – recently; pyre – fire for Of her salamandrine fires, in legend, salamanders could live in fire    burning a body  Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres. thrid – thread; lyres; harps III Over the mirrors meant To glass the opulent opulent – very very rich  The sea-worm crawls - grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent. indifferent - uncaring  IV Jewels in joy designed To ravish the sensuous mind Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.  bleared – dim and watery V Dim moon-eyed fishes near Gaze at the gilded gear And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'. . . empty/pointless glory and sumptuousness VI Well: while was fashioning fashioning – being made  This creature of cleaving wing, cleaving wing – swiftly dividing the waves  The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything VII Prepared a sinister mate For her - so gaily great - A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate. dissociate - separate     VIII And as the smart ship grew smart – elegant, fashionable  In stature, grace, and hue stature –    size and importance  In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too. IX Alien they seemed to be: alien – incompatible, foreign   No mortal eye could see The intimate welding of their later history, X Or sign that they were bent  bent – shaped by an outside force, or motivated  By paths coincident On being anon twin halves of one august event, anon – soon; august – grand, also prepared by omen XI Till the Spinner of the Years spinner of the years - fate Said 'Now!' And each one hears, And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres. *   * consummation comes – it is finished, but also sexual overtones  At nearly midnight on 14 April 1912 on her maiden voyage, the Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable luxury liner, struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of over 1500 lives. There were 2223 people on board; it was the largest passenger steamship in the world. Hardy’s manuscript dates his poem 24 April 1912. It was published in the souvenir programme of the Matinee in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund given at Covent Garden, London, on 14 May 1912. After the disaster there was widespread criticism of the ship’s excessive luxury, of the different survival rates between first-class passengers, many of whom were rescued (199 out of 329), and steerage passengers, many of whom weren’t (only 174 out of 710 were saved). There was also criticism of the arrogance of the alleged claim that the vessel was unsinkable, and of the ship’s name which was seen as inviting disaster, the Titans being powerful gods of Greek legend. Tim Armstrong in 1992 wrote, ‘The poem can be read as an ambiguous meditation on catastrophe and the forces behind history.’ What would you expect to find in a poem written in response to a tragedy on this scale? Perhaps a  poem that appeals to the readers’ emotions upon the occasion, or sympathy with the victims’ families and their grief. Or sympathy with the victims themselves, the sense of tragedy and loss at lives so undeservedly cut short. Or a reconstruction of the panic, chaos and suffering during and after the catastrophe. Maybe the poem would raise questions about the nature of life and its  tragedies: why do such things happen? Maybe the poem would reflect a sense of blame, either of God for allowing this to happen, or blame that there were not enough lifeboats to cater for all the  passengers. Generally, you would probably expect to feel and share emotions aroused on the subject. What Hardy gives us is the absence of everything we might expect. ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ means the meeting of the two. The words are deliberately old fashioned. And the title leads us to expect some sort of pairing. But Hardy makes us wait until verse VII when ‘a sinister mate’ is introduced as the other half of ‘she’, the ‘gaily great’ Titanic. In verse I, we encounter the Titanic (unnamed) ‘stilly couche(d)’ on the sea bed. Immediately, one sees that the shape of the verse bears a striking resemblance to that of a liner. And we meet the liner, ‘In a solitude of the sea / Deep from human vanity / And the Pride of Life that planned her …’. Hardy forces us to recognise the present wreck on the seabed and the contrast with all the pride and vainglorious claims for the vessel, the ‘human vanity / And the Pride of Life that planned her.’ ‘Human vanity’ has biblical connotations: the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes opens, ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ And in Chapter 2, ‘I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought (worked or made), and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.’ The ‘vanity’ in question is not a tendency to look at yourself in the mirror, but the ultimate worthlessness and emptiness of worldly things, since you cannot take them with you when you die. ‘Pride of Life’ also has biblical associations, this time with the first letter of St John in the New Testament. ‘For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away.’ So the human tendency to glory proudly in material achievements is apt to come to nothing, as the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed illustrates. The second verse details some of the staggering engineering achievements in the engine-room of the Titanic: ‘Steel chambers, late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires…’. The chambers are spaces in the mechanism, and ‘late’ means recently. Pyres are huge fires that generate great heat; they are used at funerals in places like India for burning the body. Funeral pyres, generally on boats set afloat for the purpose, were also part of the Viking culture. So ‘pyre’ indicates legendary fire and heat in the engine-room, but also anticipates the death, the sinking of the Titanic. The salamander is a species of lizard; according to legend it could live in fire. So the words Hardy has chosen underline the majestic status of the vessel; it was almost making its way into legend in its splendour and ability to withstand all hazards. But the word ‘late’ in the first line undermines all this glory; until recently, this glory was to be seen, but now ‘Cold currents thrid (thread – run through), and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.’ These lyres played by the sea’s currents sound like a marine version of the Aeolian harp or lyre played by breezes (see ‘The Darkling Thrush’. Earlier, Coleridge had written, in ‘The Aeolian Harp’: ‘and that simplest Lute, Plac'd length-ways in the clasping casement, hark ! How by the desultory breeze caress'd…’). This was a Romantic notion, but there is nothing Romantic about the wreck of the Titanic with cold currents playing through the steel chambers. The hissing s’s of the fiery ‘steel’ and ‘salamandrine fires’ of the engines that powered the Titanic have given way to the hard c’s of the ‘cold currents’, the hard t’s of ‘currents’, ‘turn’ and ‘tidal’, and the sea’s tidal rhythms with the repeated ‘th’ in ‘thrid’ and ‘rhythmic’. The sea has replaced all the glory with its own slow (the pace in the last line  slows right down) powers and rhythms. And indeed the verse’s rhythms change completely. The Titanic in all her glory thrusts through the seas: Steel chambers, late the pyres Of her salamandrine fires, with the stress on the first two syllables, ‘steel’ and ‘cham’, and the ‘pyres’ / ‘fires’ rhyming syllables also stressed to underline the ship’s power. But this is overtaken by the quite different and ultimately much more powerful rhythm of the sea. Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres. The sea’s rhythms are slower, more insistent and frequent; after the first two stressed syllables, they settle to an inexorable iambic rhythm. The contrast in this verse is between the two elements, fire and water; the fire that powers man’s machines and the ocean’s water. Later this contrast will  be intensified into a fatal convergence between the power of man’s machine and the force of the frozen water, the iceberg. The third and fourth verses set the details of the luxury liner against their present dimmed, lightless  place at the bottom of the sea. So the sea-worm (and worms eat decaying corpses as well as crawling over mirrors) crawls over mirrors that were intended to reflect the wealthy (‘opulent’) and  jewels that were intended to enrapture the senses ‘lie lightless’. Again Hardy slows the pace in the long lines that describe the action of the sea. This is largely a matter of stresses: The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.  Not only are the vowels mostly long (‘sea, crawls, slimed) but the number of heavy stresses slows the pace. The last line of verse IV runs: (Jewels) Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind. The sparkling ls of the jewels are repeated in ‘lie lightless’, emphasizing their change and, depressingly, in ‘bleared and black and blind’ with their insistently and heavily alliterated ‘bl’ sounds. The ms and ns with which Hardy conveys the dim underwater world in words like ‘worm’, ‘slimed’, ‘dumb’, ‘blind’ in verses III and IV, are continued in verse V in ‘dim moon-faced fishes near’. The fish ask ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here’ and the word ‘vaingloriousness’ (empty/pointless glory and sumptuousness) echoes the ‘human vanity’ and ‘Pride of Life’ of the first verse, the pride that thought to build the unsinkable Titanic. With the fishes’ query, the big question is posed: what is the Titanic doing at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? So, in Verse VI, Hardy begins the explanation. ‘Well: …’ Hardy stresses that, at the same time as the Titanic was ‘fashioning’ (being made), The Immanent Will, that is, the force behind the universe, ‘that stirs and urges everything’ - at which point verse VI runs on into verse VII, as if The Immanent Will is an unstoppable force. Verse VII begins with the verb, showing the action that The Immanent Will propels into being: ‘Prepared a sinister mate / For her … / A Shape of Ice.’ Now, at last, we know what is meeting or converging with The Titanic: ‘A Shape of Ice’. Although it is ‘for the time far and dissociate (separate)’ we know that the two will experience a disastrous encounter . And verse VII prepares us for this inevitable meeting in two ways. Not only does verse VI run on into verse VII, but the first line of verse VII runs on into the second: ‘Prepared a sinister mate / For her…’ The force, or power, of the Immanent Will drives across verse and line boundaries; it is more than the equal of the ship’s engine power, fashioned simply by the overweening pride of man. And the ‘ay’ vowel sound in ‘mate’ is repeated in ‘gaily great’ and in ‘Shape’ and ‘dissociate’ as if to remind us that, even if the
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