Dead poets reveal sailing experience

The language of sailing is critical for acquiring the culture of sailing. And, I think it’s interesting to observe that even when looking at poetry written hundreds of years ago, you can tell, which man sat at the nav station, and which one perhaps sat on the boat eating a sandwich.

Without digging through a bunch of old English journals and letters – I would be willing to guess that the language that John Donne uses in his 1612 poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” speaks to his abilities as a sailor. And, that, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in 1798, may have travelled by boat, but was more of the sort to sit on the sidelines.

What do you think?

Donne wrote his famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” in 1612. He had a background as a scholar and a sailor. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica:

In 1596 he enlisted as a gentleman with the earl of Essex’s successful privateering expedition against Cádiz, and the following year he sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh and Essex in the near-disastrous Islands expedition, hunting for Spanish treasure ships in the Azores.

Here is an excerpt from Donne’s metaphysical poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” in which he writes to his lover and soul-mate. Watch for the reference to the navigational instrument, the compass.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

In the passage, Donne compares unified love between two people with the feet of a navigational instrument – the compass. In his case, his lover is represented by the fixed foot who is not travelling that “makes no show to move” while he is the other foot that is connected even as he “doth roam”. The circular pattern that the compass creates is used as a metaphor for love, and unity.

By comparison, Coleridge wrote the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798 (Wikipedia, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). But, his language is much more removed from the nav station, and is relegated to the parts of the boat. Perhaps Coleridge’s poetic imagery of sailing and adventure was sparked by the excitement of his contemporary, Captain Cook, who sailed in 1768-1779.

In three voyages Cook sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe. He mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale not previously achieved. As he progressed on his voyages of discovery he surveyed and named features, and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. He displayed a combination of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, physical courage and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions. (Wikipedia, James Cook)

Coleridge was born in 1772, and would have been seven years old when Cook died (Wikipedia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge). As a parent to a rambunctious seven-year old, I can tell you this age is a time of great excitement, imagination and role play.

In his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Coleridge uses terms like “sail”, “mast”, “shroud” and “helmsman” but never steers toward the nitty-gritties of the nav station. Here’s an except from that poem for good measure. It’s a long poem but a great read:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In terms of the spectrum of sailing – Coleridge and I would probably make better chums than an awkward afternoon spent with Donne, and his keen interest in chartwork.

I am an enthusiastic learner. It’s just that there is a lot to absorb and I’m a bit “all elbows” at the moment. For example, a paramedic recently recommended that we use Iridium service on our boat, and I wasn’t sure if we even had a phone at that point. I hope to use this blog, in part, to document my own acquisition of the language of sailing.

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