We, like the disciples, are toss'd,
By storms on a perilous deep;
But cannot be possibly lost,
ForJesus has charge of the ship
Though billows and winds are enrag'd,
And threaten to make us their sport;
This pilot his word has engag'd
To bring us in safety to port. — John Newton, "The Disciples at Sea," from The Olney Hymns
We know not where we go, or what sweet dream
May pilot us through caverns strange and fair
Of far and pathless passion, while the stream
Of life, our bark doth on its whirlpools bear,
Spreading swift wings as sails to the dim air;
Nor should we seek to know, so the devotion
Of love and gentle thoughts be heard still there. — Percy Bsysshe Shelley, The Revolt of Islam, Canto 6, st. 29
We, the weak mariners of that wide lake
Where'er its shores extend or billows roll,
Our course unpiloted and starless make
O'er its wild surface to an unknown goal.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Witch of Atlas, st. 63
. . . and those far, elusive lights plunged the souls of seamen into darkness, offering them false hope . . . — From an ancient pilot's manual
We've been bewitched by countless lies,
by azure images of ice,
by false promises of open sky and sea,
and rescued by a God we don't believe.
Like coppers rattling from a beggar's plate
guiding lights have fallen on our days
and burned and died.
We've pressed our ship
a pilgrimage of nights toward such lights
as, always elusive, lured and tricked
the keel upon the rocks and ripped
the helmhold from the hand and I shed
the beggared palm to scraps.
Ice tightens ar the bow and breath.
To dock, to drop the anchor to its rest,
to drift (a dream!) on waters quieted
and calmed. We can't. We're after a mirage....
seacons canst be trusted. Trust instead
the will of your own hand and head.
Again the captain waves his glass,
sights a beacon, turns and cries
'Helmsman! There's a beacon. Are you blind?'
but Helmsman, with the truer eye
thinks mutiny and grumbles,
"A mirage." — Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "Ballad about False Beacons" trans. Anthonv Kahn
ike the loss of one's heavenly destination, the disappearance of one's heavenly guide forms another part of the typology of shipwreck. Perhaps because the journey's goal and end is so far removed from wherever the voyager finds himself at the present, its disappearance does not produce moments of extreme crisis, and therefore this situation serves as a figure to communicate ennui and disillusion rather than crisis. When the traveller perceives that the stars by which he guides his course have vanished, however, then he feels something akin to panic, for the loss of these guides leayes him disoriented and in danger. Such moments of recognition occur to believers and unbelievers alike. In "Le Pont," for example, Victor Hugo, a man of faith, feels himself lost in the silent, mute infinity of the abyss, but, suddenly, "Au fond, a travers l'ombre, impenetrable voile,/ On apercevait Dieu comme une sombre etoile" (In the depths, across the shadows, through the impenetrable veil, God is seen like a sombre star). With such a star to provide his bearings, the otherwise helpless worshipper can then use prayer, which is the 'bridge' of the title, to reach his Lord.
Characteristically, when a non-believer employs this figure, he moves in an opposing direction, for rather than begin with a sense of disorientation and then find a guiding star, he will first mention a star and then suddenly recognize that it is missing. When Conrad Aiken presents this situation in "Preludes," he thus describes how he
turned for terror,
Seeking in vain the Pole Star of my thought;
Where it was blown among the shapeless clouds,
And gone as soon as seen, and scarce recalled,
Its image lost and I directionless;
Alone upon the brown sad edge of chaos,
In the wan evening that was evening always.
This disorienting loss of one's guiding star, then, creates one of those moments, like that of the actual shipwreck itself, in which one realizes one's isolation and helplessness. The goal of the lifejourney, of course, always existed necessarily at some remove from the pilgrim, but the guide or guiding star always existed within one's sight, and when it vanishes the shock is far greater than when the heavenly destination becomes cast into doubt.
The disappearance of Aiken's "Pole Star," like the disappearance of all such heavenly guides, provides a particularly effective structure therefore to communicate the emotional shock of encountering what one may term a primal absence — an absence of that divinity who founds one's entire sense of order and coherence. St Augustine's original metaphor does not mention any guiding star or other assistance for the pilgrim voyaging back to God and his heavenly home, but the very fact that in his vision of things the pilgrim senses both his state of exile and an essential need to be with God means that St Augustine believes that man possesses some sort of inner guide. That guide, that essential longing for God and the essential recognition that one is incomplete, is, in effect, the divine presence in Everyman. When Aiken and others, such as Shelley, Nerval, and Moore, find no such guide, they also encounter a sudden absence of their God, of any God.
This disappearance of the pole-star has served many British and American writers of the last hundred years as a particularly effective way of emphasizing spiritual crisis precisely because the Evangelical Protestant revival that has such profound influence upon the culture of England, Wales, Scotland, and America made figures of the divine presence so popular. The situation that we may call "the pole-star vanishes" thus acts as an inversion, a denial, of commonplace images and analogies which countless hymns, sermons, tracts, emblem books, and the like had established as a popular cultural code.
Hymns, for example, frequently emphasized that no matter how endangered the Christian voyager believed himself, he still had some sort of divine presence with him in his vessel. William Hiley Bathurst's "Great God, when I approach Thy throne" provides an unusually abstract version of such assurance when it presents the Christian confiding that
My course I could not safely steer
Through life's tempestuous sea;
Did not this truth relieve my fear,
That Jesus died for me.
Far more common is the situation in which Christ or His voice turns out to be in the endangered ship. Thus, James Grant's "O Zion, afflicted with wave upon wave" explains that although Christians are "With darkness surrounded, by terrors dismay'd," they do not have to fear, since "skilful's the Pilot who sits at the helm." Then, after offering such comfort, the hymn presents Christ Himself providing words of needed assurance:
"My promise, My truth, are they light in thy eyes?
Still, still I am with thee, My promise shall stand,
Through tempest and tossing, I'll bring thee to land."
Charlotte Elliott's "When waves of trouble round me swell" similarly figures forth the divine presence as a voice, as does John Newton's "Pensive, doubting, fearful heart." Several of his other immensely popular hymns instead simply assert the presence of God as guide or pilot. In "The Lord will provide" (or "Though troubles assail"), Newton thus reassures us:
may, like the ships,
By tempests be tost
On perilous deeps,
But cannot be lost: . . .
For though we are strangers,
We have a good guide.
This Christian assurance that God was present with him during the course of the lifejourney meant that the Lord, a being existing out of space and time, was both the believer's guide and goal, for He sustained the Christian during his pilgrimage and yet awaited him at its close. God, in other words, was both present and absent, or at least the believer could not fully enjoy His presence until he joined Him in heaven, the Christian's true home.
As John Newton's "The Disciples at Sea," which I have placed as an epigraph to this section, reminds us, the notion of Christ as pilot, guide, or vocal presence derives in part from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St John. Old Testament incidents similarly supported such a conception of God's guiding presence since the sacred history recorded in its various books was accepted by Christians of all denominations until quite late in the last century as containing divinely intended anticipations of Christ and His dispensation. Thus, Moses' sight from Mount Pisgah of the unattained Promised Land was commonly interpreted as a prevision of the Christian heaven, while the pillars of fire and cloud that led the Hebrews through their desert wanderings were similarly taken as types of Christ's presence to the believer. Newman's "The Pillar of the Cloud," which is usually known as "Lead, Kindly Light" from its opening words, makes the common assumption that the things and events of the Old Testament not only prefigure matters of importance to the Christian but also refer to his life as well. Employing the language of the typologist, one can say that individual types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament saw completion (or were fulfilled) both in the life of Christ Himself and also in the lives of his followers, who constitute Christ Mystical.[My Victorian Types (1980) London: 13-63, provides an introduction to the hermeneutic approach and its effect on British nineteenth-century thought.]
Unlike hymns, which were only accepted by High Anglicans in the second half of the nineteenth century, biblical typology was shared by Roman Catholics, High and Low Church Anglicans, and a great many Evangelical denominations throughout the Western world. Liturgies, the church calendar, stained-glass windows, eucharistic vessels, altar frontals, Bible commentaries, sermons, and, where employed, hymns all taught believers to read their Bibles in terms of types and shadows of Christ. This once almost universal hermeneutic mode provided particularly strong support for the notion that one could perceive God's presence in this world. Personal types, such as Moses, Samson, or Melchisedek, each anticipate some portion of Christ's history and message. Types (or 'figures' as they are also known) endow biblical history with major spiritual value in several ways. First of all, they together form a system of progressive revelation that gradually announces Christ's appearance in human history. Second, types, which provide a kind of hidden structure to scriptural events, demonstrate God's orderly plan for His children the so-called Gospel Scheme. Third, they demonstrate dramatically that God, Who is in some way present in each type, has appeared countless times in human history. Fourth, types constitute a semiotics of the divine presence, for they individually serve as the signifying elements in a divine code impressed on history. Types, in other words, are God's writing in human events, and as such they offer yet another form of the divine presence. In effect, each individual type serves as the believer's guide and pilot, for each not only bears the often unexpected stamp of God's presence in complex and occasionally hard-to-understand events but also establishes a proper Christian vantage-point.
Since biblical typology relied upon a belief that the Bible was literally, even in translation, the word of God, it gradually lost its attraction for all but the most conservative Evangelical groups. Geology, comparative philology, archeology, and other disciplines that tended to discredit the literal veracity of the Scriptures undermined typology, and by the late nineteenth century it was already a generally outmoded form of thought and biblical interpretation. Typology, which was an extraordinarily complex cultural code, did far more than merely relate Old and New Testaments: it conveyed an entire conception of divine presence and divine significance. The loss of these basic attitudes about the nature of reality proved far more traumatic than the loss of a powerful repository of complex literary and artistic allusions.
Against such a background, therefore, the situation of the polestar's disappearance stands out with particular force, for, as we have seen, it represents, notjust a loss of certainty or a shaken faith, but an entirely new sense of being in the world; or stated differently, such a topos communicates the experience of finding oneself with a world radically different from that described in the various Christian structures of assurance. The sheer emptiness of a cosmos in which an expected God turns out to be missing appears a central fact. As Gerard de Nerval describes this emptied universe in the second part of "Le Christ aux oliviers,"
Partout le sol desert cotoye par des ondes,
Des tourbillons confus d'oceans agites . . .
Un soufffle vague emeut les spheres vagabondes,
Mais nul esprit existe en ces immensites,
En cherchant l'oeil de Dieu, je n'ai vu qu'une orbite
Vaste, noire et sans fond, d'ou la nuit qui l'habite
Rayonne sur le monde et s'epaissit toujours.
[Everywhere the desert soil bordered by waves, by
the confused eddies of rough oceans . . . An uncertain breath
moves the wandering spheres, but no spirit exists in those vast
spaces. Seeking the eye of God, I saw only a huge black
bottomless socket, whence the night that dwells in it radiates
over the world and becomes ever more dense.
[trans. Anthony Hartley, ellipsis in original]
Obsessed by the emptiness, the absence he encounters, Nerval proceeds by inverting all the usual emblems of watching divinity: the seeing eye of a present God becomes the unseeing, empty socket of a skull, which is the remains of a now absent life. God's light, which, according to the Gospel of St John, illuminates the entire creation, becomes a darkness that similarly penetrates and permeates everything. All the qualities of caring, life-creating, guiding Presence become transformed into their opposites.
Like Nerval, Thomas Carlyle, the first and most influential of the Victorian sages, employs this same intonation of the lifejourney to create an entire imaginative world. We have already observed how this paradigmatic metaphor emerged from within (and against) various Christian ones, and we have also observed the uses to which several poets have put it. Now I would like to trace this paradigmatic moment of recognition through the works of a single author, Carlyle, who returns to it frequently.
Carlyle as sage concerns himself chiefly with the spiritual life and particularly the spiritual ills of his time. In Sartor Resartus, his experimental combination of autobiography, satire, Bildungsroman, and fantasy, he therefore uses the disappearance of the pole-star to dramatize a crucial moment in the life of his representative man, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh. In the days before Carlyle's hero attains a post-Christian faith, he finds himself lost and alone, and he suffers terribly in his isolation:
Whither should I go? My Loadstars were blotted out; in that canopy of grim fire shone no star. Yet forward must I; the ground burnt under me; there was no rest for the sole of my foot. I was alone, alone! ["Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh"]
Like so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century wanderers and would-be pilgrims, the Clothes-Philosopher presents his experience of crisis in terms of a pattern that begins with the search for the polestar, mentions its absence, and ends with the recognition that the earth has suddenly become transformed into a desert, universe of death, and hell-on-earth. As Carlyle explains in The Life of John Sterling, his tribute to one imperilled voyager, when the modern traveller looks heavenward for guidance, he finds no stars by which to chart his way because in the "wild dim-lighted chaos all stars of Heaven [have] gone out. No star of Heaven visible, hardly now to any man." Instead, the would-be pilgrim, the nineteenth-century Everyman, finds that "pestiferous fogs, and foul exhalations" have "blotted-out all stars: will-o'-wisps, of various course and colour, take dhe place of stars." The way, if there is a way, quickly becomes lost, and the pilgrim must stumble along as best he can through "his pathless wanderings." Such is the world of Carlyle, and such, he says, is the nineteenth-century world in which Sterling found himself:
No fixed highways more; the old spiritual highways and recognized paths to the Eternal, now all torn-up and flung in heaps, submerged in unutterable boiling mud-oceans of Hypocrisy and Unbelievability, of brutal living Atheism and damnable dead putrescent Cant; surely a tragic pilgrimage for all mortals; darkness, and the mere shadow of Death, enveloping all things from pole to pole; and in the raging gulfcurrents, offering us will-o'-wisps for load-stars, — intimating that there are no stars, nor even were except some Old-Jew ones which have now gone out. Once more, a tragic pilgrimage for all mortals, and for the young pious soul, winged with genius, and passionately seeking land and passionately abhorrent of floating carrion withal, more tragical dhan for any! - A pilgrimage we must all undertake nevertheless, and make the best of it with our respective means. Some arrive; a glorious few: many must be lost, - go down upon the floating wreck they took for land.
Carlyle's concluding figure makes one perceive how much the significance of disaster on the lifejourney has changed. The image of the sailors who meet their destruction when they mistake something perilous for dry land is an old one: Physiologus tells the tale of the mariners who mistake Leviathan for secure haven and drown when this embodiment of Satan dives beneath the surface. Milton similarly likens the devil to this illusory isle in the first book of Paradise Lost. [For other instances of this topos in Milton, see ,Barbara K. Lewalski, "The Ship-Tempest Imagery in 'Samson Agonistes,'" Notes and Queries, 204 (1959): 372-73.] In both cases the voyagers on the journey of life perish because they sin, but in Carlyle's terrifying vision of the human condition one perishes merely because such risk, such peril, is an essential part of dhe unguided voyage.
In the essay entided "Boswell's Life of Johnson," Carlyle traces the origins ofthis modern world of the unguided life journey back to the eighteenth century. For then, says Carlyle, men first began to doubt the existence of the Everlasting City; then sheets of fog first began to obscure the stars that had always guided man's life-voyage, as it seemed that they paled and, one by one, went out. Since most men journey through this life in large groups, never questioning either the route or the destination, it took a long time for them to perceive how perilous their voyage had become. Almost all
sail their Life-voyage in huge fleets, following some single whalefishing or herring-fishing Commodore: the log-book of each differs not, in essential purport, from that of any other: nay, the most have no legible log-book (reflection, observation not being among their talents); keep no reckoning, only keep in sight of the flagship, — and fish.
The lives of the majority of men do not, therefore, interest Carlyle as much as the histories of those who steer their own courses, whether as commodores or as solitary, endangered mariners.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, these heroic men (as Carlyle deems himself to be) find themselves adrift, castaway, becalmed, or verging on shipwreck. They clutch at literature, "wonderful Ark of the Deluge, where so much that is precious, nay priceless to mankind, floats carelessly onwards through the Chaos of distracted times." Moreover, since the history of literature during the past two centuries "is our proper church History" the 'other Church, during that time, having more and more decayed from its old functions and influencess — Carlyle turns to the lives of literary men for tales of spiritual voyagers, for tales of both those who make port and those who perish in the waste ocean.
In "Diderot," for example, he discusses a man brave, sincere, but mistaken — one who exemplifies the isolated, defeated traveller. Originally, he did not sail alone, for he had D'Alembert, his fellow philosophe, as companion, but after the Revolution his friend abandoned him. "Sad it was to see his fellow-voyager make for port, and disregard signals, when the sea-krakens rose round him!" Diderot courageously forged on alone until he had "sailed through the Universe of Worlds and found no Maker thereof." Like the lost Teufelsdrockh, like Nerval, he finds himself in a Universe of Death. He looked for "the DIVINE EYE, and beheld only the black, bottomless, glaring DEATH's EYE-SOCKET; such, with all his wide voyagings, was the philosophic fortune he had realized." "It is," says Teufelsdrockh, "but the common lot in this era. Not having come to spiritual majority prior to the Siecle de Louis Quinze.... thou hadst no other outlook. The whole world is, like thee, sold to Unbelief" ("The Everlasting No," Sartor Resartus). Unlike the Clothes-Philosopher, Diderot finds no salvation. He becomes one of the failed voyagers from whom we can learn courage but from whose lives we can learn nothing else that will aid us on our own life-journey.
Of far more interest to him are the lives of those like Samuel Johnson, who make port despite the roughest seas. According to the Victorian seer, Boswell's Life, "our English Odyssey," reveals the major significance of "that great Samuel Johnson . . . the far-experienced, "much-enduring", man, whose labours and pilgrimage are here sung." Though this English "Ulysses," like Diderot, finds himself a solitary voyager on the waste ocean of life, he yet manages to complete his journey successfully. One can imagine the great Cham nodding approval at Carlyle's description of him, for as he himself wrote in The Rambler, no. 184:
We set out on a tempestuous sea, in quest of some port, where we expect to find rest, but where we are not sure of admission;we are not only in danger of sinking in the way, but of being misled by meteors mistaken for stars, of being driven from our course by the changes of the wind, and of losing it by unskillful steerage.
Perhaps Carlyle had this very passage in mind when he wrote, in 'Boswell's Life of Johnson," that when Johnson
looked up to Religion, as to the polestar of his voyage, already there was no fixed polestar any longer visible; but two stars, a whole constellation of stars, each proclaiming itself as the true. There was the red portentous comet-star of Infidelity; the dim-fixed star, burning ever dimmer, uncertain whether or not an atmospheric meteor, of Orthodoxy.
Thus, in terms that, by intention or coincidence, closely match Johnson's own, Carlyle describes this hero-as-man-of-letters in mid-journey. One should incidentally point out how significant are the differences in the way each employs the topos of the perilous voyage: although both conceive of the journey of life as difficult and dangerous, Dr. Johnson holds that man goes astray through his own weakness — through weakness that may at last prevent his admission to port. Carlyle, on the other hand, emphasizes that the stars — the heavenly guides — and not the voyager are most at fault.
Last modified 16 July 2007