Every literary description is a view. It would be said that the speaker, before describing, stands at the window, not so much to see, but to establish what he sees by its very frame: the window frame creates the scene. To describe is thus to place the empty frame which the realistic author always carries with him (more important than his easel) before a connection or continuum of objects which cannot be put into words without this obsessive operation (which could be laughable as a "gag"); in order to speak about it, the writer, through this initial rite, first translates the "real" into a depicted (framed) object; having done this, he can take down this object, remove it from his picture: in short to depict is to unroll the carpet of the codes, to refer not from a language to a referent but from one code to another). Thus, realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real. — Roland Barthes, S/Z, sec. 23, trans. Richard Miner
hereas the Christian intonation of the shipwreck and similar paradigms implies — indeed requires — the presence of a concerned, judging God, the very point of Romantic and post-Romantic ones is that they occur in His absence. From this absence follow two implications important to the student of iconology. First, whereas the traditional Christian uses of these situations of crisis portray the victim of disaster as a perceived object, the post-Christian ones present him as a perceiving subject (or consciousness). Second, each form of the situation is associated with both a particular point of view and a characteristic narrative distance. For example, in the Christian intonation of the shipwreck the narrator aligns himself with God (or a divine nature) and looks from a distance at those others who are experiencing this crisis, but in the post-Christian form the narrator relates the experience from within.
The fact that a particular narrative position and distance appear [183/184] associated with each form of this paradigm is of interest to the iconsologist because it suggests that paradigms are crucially related to other aspects of literary technique, theme, and form and that individual paradigms, as elements within a work, cannot be simply or mechanically interchanged: changing, exchanging, or transforming any one element requires an adjustment in at least some of the others as well. The relation of the paradigm to the work of visual and verbal art is therefore never merely additive.
The contrast between Christian and post-Christian intonations of the shipwreck paradigm appears in the fourth book of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage where Byron employs both of them . When Childe Harold speaks as a moralist, he makes an elaborate use of the essentially Christian form, and he removes himself both physically and emotionally from those he would have the waters destroy:
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin — his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are an thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan —
Without a grave - unkenned, uncoffined, and unknown. . . .
Thou dost arise
And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields
For Earth's destructions though dost an despise
Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies -
And send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray
And howling, to his Gods, where haply lies
His petty hope in some near port or bay,
And dashest him again to Earth: — there let him lay. [canto 4, st. 179-80]
Thus, like another deity, the speaker would send a Deluge to cleanse the earth of men who corrupt and abuse nature. His description of man's acts and qualities as "vile" and "petty" implicitly removes him and those other human beings upon whom he cans down the forces of the sea. Summoning the ocean's energies, on the other hand, places the speaker close to the center of power and morality. Such attempts to remove oneself from other men and assume the position and perquisites of a judging deity continue to the present day. They become increasingly difficult, however, for two reasons, one religious and one aesthetic. Such a stance becomes thus problematic once the religious attitude that provided its basis began to weaken; and in addition, the demands of Romantic and post-Romantic art to present the experience of things from within often creates major rhetorical difficulties for the author who wishes to distance himself from the experience.
To Byron's traditional use of the situation of crisis we may compare his Romantic intonation of it earlier in the same canto. Standing amid the ruins of Rome, the Childe tells us he has thought about his own past.
Till I had bodied forth the heated mind
Forms from the floating wreck which Ruin leaves behind;
And from the planks, far shattered o'er the rocks,
Built me a little bark of hope, once more
To battle with the Ocean and the shocks
Of the loud breakers, and the ceaseless roar
Which rushes on the solitary shore
Where an lies foundered that was ever dear:
But could I gather from the wave-worn store
Enough for my rude boat, where should I steer?
There woos no home, nor hope, nor life, save what is here. [canto 4, st. 104-5]
Here in the common Romantic version of this situation, Byron presents his speaker as a spiritual castaway, one who cannot force himself to rig a lifeboat, because even if he were successful, he would have nowhere to go — he has no destination, he does not know if any exists, and even if he suspected one docs exist, he has no idea how to go about finding it. What immediately strikes one about this second passage from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is that it is less seen than experienced. The shipwreck metaphor has become a means of conveying a certain experience of crisis, of loss, and not, as in the more traditional passage, a device to convey a moral judgment. Once God disappears — whether he has ceased to exist or has just [185/186] inexplicably hidden himself — the moral center of the shipwreck and similar paradigms moves inward, into the experience, into the situation itself, for there is no longer any other intellectually acceptable vantage-point.
The use of the shipwreck as punishment or test hardly ceases entirely with the onset of Romanticism, but there are not many major authors like Gerard Manley Hopkins who believe firmly enough to use the commonplace In the traditional Christian manner. "The Loss of the Eurydice," which does so, opens with the poet emphasizing the presence of God, Who was neither indifferent to this terrible disaster of a training vessel nor absent from the world when it occurred.
The Eurydice — it concerned thee, O Lord
Three hundred souls, O alas! on board,
Some asleep unawakened, an unwarned, eleven fathoms fallen
Where she foundered! [11. 1-5]
The poet explains that since the sunken ship carried neither money nor merchandise, it did not sink as punishment for mercantile greed — the explanation cited by Turner and Falconer. Although Hopkins states that the ship did not 'pride her, freighted fully, on/ Bounden bales or a hoard of bullion (ll. 9-10), he nonetheless manages to accuse the ship of pride:
Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!
Royal, and an her royals wore.
Sharp with her, shorten sail!
Too late; lost; gone with the gale. [ll. 33-6]
This witty play on "proud" yet hardly seems adequate to explain why these many young men perished or what lesson their death bears for us.
After remarking upon the innocence of the drowned men, the heroism of Captain Hare, and the beauty of one unidentified corpse Hopkins quietly relinquishes his initial concern to explain why this shipwreck happened. Instead, he treats the victims as emblems, and we can observe the crucial shift in method when he comments that the handsome drowned sailor [186/187]
was but one like thousands more,
Day and night I deplore
My own people and born own nation,
Fast foundering own generation. [ll. 85-8]
Hopkins deplores England, his own nation, because it is Protestant, having fallen away from Roman Catholicism, which he takes to be the true faith, centuries before. Like Dante, he uses the metaphor of shipwreck to threaten a people he believes due for divine punishment. Indeed, once Hopkins announces that England is a Protestant nation, he becomes so troubled by sixteenth-century destruction of shrines that he almost forgets this nineteenth-century shipwreck. Rather than answer his initial question, he simply bypasses it.
The poet's unsureness in handling the shipwreck as fact and metaphor in this poem appears most obviously when he describes the crew, in "Unchrist, an throned in ruin" (l. 96); for although one can admire the complex ambiguities here, the impression one receives none the less is that matters have got out of Hopkins's control. The young men, as Protestants, are already "in ruin," though it must be primarily spiritual ruin that he intends here; it is also true that the young Protestants, who are "in Unchrist," have met the ruin of physical death in this shipwreck, but one does not know if being Protestant is itself sufficient moral cause for their deaths. Thus, by moving unsurely between a literal explanation of why these three hundred identifiable people died and a use of them as emblems, Hopkins seems to evade an overt statement that Protestants die because they are Protestants and that therefore the shipwreck was just punishment; and yet his argument seems to demand this necessary conclusion.
None of these rhetorical difficulties afflicts The Wreck of the Deutschland, which takes the five Franciscan nuns as innocent victims of the sea disaster. The poet places most of the blame for the wreck upon the German govemment, which had exiled the nuns, but his primary elegiac resolution comes in his discovery that the nun who called for Christ was an antitype of the Virgin, for by calling to her Saviour she also gave birth to the word of God, as had Mary before her. Having made this rather extraordinary leap of faith, Hopkins can then respond affirmatively to his own question, "is the shipwreck then a harvest?" (st. 31) and admiringly turn to God. "master of the tides,/ Of the Yore-flood" (st. 32).
Last modified 15 July 2007