The Majesty of the Ocean; by Peregrinus Proteus


The Majesty of the Ocean; by Peregrinus Proteus

There is society where none intrude!
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.

I Know of nothing, in the whole compass of Byron’s varied productions, which equals, in sublimity of conception and vividness of coloring, his portraitures of the ocean. Though, for the most part, the bold and masterly touches of genius are displayed in everything which came from his hand, yet, when his imagination fixes upon the “dark-blue sea,” he appears to surpass all other poets. As you muse over his immortal sketches, in the hush of midnight and by the waning lamp, the wild note of the sea-bird and the low murmur of whispering waters and their silvery light—or the death-shriek of the drowning mariner, and the roar of billows, together with the lurid and appalling wave-flash of the reflected lightning, break in upon the silence and dimness of your chamber. Time and space are annihilated by the magic of his numbers, and you feel yourself snatched away to the far-off sea, and regaled by its fresh, cool breezes as you go bounding over its glorious expanse. He was emphatically the poet of the ocean, for the proudest march of his genius was upon its “mountain waves.” He appears to have possessed a delight in its wild scenes, amounting almost to a passionate fondness. In his boyhood, seated on some retired crag, he hung over it, hour after hour of the still summer evenings, and felt, in the excitement of his glowing fancy, a yearning towards it; and when in after years the ties which held him to his country were severed, he flew to its trackless solitudes as to a refuge and a home. Like a proud vessel, which, after having been becalmed and ingloriously confined in some narrow bay, has gained the broad deep and the rushing gale, the indignant bard swept forth in the buoyancy of freedom, rejoicing as the breeze freshened, and exulting in the rudest commotion of the elements. At that stirring hour he could “laugh to flee away” even from the land of his fathers, for in the thrill of his emotions there was less of sadness than of joy. I can see him in imagination, as he strode the deck, now soothing the sorrows of his little page, and now sweeping his deep-toned lyre as he poured his farewell to the receding shores, and a welcome to the waves that came dashing onward from the far stretch of the seaward horizon. The void in his heart, which no father’s love and no mother’s endearing tenderness had preoccupied with images of parental affection, and which had been widening from his boyhood by the death or estrangement of early associates, was now filled with the beauty and stirring majesty of the great deep. The loneliness that brooded like a dark spirit over his melancholy bosom was dispelled for a season by the strange grandeur of the prospects around him; and in the romance of poetical enthusiasm, he regarded the ocean as a living and intelligent existence. As he bent over the prow in the gentle moonlight, he discoursed with it as with a friend, and, in its billowy commotions, he gazed upon it with mingled reverence and joy. And who has not experienced such sensations, even when far away from the ocean, while his thoughts were hovering over its azure domains? I remember what a novel and indescribable feeling used to steal upon me when a boy, whenever I fell in with Virgil’s description of the sea. 1 Lad never been beyond the mountain boundaries of my native valley— never enjoyed even a remote prospect of the sublime object of his inspiration, and, therefore, my young fancy was introduced in those passages, to a fairy world, and left free to expatiate, amid the glorious imagery of the Mantuan bard. After reading of Palinurus or the sweet-voiced Sirens, I have gazed at the little lake, which lies embosomed in the green hills near my father’s cottage, till my eyes grew dim, and its rippling surface seemed to stretch away to a misty and limitless expanse, whilst the sweep of the winds, among the rough crags and pine-forests of the neighboring mountains, uttered to my imagination the voice of the sounding deep. But how far short of reality, both in grandeur and beauty, did I find the conceptions of fancy, when I beheld the object itself, some years after. My first view of it was on a clear, but gusty afternoon of autumn. The winds had been abroad for many hours; and as I looked seaward from the high promontory, and beheld the long rough surges rushing towards me, and listened to their wild roar as they were flung back from the caverned battlements at my feet, I felt as if the pillars of the universe were shaken around me, and stood awed and abased before the majesty of excited nature. Since then, I have been on lofty precipices, while the thunder-cloud was bursting below me—have leaned over the trembling brink of Niagara, and walked within its awful chambers, but the thrill of that moment has never returned. The feeling of awe, however, gradually gave place to an intense but pleasing emotion, and I longed to spring away from the tame and trodden earth, to that wild, mysterious world, whose strange scenes broke so magnificently upon my vision. No wonder that our first roving impulses are towards the ocean. No wonder that the romance and adventurous spirit of youth deems lightly of hardship and peril, when aroused by its stirring presentations. There is something so winning in the multiplied superstitions of its hardy wanderers—something so fascinating in its calm beauty, and so animating in its stormy recklessness, that the ties of country and kindred sit looser at our hearts, as curiosity whispers of its unseen wonders. In after years, when the bloom of existence has lost much of its brightness, when curiosity has become enervated, and the powers of the imagination palsied, where do we sooner return to renew their former pleasing excitement, than to our remembered haunts by the ocean? We leave behind us all the splendor and magnificence of art, all the voluptuous gratifications of society—we break from the banquet and the dance, and fly away to the solitary cliffs, where the sea-bird hides her nest. There the cares, perplexities, and rude jostlings of opposing interests are for a while forgotten. There the turmoil of human intercourse disquiets no longer. There the sweat and dust of the crowded city are dispelled as the cool sea-breeze comes gently athwart our feverish brow. In the exhilaration of the scene, the blood gathers purer at the heart— its pulse-beat is softer, and we feel once more a newness of life, amounting almost to a transport. Delightful remembrances, that lie buried up under the dross of the past, are reanimated, and the charm, the peace, and the freshness of life’s morning innocence again finds in our bosom a welcome and a home. The elastic spring of boyhood is in our step as we chase the receding wave along the white beach, or leap wildly into its glassy depths. In the low, billowy murmur that steals out upon the air, our ear catches the pleasant, but long unheard music of other years, like the remembered voice of a departed companion; and while leaning over some beetling crag, glorious visions pass thronging before our eyes, as, in fancy, we rove through the coral groves, where the mermaids have their emerald bower, or gaze at the hidden beauties, the uncoveted gems, and the glittering argosies that repose amid the stilly waters. The soul goes forth, as it were, to the hallowed and undefiled temples of nature, to be purified of its earthly contaminations. She takes to herself wings, and flies away to the “uttermost parts of the sea,” and even there she hears the voice of the Divinity, witnesses the manifestations of his power, experiences the kind guardianship of his presence, and returns cheered and invigorated to renew her weary pilgrimage.

The ocean is a world by itself, presenting few analogies, either in form or scenery, with the continents it embraces. It seems to stand aloof from the dusty and beaten paths of human ambition in the dignity of conscious independence. Man may bring desolation upon the green earth, or dwarf its gigantic pinnacles to the stature of his groveling conceptions, but over the beauty and majesty of the ocean he has no power. He may mine the solid mountains, dig up buried cities upon which the lava has moldered for centuries, and fix his habitation in their silent courts, but he cannot fathom the abysses of the deep, or walk the lonely streets of St. Ubes or Euphaemia. He may visit the sepulchers of the first patriarchs, he may lift the cerements from the queens of the Ptolomies, but he cannot go down to the ocean-grave of his yesterday’s friend to close his eyes or cast the wild-flower upon his uncoffined bosom. I do not know whether we are capable of forming a true Platonic attachment for an inanimate object, but I sometimes believe that we may. The shrine in which friendship has treasured up its cherished keepsakes, the ring that sparkled on the finger, and the ringlet that once shaded the brow of the departed—whatever, indeed, serves as a remembrance of the absent, or a memento of the dead, speaks eloquently of the existence of such a passion. The home of our childhood has a spell of gladness for our hearts, long after the beloved ones who formed its endearments have passed for ever from its portal. In the devotion of the idolater, also, there seems too much of reality to be the calculation of hypocrisy. The rivers, the hills, and the deep forests have their worshippers; the sun and moon listen to the hymn of the Gheber who regards them with the expression of affection and reverence. With feeling akin to these, the astrologer gazes at the star, whose benignant influence, like an invisible guardian, has, in his belief, wrought out whatever there has been of happiness or prosperity in the unfolding of his destiny. Nor has the ocean lacked its admiring votaries. Byron, as I have before remarked, loved it with a poet’s fondness. He rejoiced in the “[Apparent terras,] coelum undique, et undique pontus;[Land is no longer seen,] heaven on all sides and on all sides the sea]” a striking image of his far-reaching mind. The imaginative Shelley passed his brightest hours upon its waters, and at last found a welcome grave in their hidden bosom. I once heard a romantic story of a seaman whose attachment for the ocean was peculiarly striking. He became acquainted with it when young, and, after having spent many years amidst its scenes, he ceased from his wanderings and returned to his native village. The remaining companions of his early days kindly welcomed him back, while his old, fond mother clung tenderly and with tears, to her rough, but warm-hearted son. For a while he forgot the delights of his wild rovings, in the pleasing associations which filled his mind, and in narrating to the listening villagers the wonders of the deep and his own perilous, yet congenial adventures. At length he grew silent and evidently discontented, and the expression of delight passed from his bronzed and weather-beaten countenance. All perceived the change, and all strove to dispel his hidden despondency; yet still he continued melancholy and ill at ease. At last, his mother, on entering his chamber one morning, found an affectionate farewell written on an old chart and directed to herself, with the collected earnings of his years of peril. But the endeared inmate had gone. He took his way back to the ocean, and wandered from port to port, but, broken down by age and hardship, he could find no employ among its adventurers. With a heart aching from the dull monotony, the tame, listless quietude of the land, he retired to a small hamlet on the coast, and, with the assistance of some kind fishermen, built him a little bark. Once more he committed himself to the guidance of the rough elements, and once more the look of gladness settled on the hard features of the old sailor. Alone, but not solitary, he went forth upon the deep, and for many years after, the floating home of the ocean hermit was seen at all seasons in the Caribbean Archipelago. No one, not even the ruthless pirate, molested him in his quiet wanderings, but all greeted him with a hearty salutation, and all received a warm Godspeed in return. During the day, he sailed gently along the luxuriant islands of the tropics, singing some wild old ballad of the sea, as he cast his fishing-lines into its sparkling depths; and at night, after having filled his can from the fresh spring, and laid in a supply of fruits, he moored his little vessel in some calm bay, and slept as soundly as under the roof-tree of his mother’s cottage. Time passed on, and severer infirmities began to steal upon his once vigorous frame, so that it was with difficulty he could now provide the common necessaries of life. At length, some soldiers, seeing his boat in the vicinity of their fort, went down to the beach to welcome their old acquaintance. Slowly and regularly it drifted ashore, when they found its debilitated possessor stretched insensible, in his narrow cabin. They conveyed the famished man to their quarters, and used the best means in their power for his recovery. He was restored to reason, seemed grateful for their kind attentions, and for a while appeared convalescent. One evening, however, after one of those tremendous hurricanes so common in those latitudes, the roar of the sea swelled up into his silent apartment and fell upon his ear. In the absence of the attendants, he crept languidly from his couch and crawled to the terrace, which overlooked a wide extent of ocean. The winds had died away, not a cloud dotted the bright azure of the horizon, and the moon and stars were looking peacefully down upon the troubled deep. Far as the eye could reach, all was one wide, awful commotion. The old mariner bent forward upon the parapet, as if to spring away toward the scenes he loved so well. Before him, on the strand, lay the wreck of his little shallop, and a groan escaped him as he recognized its shattered form; but he knew that his wanderings were ended, and he sent his swimming glance far out upon the waters. And there they found him, his gray head resting on his shoulder, his withered arms thrown forth upon the wall, and his eyes fixed intently upon the deep; but his spirit had passed away in the transport of that fond, lingering, farewell gaze.