The western wave all a’flame: Gothic ships and sunset

Posted by Emily Alder on September 20, 2011 in Dr Emily Alder, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Sunset at sea by DidrickJohnckI am deeply fascinated at the moment by nineteenth-century Gothic sea fiction, particularly its phantoms, wrecks, and derelicts. The long nineteenth-century, as we know, saw tremendous social, industrial, and scientific developments, including the replacement of wooden sailing ships by steel and steam. The remnants of the Age of Sail still haunted our seas; wooden derelicts trapped in the currents accounted for many a phantom ship sighting, says Margaret Baker, yet by the 1930s, these were all destroyed. These ghosts remain in our literature, and in our film.

There’s an optical phenomenon whereby a green flash is visible at the moment of sunset as the sun sinks into the sea. It’s popularised in Jules Verne’s Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) (1882) and also used in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), as Jack figures out how to get the Black Pearl back into the world of the living: Up Is Down

Ghost Ship by NooA from DeviantArt

Ghost Ship by NooA

I’m less intrigued by the green ray itself than I am by the transition it marks: sunrise/ sunset, life/ death, sea/ air. Diurnal transitions figure frequently in fantastic literature: sunrise is when trolls turn to stone and vampires burn, sunset when crepuscular creatures start to stir. But there’s something particularly interesting about what happens at sunset at sea. Partly, there’s something interesting anyway about being a ship on the sea, especially before the age of modern communications. The ship’s unique state of existence is perfectly illustrated in Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), when the ship becomes

a fragment detached from the earth, [which] went on lonely and swift like a small planet. Round her the abysses of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier. A great circular solitude moved with her, ever changing and ever the same. (29)

Discussing this passage, Ian Watt remarks that ‘the main focus is on the imperative power which the sea, like other forces of nature, exercises on the lives of the men who sail upon it. … The passage holds the reader with a deepening sense of man’s lonely voyaging towards unattainable frontiers’ (96).

The emphasis is on isolation – an important theme for Conrad, in other novels too. That meeting of the two worlds of air and water leaves space for nothing else, and at the same time all the space in the world. This vast solitude is unattainable but also unescapable: the sailing ship is caught both coming and going. ‘Detached’ from the secure identity of land and nation, where does the ship exist? There may not be enough space for existence on that invisible membrane where sky meets sea. In Gothic sea fiction, that moment of existential doubt tends to hit at sunset.

How do we know when sunrise or sunset is, exactly? We could use a watch, but most of us don’t keep the sun’s daily-changing schedule in our heads. Realistically, it’s when we can see it, when there’s nothing on the horizon to get in the way. Thus one of the few places we can identify the exact moment of sunset is on the horizon of the sea. Sunset, the green flash, creates a space between life/ death, sea/ air, here/ there, real/ unreal – of the briefest size and duration, but at the same time enough for the world to change.

In Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), sunset ushers the arrival of Death and Life-in-Death’s skeletal ship:

The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate? (171-186)

Death and Life-in-Death play for the Ancient Mariner

Death and Life-in-Death play for the Ancient Mariner

The ship and the sunset blend to form vivid fiery images foreshadowing the Ancient Mariner’s hellish punishment. The game played by Death and Life-in-Death for the Ancient Mariner is a turning point for the poem – and lasts no longer than the sunset. At this point the poem, like the sinking sun itself, rushes towards night-time, and the phantom ship disappears:

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark. (199-202)

For the duration of the game, time is extended, the moment of sunset is delayed. This decisive moment takes place inside the liminal space created by the sunset.

Edgar Allen Poe, in ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ (1833), also uses sunset to mark a shift in states of reality. One evening the narrator observes a ‘remarkable’ cloud which at sunset ‘spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapour’ (100). The ship is again paralysed inside a moment, this time not of sunset but of hot, flat calm. The narrator notices ‘the peculiar character of the sea … the water seemed more than usually transparent’; the air ‘became intolerably hot’ (100). The heat, taken with the narrator’s description of the cargo – ‘coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank’ (100) – is significant. Charles May suggests that heat and its effects on the spilled cargo causes the narrator to hallucinate his experiences from this point onwards (23-7): the air becomes ‘loaded with spiral exhalations similar to those arising from heated iron’ (Poe, 100). The transition from confidence in the narrator’s story, to doubt over what is real and what is not, occurs at sunset.

A sudden hurricane strikes the ship; the narrator survives and when the derelict is run down by ‘a gigantic ship of, perhaps, four thousand tons’ (103), he is catapulted aboard. The ship is at once ghost, reality, and the uncanny product of the narrator’s unconscious:

I know not how it is, but in scrutinizing her strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and overgrown suits of canvas, her severely simple bow and antiquated stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind a sensation of familiar things, and there is always mixed up with such shadows of recollection, an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago. (106)

Alberto Vazquez's artwork for Manuscript Found in a Bottle

Alberto Vazquez's artwork for 'Manuscript Found in a Bottle'

The ship, this suggests, may be no more than a construction out of memories of the ‘education of no common order’ (99), which, ironically, the narrator asserts at the story’s opening in order to lend credence to his tale, not doubt.

Yet doubt over the ship’s existence is continually shifting. Its apparent age is echoed in its crew, whose ‘shrivelled skins rattled in the wind’ (107) and to whom the narrator is invisible and inaudible. The crew ‘glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries’ (108), but the question in the reader’s mind is, who is the ghost? Is the narrator the haunted, or the haunter? Either way, ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ encapsulates the uneasy encounter of liminal realms so characteristic of Gothic sea fiction.

Lastly, William Hope Hodgson, photographer and sailor as well writer, had an eye for the visual effects of atmospheric phenomena at sea. ‘Through the Vortex of a Cyclone’ (1909) is a descriptive account of a real-life experience. The cyclone is preceded by ‘a sunset of quite indescribable gorgeousness, which had, to me, an unnatural glow about it’ and stalk lightning like ‘pale, flickering streaks and tongues of flame rising apparently out of the sea’ (121, emphasis original). Hodgson blends his observations of the sea into his fiction. Even in this fact-based account, Hodgson’s language echoes Poe’s. In his 1909 novel The Ghost Pirates, Hodgson’s choice of name for the ship, a windjammer, the Mortzestus, alludes to Coleridge’s Life-in-Death and foreshadows its liminal fate.

Once again, the trouble begins at sunset, and again, a sense of distance or remoteness from the sun (a symbol both of normality and its transformation) is established. At sunset, the narrator sees ‘mist rise faintly—the setting sun shining through it, dim and unreal’ (241). Jessop notices other ships have vanished from the horizon, except for glimpses, through ‘convolutions of heated air’, of another ship that pops in and out of visibility. The mist, apparently, draws the Mortzestus into a parallel world, through one of the same gaps through which that other ship is visible, and through which Jessop eventually escapes.

Philipe  Druillet's artwork for The Ghost Pirates

Philipe Druillet's artwork for The Ghost Pirates

Escape is necessary, for this liminal realm is already occupied. The sunset mist springs up and shapes itself into a ghostly three-masted ship, until ‘the sun [sinks] to a mere line of light’ and ‘in the gathering dusk it seemed to me that the ship was sinking back into the ocean’ (290). Increasingly, sightings of the ghost ship grow more distinct, particularly when it is visible under the water in detail: ‘I could clearly see the jackstay running along the top of the royal mast; and, you know, the royal itself was set’ (297). The ghost pirates finally overrun the Mortzestus and sail it down into the ocean, while the drowning Jessop is picked up the passing Sangier.

Unlike Poe’s characteristic sustained doubt and uncertainty over the reliability of our narrating witness, Hodgson uses an afterword written by the Sangier’s crew to corroborate Jessop’s story; the climactic battle with the pirates takes place, from the Sangier’s point of view, soundlessly; ‘all the other side of a door’ (304). This division of worlds, in contrast to Poe’s and Coleridge’s uneasy blending, is much closer to Pirates of the Caribbean with its active movements between one realm and another. In The Ghost Pirates, fin-de-siècle spiritualist and occultist arguments for the existence of other worlds, and even for the demonic forces they might contain, are used to validate Jessop’s experience. The changes of the long nineteenth century, which reshaped actual ships and shipping so profoundly, also reshaped the Gothic ship, from the ghost of buried centuries to the naturalised threat of modernity.

References

Baker, Margaret. Folklore of the Sea. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1979.
Conrad, Joseph. The Nigger of the Narcissus. 1897. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. 1798. The Complete Poetical Works. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912. Literature Online. Web. 17 September 2011.
Hodgson, William Hope. The House on the Borderland and other novels. London: Gollancz, 2002.
—. ‘Through the Vortex of a Cyclone’. 1909. The Wandering Soul. Ed. Jane Frank. Leyburn: Tatartus, 2005, pp. 119-35.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allen Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Disney, 2007. Film.
Poe, Edgar Allen. Selected Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

The western wave all a’flame: Gothic ships and sunset

I am deeply fascinated at the moment by nineteenth-century Gothic sea fiction, particularly its phantoms, wrecks, and derelicts. The long nineteenth-century, as we know, saw tremendous social, industrial, and scientific developments, including the replacement of wooden sailing ships by steel and steam. The ghosts of the Age of Sail still haunted our seas; wooden derelicts trapped in the currents accounted for many a phantom ship sighting, says Margaret Baker, yet by the 1930s, these were all destroyed. These ghosts remain in our literature, and in our film.

There’s an optical phenomenon whereby a green flash is visible at the moment of sunset as the sun sinks into the sea. It’s popularised in Jules Verne’s Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) (1882) and also used in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, as Jack figures out how to get the Black Pearl back into the world of the living. You can view the scene here, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9La6AXq8yXY

I’m less intrigued by the green ray itself than I am by the transition it marks: sunrise/ sunset, life/ death, sea/ air. Diurnal transitions figure frequently in fantastic literature: sunrise is when trolls turn to stone and vampires burn, sunset when crepuscular creatures start to stir. But there’s something particularly interesting about what happens at sunset at sea. Partly, there’s something interesting anyway about being a ship on the sea, particularly before the age of modern communications. The ship’s unique state of existence is perfectly illustrated in Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), when the ship becomes

a fragment detached from the earth, [which] went on lonely and swift like a small planet. Round her the abysses of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier. A great circular solitude moved with her, ever changing and ever the same. <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite ExcludeAuth=”1″><Author>Conrad</Author><Year>1984</Year><RecNum>136</RecNum><Pages>29</Pages><record><rec-number>136</rec-number><ref-type name=”Book”>6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Joseph Conrad</author></authors><secondary-authors><author>Jacques Berthoud</author></secondary-authors></contributors><titles><title>The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’</title></titles><dates><year>1984</year></dates><pub-location>Oxford</pub-location><publisher>Oxford University Press</publisher><orig-pub>1897</orig-pub><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote> <![endif]–>(29)<!–[if supportFields]> <![endif]–>

Discussing this passage, Ian Watt remarks that ‘the main focus is on the imperative power which the sea, like other forces of nature, exercises on the lives of the men who sail upon it. … The passage holds the reader with a deepening sense of man’s lonely voyaging towards unattainable frontiers’ <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite ExcludeAuth=”1″><Author>Watt</Author><Year>1980</Year><RecNum>75</RecNum><Pages>96</Pages><record><rec-number>75</rec-number><ref-type name=”Book”>6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Watt, Ian</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Conrad in the nineteenth century</title></titles><dates><year>1980</year></dates><pub-location>London</pub-location><publisher>Chatto &amp; Windus</publisher><isbn>0701124318 ; 9780701124311</isbn><accession-num>185723189</accession-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote> <![endif]–>(96)<!–[if supportFields]> <![endif]–>.

The emphasis is on isolation – an important theme for Conrad, in other novels too. That meeting of the two worlds of air and water leaves space for nothing else, and at the same time all the space in the world. This vast solitude is unattainable but also unescapable: the sailing ship is caught both coming and going. ‘Detached’ from the secure identity of land and nation, where does the ship exist? There may not be enough space for existence on that invisible membrane where sky meets sea. In Gothic sea fiction, that moment of existential doubt tends to hit at sunset.

How do we know when sunrise or sunset is, exactly? We could use a watch, but most of us don’t keep the sun’s daily-changing schedule in our heads. Realistically, it’s when we can see it, when there’s nothing on the horizon to get in the way. Thus one of the few places we can identify the exact moment of sunset is on the horizon of the sea. Sunset, the green flash, creates a space between life/ death, sea/ air, here/ there, real/ unreal – of the briefest size and duration, but at the same time enough for the world to change.

In Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), sunset ushers the arrival of Death and Life-in-Death’s skeletal ship:

The western wave was all a-flame.

The day was well nigh done!

Almost upon the western wave

Rested the broad bright Sun

When that strange shape drove suddenly

Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate? (171-186)

The ship and the sunset blend to form vivid fiery images foreshadowing the Ancient Mariner’s hellish punishment. The game played by Death and Life-in-Death for the Ancient Mariner is a turning point for the poem – and lasts no longer than the sunset. At this point the poem, like the sinking sun itself, rushes towards night-time, and the phantom ship disappears:

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:

At one stride comes the dark;

With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,

Off shot the spectre-bark. (199-202)

For the duration of the game, time is extended, the moment of sunset is delayed. This decisive moment takes place inside the liminal space created by the sunset.

Edgar Allen Poe, in ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ (1833), also uses sunset to mark a shift in states of reality. One evening the narrator observes a ‘remarkable’ cloud which at sunset ‘spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapour’ (100). The ship is again paralysed inside a moment, this time not of sunset but of hot, flat calm. The narrator notices ‘the peculiar character of the sea … the water seemed more than usually transparent’; the air ‘became intolerably hot’ (100). The heat, taken with the narrator’s description of the cargo – ‘coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank’ (100) – is significant. Charles May suggests that heat and its effects on the spilled cargo causes the narrator to hallucinate his experiences from this point onwards (23-7): the air becomes ‘loaded with spiral exhalations similar to those arising from heated iron’ (Poe, 100) The transition from confidence in the narrator’s story, to doubt over what is real and what is not, occurs at sunset.

A sudden hurricane strikes the ship; the narrator survives and when the derelict is run down by ‘a gigantic ship of, perhaps, four thousand tons’ (103), he is catapulted aboard. The ship is at once ghost, reality, and the uncanny product of the narrator’s unconscious:

‘I know not how it is, but in scrutinizing her strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and overgrown suits of canvas, her severely simple bow and antiquated stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind a sensation of familiar things, and there is always mixed up with such shadows of recollection, an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago’ (106).

The ship, this suggests, may be no more than a construction of memories of the ‘education of no common order’ (99), which, ironically, the narrator asserts at the story’s opening in order to lend credence to his tale, not doubt.

Yet doubt over the ship’s existence is continually shifting. Its apparent age is echoed in its crew, whose ‘shrivelled skins rattled in the wind’ (107) and to whom the narrator is invisible and inaudible. The crew ‘glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries’ (108), but the question in the reader’s mind is, who is the ghost? Is the narrator the haunted, or the haunter? Either way, ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ encapsulates the uneasy encounter of liminal realms so characteristic of Gothic sea fiction.

Lastly, William Hope Hodgson, photographer and sailor as well writer, had an eye for the visual effects of atmospheric phenomena at sea. ‘Through the Vortex of a Cyclone’ (1909) is a descriptive account of a real-life experience. The cyclone is preceded by ‘a sunset of quite indescribable gorgeousness, which had, to me, an unnatural glow about it’ and stalk lightning like ‘pale, flickering streaks and tongues of flame rising apparently out of the sea’ (121, emphasis original). Hodgson blends his observations of the sea into his fiction. Even in this fact-based account, Hodgson’s language echoes Poe’s. In his 1909 novel The Ghost Pirates, Hodgson’s choice of name for the ship, a windjammer, the Mortzestus, alludes to Coleridge’s Life-in-Death and foreshadows its liminal fate.

Once again, the trouble begins at sunset, and again, a sense of distance or remoteness from the sun, as a symbol of normality and its transformation, is established. At sunset, the narrator sees ‘mist rise faintly—the setting sun shining through it, dim and unreal’ (241). Jessop notices other ships have vanished from the horizon, except for glimpses, through ‘convolutions of heated air’, of another ship that pops in and out of visibility. The mist, apparently, draws the Mortzestus into a parallel world, through one of the same gaps through which that other ship is visible, and through which Jessop eventually escapes.

Escape is necessary, for this liminal realm is already occupied. The sunset mist springs up and shapes itself into a ghostly three-masted ship, until ‘the sun [sinks] to a mere line of light’ and ‘in the gathering dusk it seemed to me that the ship was sinking back into the ocean’ (290). Increasingly, sightings of the ghost ship grow more distinct, particularly when it is visible under the water in detail: ‘I could clearly see the jackstay running along the top of the royal mast; and, you know, the royal itself was set’ (297). The ghost pirates finally overrun the Mortzestus and sail it down into the ocean, while the drowning Jessop is picked up the passing Sangier.

Unlike Poe’s characteristic sustained doubt and uncertainty over the reliability of our narrating witness, Hodgson uses an afterword written by the Sangier’s crew to corroborate Jessop’s story; the climactic battle with the pirates takes place, from the Sangier’s point of view, soundlessly; ‘all the other side of a door’ (304). This division of worlds, in contrast to Poe’s and Coleridge’s uneasy blending, is much closer to Pirates of the Caribbean with its active movements between one realm and another. In The Ghost Pirates, fin-de-siècle spiritualist and occultist arguments for the existence of other worlds, and even for the demonic forces they might contain, are used to validate Jessop’s experience. The changes of the long nineteenth century, which reshaped actual ships and shipping so profoundly, also reshaped the Gothic ship, from the ghost of buried centuries to the naturalised threat of modernity.

References

Baker, Margaret. Folklore of the Sea. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1979.

Conrad, Joseph. The Nigger of the Narcissus. 1897. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. 1798. The Complete Poetical Works. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912. Literature Online. Web. 17 September 2011.

Hodgson, William Hope. The House on the Borderland and other novels. London: Gollancz, 2002.

—. ‘Through the Vortex of a Cyclone’. 1909. The Wandering Soul. Ed. Jane Frank. Leyburn: Tatartus, 2005, pp. 119-35.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allen Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Disney, 2007. Film.

Poe, Edgar Allen. Selected Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

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