A Seaworthy Collection
THE ways in which human beings have perceived the sea have been as various and changing as the sea itself, which makes this a promising topic for the anthologist. The question is what to leave out.
In selecting material for "The Oxford Book of the Sea," Jonathan Raban limited himself to authors who have written in English (both British and American). He has emphasized what he calls "the sea in literature" (representations of the sea in literary works) rather than "literature of the sea" (generic sea stories, chanties, and other bits of nautical lore that are byproducts of seafaring life). His expressed aim has been to assemble a group of writings that focus more on "the water itself" than on "voyag es, naval battles, shipboard life, fishing, or any of the other activities that take place in, or on, or at the edge of" that water.
Raban is himself the author of more than a half-dozen books treating the themes of travel and voyage, most notably "Foreign Land," a novel about a middle-aged English expatriate who circumnavigates the coast of an England he feels he no longer understands. His 34-page introduction to this anthology, if not quite "worth the price of admission" in and of itself, is one of the many pleasures of this volume. With considerable erudition and intelligence, and in language refreshingly graceful and free of jargo n, Raban traces the shifts in the way that people have perceived the sea over the course of centuries.
To most of the Elizabethan explorers and navigators who ventured across it, Raban notes, the sea was a fearsome obstacle to be overcome rather than a subject of intrinsic interest. To sea-going professionals, the ship was of interest, "but the water on which it floats" merely "a waste, and sometimes a rude waste."
Raban finds a major shift in attitude occurring in the 18th century, signaled first in Joseph Addison's 1712 essay on the sea: "I cannot see the heaving of this prodigious bulk of waters, even in a calm, without a very pleasing astonishment; but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the Horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horrour that rises from such a prospect...," and later incorporated into the very fabric of Edmu nd Burke's concept of the sublime in 1757. In addition to becoming an object of wonder and terror, a fit subject for the art of Gothic and Romantic writers alike, the 18th-century sea was also perceived as "bracing": bathing in it was "good for you."
By the 19th century, as Raban astutely observes, the sublimely awesome sea had begun to be seen as echoing the tameless soul of the alienated Byronic hero: ("Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends; / Where rolled the ocean, thereon was his home" wrote Byron in a passage from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," which Raban does not happen to anthologize). In this century of British empire, the sea was also seen as a testing ground of British national virtue:
"To suppose yourself endowed with natural parts for the sea because you are the countryman of Blake and mighty Nelson is perhaps just as unwarrantable as to imagine Scotch extraction a sufficient guarantee that you will look well in a kilt," remarks Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881. "But the feeling is there, and seated beyond the reach of argument."
Raban contrasts the Briton's historical identification with the sea with the equally fascinated, but more scientific or naturalist attitude of his American cousins. From Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast," through Melville's "Moby Dick," to Thoreau's "Cape Cod" and Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us," Raban detects the same ability to view the sea as "not so much a counterworld as a liquid extension of the green fields and forests within the land itself."
The passages Raban has selected include poetry and prose, fiction and fact, excerpts from great works of literature (and sometimes complete works, like Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," given in its entirety) as well as more prosaic extracts from letters and journals. Arranged chronologically, the selections take readers from the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" through Donne's "The Storme" and "The Calm," excerpts from "Robinson Crusoe" and Benjamin Franklin's "Journal of a Voyage," verse by Byr on, Shelley, Tennyson, Swinburne, prose by Poe, Dickens, Kipling, Conrad, and Stephen Crane, into the 20th century, with Joyce, Woolf, Belloc, and William Golding, among the novelists, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, and Derek Walcott, among the poets. Poetry and prose from John Updike conclude the collection.
Naturalists and oceanographers like Rachel Carson and Willard Bascon are also represented. Raban has the good sense and good grace to include only those scientific writings he himself can understand.
Of course there are classic, expected selections like Masefield's poem "Sea-Fever" and an excerpt from Hemingway's "The Old Man of the Sea." But there are unexpected ones, like the verse paean to navigation and commerce from Dryden's "Annus Mirabilis." For my taste, there are still too many passages of indifferent literary quality, this despite the editor's claim that he has opted for the sea in literature rather than literature of the sea.
It's easy to pick apart any anthology for omitting material the reviewer would have included and for including other material the reviewer likes less well. Among the omissions I regretted are Hart Crane's "Voyages," Yeats's account of Cuchulain's struggle with the sea, Wallace Stevens's use of the sea as a metaphor in poems like "Sailing After Lunch," "Farewell to Florida," "The Idea of Order at Key West," and "The Comedian as the Letter C," and D. H. Lawrence's travel writing in "Sea and Sardinia."
For all that Raban has tried to be - and to some extent, succeeded in being - eclectic and literary in demonstrating the diversity of ways in which writers have treated the sea, his choices are rather more literal-minded than one might have hoped. He has put together a sound and seaworthy book that will make a handy reference and that also provides a neat illustration of the thesis expounded in his introduction, but he falls short of suggesting the endless capacity for variety, delight, astonishment, and
transformation to be found in the sea and in the imagination of great poets who have written about it.