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 can
ot 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