Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Titanic verses

In the previous post, I mentioned Thomas Hardy's 1912 The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the "Titanic") , which was written nine days after the event 1 and received its first public outing in the souvenir programme for the Dramatic and Operatic Matinee held at Covent Garden in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund. The event itself was highly prestigious, both in performance and attendance; the next day's Times (May 15, 1912) mentions that Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova performed, along with now lesser-known names such as Mischa Elman, Clara Butt, Vesta Tilley and Louise Edvina.

Regarding the literary contributors to the programme, the Times quotes from the start of The Convergence of the Twain ...

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

... and lists "Mr W. L. Courtney, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Mr. Alfred Noyes, Mr. Stephen Phillips, Mr. Eden Philpotts, Mr. G. K. Chesterton, Mr. H. C. Bailey, Mr. Herbert Trench, Mr. Charles Buchel, Mr. John Hassall, and Mr. Bernard Partridge.

click to enlarge
I just tried to track some of these down. WL Courtney was chairman of the programme committee for the event. The Alfred Noyes contribution would be The Heroic Dead. Stephen Phillips: The Titanic, which is in his 1915 anthology Panama: and other poems, narrative and occasional. GK Chesterton: I'm not sure, but the New York Times reports that he wrote a Shakespearean satire on the toothlessness of the enquiry (see Stinging satire on Titanic inquiry; G.K. Chesterton Aroused by Failure to Lay a Basis for Criminal Charges). Charles Buchel (who signed himself Chas Buchel) did the cover artwork. Bernard Partridge was also an illustrator, well-known for his Punch commemorative drawing of a mourning Britannia and Liberty (whose accompanying poem, Toll of the Sea, was by the editor Owen Seaman).

Searching a little more widely finds many more examples of poems about the Titanic disaster; as a shocking event, it has attracted many tributes from poets known and unknown. For instance, there's the McGonagallesque In Memory of the Great Titanic by Jessie Gordon Allan. The Titanic poetry discussion at Encyclopedia Titanica leads to quite a few: After the Titanic by the Irish poet Derek Mahon describes not the diaaster but the personal aftermath for Ismay; EJ Pratt's 1099-line epic The Titanic ...

And out there in the starlight, with no trace
Upon it of its deed but the last wave
From the Titanic fretting at its base,
Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods,
The grey shape with the palaeolithic face
Was still the master of the longitudes.

... and Hall Caine's 1912 memorial Hymn for Survivors of the Titanic. Christopher Thomas Nixon's 1912 The Passing of the Titanic gets, despite its flawless iambic pentameter, repeated nomination as the worst ever Titanic poem for its overblown and clumsy imagery:

Through deep-sea gates of famed Southampton's bay,
A mammoth liner swings in churning slide
Her regal tread ridged opaline gulfs asway,.
And gauntlet flings to chance, wind, shoal and tide.
Ark wonderful! Palatial town marine,
Invention's flower, rose-peak of skill-wrought plan;
The jewelled crown of Art the wizard, seen
Since Noah's trade in Shinar's land began.

Vast triple screws gyrating flail and bore
Swart blades as flukes of monstrous scouring whale;
Huge arm-rock cranks, and tree-bole shaftings roar
And thrum reverberate, loud dynamic gale.
Stout deep-thrust pistons lunge and flash disport
As mastadonic mighty tusks agleam;
Grim arc-bent turbine giant whirrs retort,
And gasps propulsing, force-gyved record dream.

The proud leviathanic courser bowls
Like flank-gored steed in all-out pounding race;
Though wireless tocsin sparked on ether tolls,
To brand Cain's curse-mark on her curbless face.
To-day she spurns yeast-spouting aftermath,
Displays spun heels of frolic rainbowed scorn;
Next sun will scan surprised, abandoned path
With flotsam pride and jetsam glories mourn.

Bare anguished Nations! Bow and shameless pour
With reason palled, and voices numb your tears;
Ten thousand shattered homes struck mourning sore
To aching yearn through cloud-filled blighted years!
Implore, prayer heeding, Heaven's All-loving Love,
Distil celestial balm, shed peace for pain;
At length in non-sea realms - which nought can move-
Mend every rift, weld every wreck-rent chain.

Even, of all people, Aleister Crowley wrote a poem about the Titanic disaster.

FORTH flashed the serpent streak of steel,
Consummate crown of man's device;
Down crashed upon an immobile
And brainless barrier of ice.
The grey gods shoot a laughing lip: ---
Let not faith founder with the ship!

We reel before the blows of fate;
Our stout souls stagger at the shock.
Oh! there is Something ultimate
Fixed faster than the living rock.
Catastrophe beyond belief
Harden our hearts to fear and grief!

The gods upon the Titans shower
Their high intolerable scorn;
But no god knoweth in what hour
A new Prometheus may be born.
Man to his doom goes driving down;
A crown of thorns is still a crown!

No power of nature shall withstand
At last the spirit of mankind:
It is not built upon the sand;
It is not wastrel to the wind.
Disaster and destruction tend
To taller triumph in the end.

- Aleister Crowley, The Equinox, the official organ of the A∴A∴ The review of scientific illuminism, v. 1, no. 9 - 1913.

Reading all these in quick succession does make you realise that even good poets produced - as the Encyclopedia Titanica forum moderator Inger Sheil puts it - "dreadful, if heartfelt, poetry" ...

I came across so much Titanic verse dedicated to the crew alone - and particularly Smith - when trawling through UK newspapers that I wrote an article for the ADB 3 on the subject a couple of years ago. Genuine pathos sits side by side, almost indiscriminately, with laughable bathos. It's no wonder that Shaw wrote such a searing column 4 on the swill that was circulating - when he says that some writers were handing paens to Captain Smith that they would hardly write for Nelson, it's a good description of some of the Smith poems (some of which have the Captain going down with his ship in raging sea and wave, glibly adding him to the pantheon of heroic British figures like Raleigh).

... and, even it fell into the cliche of the "inexorable fate" motif complained of by Shaw, what a higher order of work the Hardy poem is.
- Ray

1. Thomas Hardy - selected poems, ed. Tim Armstrong, Longman, 1993
2. Note to myself: check out Inger Shiel's comment which reports on the similar outbeak of "overwhelming outpouring of such truly dreadful poetry - particularly wretched doggerel" over the death of Lincoln, a poetic iceberg of which Whitman's O Captain! My Captain! is the respectale visible portion.
3. Atlantic Daily Bulletin, the research journal of the British Titanic Society.
4. "The Titanic: Some Unmentioned Morals", George Bernard Shaw, Daily News, 14 May 1912 - reported here in the New York Times.


  1. I don't think I have seen one poem about 9/11.

  2. Simon Armitage has written one called 'Convergence', styled on Hardy's.