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  • Navigating in Perilous Seas of Language:In Memoriam and "The Wreck of the Deutschland"
  • Allan C. Christensen (bio)

In narrating the voyages of ships, poems often allude metaphorically to the progress of their own composition. The dangers threatening the ships suggest a risk that the poem may break off before reaching the desired port. Sometimes, as when the frail boat approaches a whirlpool in Shelley's Alastor, the impending shipwreck elicits dramatic suspense:

    the boat paused shuddering.-Shall it sinkDown the abyss? Shall the reverting stressOf that resistless gulph embosom it?Now shall it fall?

(ll. 394-397)1

Fortunately "a wandering stream of wind, / Breathed from the west" (ll. 397-398) catches the sail and conducts the boat to safety. The breath in such cases is that of a happy inspiration, the "correspondent breeze" that operates so frequently in Romantic poetry as a secular equivalent of the divine breath or spirit.2 But the inspiration does not always arrive, and some poems have drowned in the inebriating element that "Le Bateau ivre" of Rimbaud terms "the Poem of the Sea":

Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le PoèmeDe la Mer, infusé d'astres, et lactescent,Dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blêmeEt ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend.

(ll. 21-24)3

Later the little boat observes even worse instances of shipwreck-"Echouages hideux au fond des golfes bruns" (l. 54) -and the descent of other drowned bodies: "Et je voguais, lorsqu'à travers mes liens frêles / Des noyés descendaient dormir, à reculons!" (ll. 67-68). The "frail lines" that fail to check the reluctant descent of the victims are not only cordage in the nautical sense but the structural principles that maintain the lines (or vers) of poetry. At issue is the craftsmanship required to navigate the poetic vessel through dangerous seas. [End Page 379]

Of the works by Tennyson and Hopkins considered in this article, the image of navigation possesses a more obvious relevance to the latter. But the episodes in In Memoriam of the "fair ship" (9-19)4 and the "great ship" (103.35) resonate sufficiently to permit application of the metaphor of the voyage to the entire poem. To be emphasized in the case of both poems is that the marine element represents more importantly the linguistic medium. Or more than a medium subordinated to the purposes of human communication, language belongs like the sea to the natural environment that exists for its own non-human sake: "Language, like nature," according to the precepts of Max Müller that James Milroy believes to have influenced Hopkins, "has its laws, patterns and inscapes, which can be discovered and observed like natural phenomena." Nineteenth-century poets characteristically thought "that a language was itself far greater than the great works composed in it."5

The linguistic element includes protected harbors, such as "the bay of thy blessing"6 in Hopkins, and open seas, and the poems may navigate perilously outwards from the protected sites. The trajectory underway in the texts resembles, in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the child's transition from a maternal to a paternal linguistic regime. According to this theory the child seems in retrospect to have enjoyed an idyllically protected relationship with the mother. Beyond words their communication employed non-verbal sounds and body language in a fullness of presence that was subsequently shattered by the hostile intrusion of the father and the imposition of patriarchal law and culture. All of us, as Terry Eagleton explains, become the prey of a sense of loss and longing as we "enter language"-"we are severed from [the] mother's body" and will thereafter "spend all our lives [vainly] hunting for it."7

Having occurred in the poets' infancy, the profound loss has therefore predated the wreck of the Deutschland and the death of Hallam. The critical need to initiate the poem, or the voyage toward a new linguistic mastery, therefore derives from a repetition of the traumatic loss of a maternal figure. The lost maternal presence is more obvious in Hopkins' case since the poem treats the tall nun as an adumbration of the Blessed Virgin Mother...


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pp. 379-401
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