An old man named Daniel Baker, living near Lebanon, Iowa, was suspected by his neighbors of having murdered a peddler who had obtained permission to pass the night at his house. This was in 1853, when peddling was more common in the Wester... Read more of Present At A Hanging at Scary Stories.caInformational Site Network Informational

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Love And Will
Meditation And Recollection
The First Form Of Contemplation
The Mystical Life
The Preparation Of The Mystic
The Second Form Of Contemplation
The Third Form Of Contemplation
The World Of Reality
What Is Mysticism?
Anaximenes And The Air
Animism, Ancient And Modern
Brooks And Streams
Development And Discipline Of Intuition
Earth, Mountains, And Plains
Fire And The Sun
Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire
Light And Darkness
Man And Nature
Mystic Intuition And Reason
Mystic Receptivity
Nature Mysticism And The Race
Nature Not Symbolic
Nature, And The Absolute
Poetry And Nature Mysticism
Rivers And Death
Rivers And Life
Seasons, Vegetation, Animals
Springs And Wells
Still Waters
The Beautiful And The Ugly
The Charge Of Anthropomorphism
The Expanse Of Heaven--colour
The Immanent Idea
The Moon--a Special Problem
The Ocean
The Waters Under The Earth
Will And Consciousness In Nature
Winds And Clouds

The Ocean

The Ocean! What is its mystic significance? A question as
fraught with living issues as its physical object is spacious and
profound. Infinitely varied and yet unchanging; gentle and yet
terrible; radiant and yet awful;

"Calm or convulsed, in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark heaving"--

there is not a mood with which the ocean cannot link itself, nor
a problem to which it cannot hint, albeit darkly, a solution. To
attempt a description of its external phenomena were a hardy
task--much more to grapple with its protean influences on the
souls of men.

Let the approach be by way of mythology. It was shown how
that Thales was partly guided to his choice of Water as the
_Welt-stoff_ by its place and function in the ancient
cosmologies. Numerous and widely diffused were the myths of
a primeval ocean out of which the structured universe arose.
The Babylonian tablet tells of the time before the times "when
above were not raised the heavens, and below on the earth a
plant had not grown up; the abyss also had not broken up its
boundary. The chaos, the sea, was the producing mother of
them all." A passage from the Rig Veda speaks likewise of the
time, or rather the no-time, which preceded all things. "Death
was not then, nor immortality; there was no distinction of day or
night. Only _Something_ breathed without breath, inwardly
turned towards itself. Other than it there was nothing." And how
did these ancient mystics best picture to themselves the
primeval, or timeless, _Something_?--"What was the veiling
cover of everything?"--they themselves ask. And they answer
with another question--"Was it the water's deep abyss?" They
think of it as "an ocean without light." "Then (say they) from
the nothingness enveloped in empty gloom, Desire (Love)
arose, which was the first germ of mind. This loving impulse
the Sages, seeking in their heart, recognised as the bond
between Being and Non-Being." How deep the plunge here into
the sphere of abstract thought! Yet so subtle and forceful had
been the mystic influence of the ocean on the primitive mind
that it declares itself as a working element in their abstrusest

Nor has this mystic influence as suggesting the mysteries of
origin ceased to be operative. Here is Tennyson, addressing his
new-born son:

"Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep."

And again, when nearing the end of his own life, he strikes the
same old mystic chord:

"When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home."

Wordsworth, of course, felt the power of this ocean-born
intuition, and assures us that here and now:

"Tho' inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither."

And of intense interest as modernising the ancient concept of
"_Something_ which breathed without breath," is his appeal:

"Listen, the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder--everlastingly."

It will not be possible to do more than draw attention to those
chief characteristics of the ocean which have given it so large a
place in the minds of men. And first would come the vastness of
the sea, which prompts vague intuitions of mystery and infinity.
The sight of its limitless expanse still has this power. "The sea
(says Holmes) belongs to eternity, and not to time, and of that it
sings for ever and ever." How natural, then, the trend of the
mythology just mentioned, and the belief in a primeval ocean--a
formless abyss--Tiamat--which, as Milton puts it in a splendid
line, is:

"The womb of nature and perhaps her grave."

But added to the mystic influence of sheer limitlessness are the
manifestations of power and majesty, which compel the awe
and wonder of those who "go down to the sea in ships and do
their business in great waters." In the minds of early navigators,
the experience of the terrors of the sea begot a sense of
relationship to hostile powers. One of the oldest Aryan words
for sea, the German _Meer_, Old English _Mere_, means death
or destruction; and the destructive action of the ocean's
untutored elementary force found personifications in the
Teutonic Oegir (Terror), with his dreaded daughter, and the
sea-goddess, Ran, his wife, who raged in storms and overwhelmed
the ships. The eastern peoples, including the Hebrews, regarded
the sea as the abode of evil powers, as certain of the visions in
the Book of Daniel strikingly testify. Nor is this feeling of the
action of hostile powers yet extinct. Victor Hugo makes fine use
of it in his description of the storm in "The Toilers of the Sea."

Jefferies was always deeply affected by the vast-ness and
strength of the sea. "Let me launch forth" (he writes) "and sail
over the rim of the sea yonder, and when another rim rises over
that, and again onwards into an ever-widening ocean of idea and
life. For with all the strength of the wave, and its succeeding
wave, the depth and race of the tide, the clear definition of the
sky; with all the subtle power of the great sea, there rises the
equal desire. Give me life strong and full as the brimming
ocean; give me thoughts wide as its plain. . . . My soul rising to
the immensity utters its desire-prayer with all the strength of the

In many of its aspects, the ocean can stimulate and soften
moods of sadness. The peculiar potency of the play of the
waves is reserved for the next chapter. But the more general
influences of this character are many and of undoubted
significance. The vast loneliness of its watery, restless plains;
its unchangeableness; its seeming disregard for human destinies;
the secrets buried under its heaving waters--these and a
multitude of like phenomena link themselves on to man's sadder
reveries. Morris asks:

"Peace, moaning sea; what tale have you to tell,
What mystic tidings, all unknown before?"

His answer is in terms of longing for the unrealised:

"The voice of yearning, deep but scarce expressed,
For something which is not, but may be yet;
Too full of sad continuance to forget,
Too troubled with desires to be at rest,
Too self-conflicting ever to be blest."

In strong contrast with this is the exhilarating, tonic power of
the sea. Coleridge, revisiting the seashore, cries:

"God be with thee, gladsome Ocean!
How gladly greet I thee once more."

Myers emphasises the fact that Swinburne, in his principal
autobiographical poem, "Thalassius, or Child of the Sea,"
reveals a nature for which the elemental play of the ocean is the
intensest stimulus. The author of that poem tells how once he
wandered off into indulgence of personal feelings, and how his
mother, the sea, recalled him from such wanderings to

"charm him from his own soul's separate sense
With infinite and invasive influence,
That made strength sweet in him and sweetness strong,
Being now no more a singer, but a song."

And akin to this exhilarating effect on a poet's sensibility is that
which it has exercised on the large scale in moulding the
characters and fortunes of seafaring nations. Longfellow had a
firm grip of this historical fact:

"Wouldst thou (so the helmsman answered)
Learn the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery."

Allan Cunningham's sea songs furnish the classical expression
of the spirit in its modern guise as embodied in the British
sailor--the defender of the isle that is "compassed by the
inviolate sea":

"The sea! the sea! the open sea!
The ever fresh, the ever free."

Byron may be criticised as too consciously "posing" in his
well-known apostrophe to the ocean; nevertheless it contains a
tang of the Viking spirit:

"And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne like thy bubbles onward: from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers."

What is the core of this Viking buoyancy and exhilaration?
Surely a sense of freedom, inspired by a life on the ocean, and
fostered by the very hardships and dangers which that life

Thus cumulative is the evidence that the present, for all its
materialism, inherits the essence of the ancient mysticism; or
rather, it is open to the same impulses and intuitions, however
changed and changing the forms they may assume. On the one
hand, the infinite complexity of man's developing soul-life; on
the other, the limitless range of the moods and aspects of the
ocean: the two are spiritually linked by ultimate community of
nature: deep calls to deep: the response is living and eternal.


The most familiar appeal of the Ocean is that of the wave which
speeds over its surface or breaks upon its shores. Poets have
found here an inexhaustible theme. Painters have here expended
their utmost skill. Whether it is the tiny ripple that dies along
the curving sands, or the merry, rustling, crested surf that
hurries on to wanton in the rocky pools, or the storm billow that
rushes wildly against an iron-bound coast to spurt aloft its
sheets of spray or to hurl its threatening mass on the trembling
strand--in each and every form the wave is a moving miracle.
Through every change of contour and interplay of curves, its
lines are ever of inimitable grace. Its gradations of colour, its
translucent opalescence framed in gleaming greens and tender
greys, wreathed with the radiance of the foam, are of inimitable
charm. Its gamuts of sounds, the faint lisp of the wavelet on the
pebbly beach, the rhythmic rise and fall of the plashing or
plunging surf, the roar and scream of the breaker, and the boom
of the billow, are of inimitable range. What marvel is it that
even the commonplace of the sons of men yield themselves
gladly to a spell they cannot analyse, content to linger, to gaze,
and to ponder!

If the spell of the waves enthralls the ordinary mortal, how
much more those whose aesthetic and spiritual senses are keen
and disciplined? Coleridge, while listening to the tide, with eyes
closed, but with mind alert, finds his thoughts wandering back

"that blind bard who on the Chian strand
By those deep sounds possessed with inward light,
Beheld the Iliad and the Odyssee
Rise to the swelling of the voiceful sea."

Swinburne, listening to the same music, exclaims:

"Yea, surely the sea like a harper
Laid his hand on the shore like a lyre."

Sometimes the emphasis is on the sympathy with the striving
forces manifested in the ceaseless activity of the ocean as it

"beats against the stern dumb shore
The stormy passion of its mighty heart."

Sometimes the emphasis is on the subjective mood which that
activity arouses:

"Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea.
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me,"

Sometimes the two are indissolubly blended as in the song,
"Am Meer," so exquisitely set to music by Schubert--where the
rhythmic echoes of the heaving tide accompany the surging
emotions of a troubled heart.

The direct impression made by the objective phenomena of the
play of waves finds abundant expression in the whole range of
literature--not the least forcefully in Tennyson. How fine his
painting of the wave on the open sea.

"As a wild wave in the wide North-Sea
Green glimmering towards the summit, bears, with all
Its stormy crests that smoke against the skies,
Down on a bark, and overbears the bark,
And him that helms it."

How perfect also the description of a wave breaking on a level,
sandy beach:

"The crest of some slow-arching wave,
Heard in dead night along that table-shore,
Drops flat, and after the great waters break
Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves,
Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
From less and less to nothing."

As to the moods thus stimulated, the one most frequently
provoked would seem to be that of sadness. Or would it be truer
to say that those whose thoughts are tinged with melancholy, or
weighted with sorrow, find in the restless, endless tossing and
breaking of the waves their fittest companions?

How sad this passage from the French poet-philosopher, Guyot.
"I remember that once, sitting on the beach, I watched
the serried waves rolling towards me. They came without
interruption from the expanse of the sea, roaring and white.
Beyond the one dying at my feet I noticed another; and farther
behind that one, another; and farther still another and another--a
multitude. At last, as far as I could see, the whole horizon
seemed to rise and roll on towards me. There was a reservoir of
infinite, inexhaustible forces there. How deeply I felt the
impotency of man to arrest the effort of that whole ocean in
movement! A dike might break one of the waves; it could break
hundreds and thousands of them; but would not the immense
and indefatigable ocean gain the victory? And this rising tide
seemed to me the image of the whole of nature assailing
humanity, which vainly wishes to direct its course, to dam it in,
to master it. Man struggles bravely; he multiplies his efforts.
Sometimes he believes himself to be the conqueror. That is
because he does not look far enough ahead, and because he does
not notice far out on the horizon the great waves which, sooner
or later, must destroy his work and carry himself away."

Similar is the train of thought which finds poetical expression in
Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."

"Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
. . .
Sophocles heard it long ago,
Heard it on the AEgaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought;
Hearing it by this distant northern sea."

And the thought! "The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of
the Sea of Faith, retreating down the "naked shingles of the

But if the pessimistic mood may thus find support in watching
the waves of the sea, so no less surely can the hopeful and
joyous mood be evolved and stimulated by the same influence.
Before Sophocles came AEschylus. The greatest hero of this
earlier poet was Prometheus, the friend of man, who, tortured
but unshaken, looked out from his Caucasian rock on the
presentments of primeval nature. How sublime his appeal!

"Ether of heaven, and Winds untired of wing,
Rivers whose fountains fail not, and thou Sea
Laughing in waves innumerable!"

To him the winds and waves brought a message of untiring,
indomitable energy--the movement, the gleam, inspired fresh
life and hope. The ideas immanent in the ocean wave are as
varied as the human experiences to which they are akin.

Or take another group of these ideas immanent in the
phenomena of the wave--the group which rouse and nurture the
aesthetic side of man's nature. Very significant in this regard is
the fact that not for the Greeks alone, but also for the Hindus
and the Teutons, the goddesses of beauty were wave-born.
When Aphrodite walked the earth, flowers sprang up beneath
her feet; but her birthplace was the crest of a laughing wave. So
Kama, the Hindu Cupid, and the Apsaras, lovely nymphs, rose
from the wind-stirred surface of the sea, drawn upward in
streaming mists by the ardent sun. So, too, the Teutonic Freyja
took shape in the sea-born cloudlets of the upper air.

The loveliness of the wave, dancing, tossing, or breaking must
have entered, from earliest days, deeply into the heart and
imagination of man, and have profoundly influenced his
mythology, his art, and his poetry. We trace this influence in
olden days by the myths of Poseidon with his seahorses and the
bands of Tritons, Nereids, and Oceanides--each and all giving
substance to vague intuitions and subconscious perceptions of
the physical beauty of the ocean.

And as for our own more immediate forefathers, the mystic
spell of the ocean wave sank deep into their rugged souls.
"When you so dance" (says Shakespeare to a maiden) "I wish
you a wave o' the sea, that you might ever do nothing but that."
The experiences of countless watchers of the wave went to the
framing of that wish!

And, as has been richly proved by quotations from our modern
poets, the mystic spell gains in potency as man's aesthetic
powers are keener and more disciplined. The present-day
nature-mystic needs no imaginary personifications to bring him
into communion with the beauty, the mystery, of the ocean
wave. He conceives of it as a manifestation of certain modes of
being which are akin to himself and which speak to him in
language too plain to be ignored or misinterpreted. Human
knowledge has not yet advanced far enough to define more
closely such modes of experience; but the fact of the experience

Next: Still Waters

Previous: Rivers And Death

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