First Person Nautical: Poetry and Play at Sea
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First Person Nautical:
Poetry and Play at Sea

The sea has been a siren for writers meditating on mythic voyages; on dissolution; on the boundaries between different states of being; on spaces of lawlessness and danger, what Hans Blumenberg calls the “immoderate[ness]” of the ocean’s vastness.1 One might lose oneself in such vastness, come undone, experience revolutions within, question established connections and affiliations. And yet for all the vast literature about the sea from Homer onward, little attention has been paid to the surprising amount and variety of literature written at sea. In this essay we look to poetic production aboard long-voyaging Anglo-American ships in order to think about the place of poetry within nineteenth-century communities whose circuits were at once prosaic and eccentric. Shipboard poetry, produced in an environment uncongenial to most forms of inscription, invites us to imagine archives ungrounded and on the move. The tracklessness of the sea, as well as the indeterminate sense of being in between one’s home and a past or future abroad, or perhaps a life of perennial wandering, expands imaginative possibilities for writers at sea. The archive of shipboard [End Page 189] poetry itself may open today a range of possible readings outside the land-based norm: for reconsidering the boundaries of nationality, and how ideas of nation have constructed our canon; for discovering literary coteries at the scene of their labor; for theories of exchange, travel, and community; and for prolific literary traditions that have hitherto gone missing beyond the horizon of our landlocked critical retrospect.

In first-person sailor writing of the nineteenth century we find the constraint and discipline of shipboard life invoked as a narrative hedge against the boundlessness of the sea.2 Similarly, poetry—in its generic attention to meter, rhythm, and tone, to a line that can be traced— offers a regulatory corrective to the drift and dislocation of nautical travel. Nearly all the formal structures practiced at sea were understood to be rooted in national traditions: ballad stanzas, heroic couplets, hexameters.3 Yet their reproduction on ships outside national boundaries, in transitional cultural spaces, complicates an easy association between aesthetic form and nationalist sentiment. Literary history has most often considered the sea from the vantage point of the land, to which the sea’s immoderateness moves in antithesis. The emerging field of oceanic studies seeks instead to reorient our critical perception to the heaving, uncertain surfaces and depths of the sea, to recognize the artificiality and intellectual limitations of national, political, linguistic, and geophysical boundaries. Reading shipboard poetry within the context of oceanic studies, in other words, helps us think more acutely about modes of being and exchange that are necessarily constituted by—and yet can stand in formal counterpoint to—fluidity, contingency, and mutability.4

If not precisely national, literary production at sea was necessarily collective, consisting of small bodies of shared interest that in and of themselves constituted, for a set interval, a totality of community. Whether laboring sailors or paying passengers, those aboard ship had little to no space for privacy, no retreat; the circumscribed nature of the built environment meant that maritime community necessarily took the form of a coterie. In what follows we look briefly to two classes of coteries of nautical poets in the long nineteenth century: passengers aboard British emigrant ships, and sailors participating in Anglo-American expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic. For British emigrants voyaging to Australia—a three-month trip at midcentury—ship newspapers offered both relief from monotony and the comfort of the familiar features one would have found in periodicals at home: weather [End Page 190] reports, birth and death announcements, short stories and word puzzles, opinion pieces, and poetry. Most of the content was written by the passengers themselves, who were solicited for original contributions, and the newspapers were printed by either members of the crew or volunteers. Polar voyagers, on the other hand, produced works for literary exchange only during the long polar winters, when their ships were ice-bound and consigned to darkness and relative oceanic stillness. Their sketches, satires, essays, and poems in shipboard...


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