Sea-Change all the way


‘What’s the good of Mercators, North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?’
So the Bellman would cry and the crew would reply.
They are merely conventional signs!’

Lewis Carroll. ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’


Charles Darwin, ‘Life and Letters.’

‘Besides a general interest about the southern lands, I have now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work, and I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one. I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms, &cc. &cc., and with the character of the American fossil mammifiers, &cc. &cc., that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species. I have read heaps of agricultural and horticultural books, and have never ceased collecting facts. At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.’ (‘Life and Letters.’ P 384. Published John Murray..)



Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography.’

‘In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under theses circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then I had last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 250 pages, which I had fairly copied and still possess.’ (Autobiography, PP118-122.)

The Evolution of Birds.

Making do with what’s in hand,
In this case ‘hands,’ –
Used to be ‘legs’ but they became
Useless little arms
With claw appendage, the kind
You find on odd marsupials like kangaroos,
And on that two-legged oddity
Of the Jurassic, Dinosaur Therapod.
By God! There’s a black swan development
If ever there was one.

Fossils unearthed in limestone quarries
By homo sapien with evolutionary tools –
Stone axes won’t do it –
Record the evolution of the therapod hand
From flexing wrist of Velociraptor to
Unenlagia’s wing-like flaps and
Primitive feathers of Caudipteryx,
Say, there’s a giant step for birds.
Then the momentous uncovering of
Flight feathers on Fossil Archaeoterix
And we have lift-off!

A new successful species. Praise be
To tricky Nature for the evolution
Of birds! Lords of the air, of updraft
And perilous tumbling,
Of utterance of sweet song, of joy
To the world and tremulous longing,
Of feathers rivaling in pattern and profusion
The spangled universe, touching the imagination
Of homo sapien, inspiring the visionary words
Of poets, expressive of delights and lamentations
Of mature lovers and yearning dreams of adolescence

Black Cockatoo.

Cockatoo funereus, your mournful cry – keee aah,
Bespeaks the long history of ancestors,
Of Pangea and the shifting of continents,
Of separation from exotic kin, the flashy
Macaw cousins from Brazil.

Black cockatoo, in appearance you exemplify
The platonic fallacy of the perfect form of things,
Of birds, your helmet crest, remnant of dinosaur origin.
Your awkward form, less defined than
The shape of more dazzling kin,
Of sulphur crested epigone. Your slow moving
Heavy flight, precursing the dalliance of eagles.
Your diet befitting mourning.
Not for you the nectar of sweet blossoms.
Instead, hard-crack seeds, fruit of hard times.
From narrow-leafed trees of adversity.

At dusk a flock of funereus choose the tops of trees
To roost in –jungian response to memories of tree-top
Foraging by dinosaur predators. You thrum your insecurity
In reassuring chorus until, exhausted, you sleep.
Do you then dream of your ancestors.

The Swan. Charles Baudelaire.

‘Andromache, I think of you! – That little stream
That mirror, poor and sad, which glittered long ago
With the vast majesty of your widow’s grieving,
That false Simois swollen by your tears,

Suddenly made fruitful my teeming memory,
As I walked across the new Carrousel
-Old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes more quickly, alas! Than the human heart);

I see only in memory that camp of stalls,
Those pile of shafts, of rough hewn cornices, the grass,
The huge stone blocks stained green in puddles of water,
And in the windows shine the jumbled bric-a-brac.

Once a menagerie was set up there;
There, one morning at the hour when Labor awakens,
Beneath the clear, cold sky when the dismal hubbub
Of street-cleaners and scavengers breaks the silence,

I saw a swan that had escaped from his cage,
That stroked the dry pavement with his webbed feet
And dragged his white plumage over the uneven ground.
Beside a dry gutter the bird opened his beak,

Restlessly bathed his wings in the dust
And cried, homesick for his native lake:
“Rain, when will you fall? Thunder, when will you roll?”
I see that hapless bird, that strange and fateful myth,

Toward the sky at times. Like the man in Ovid,
Towards the ironic, cruelly blue sky,
Stretch his avid hand upon his quivering neck,
As if he were reproaching God.’

Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography.’

…‘But at that time I had overlooked one problem of great Importance; and it is astonishing to me, except on the principle of Columbus and his egg, how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character and become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under sub-orders and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; … The solution, as I believe, is that modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.’

In the Marble Quarry. James Dickey.

‘Beginning to dangle beneath
The wind that blows from the undermined wood,
I feel the great pulley grind,

The thread I cling to lengthen
And let me soaring and spinning down into marble,
Hooked and weightlessly happy

Where the squared sun shines
Back equally from all four sides, out of stone
And years of dazzling labor,

To land at last among men
Who cut with power saws a Parian whiteness
And chewing slow tobacco,

Their eyebrows like frost,
Shunt house-sized blocks and lash them to cables
And send them heavenward

Into small-town banks,
Into the columns and statues of government buildings,
But mostly graves.

I mount my monument and rise
Slowly and spinningly from the white-gloved men
Toward the hewn sky

Out of the basement of light,
Sadly, lifted through time’s blinding layers
On perhaps my tombstone

In which the original shape
Michelangelo believed was in every rock upon earth
Is heavily stirring.

Surprised to be an angel,
To be waked in North Georgia by the ponderous play
Of men with ten ton blocks

But no more surprised than I
To feel sadness fall off as though I myself
Were rising from stone

Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and totally uninspired,
Not a masterwork.

Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same,
Felt here as joy.’


Charles Darwin Origin’s of Species’ final paragraph.

‘It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependant on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction, Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead for a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence, to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’

Camille Saint –Saens, ‘ The Carnival of The Animals,’ with Ogden Nash narrative, not the unavailable Noel Coward version but I quite like the children and animals looking at each other.



boatjacSir Oswald Brierly

‘Take with you paper and ynke.’

Fellow serfs and others pertaining ter a higher persuasion, let us go down ter the sea again fer a voyage with Captain Cook and more, but hasten, fer we must catch the tide …

In the year 1768 the Royal Society played a significant role in promoting Lieutenant James Cook’s first voyage to the South Seas. This was the Society’s largest maritime venture to date, although, since its foundation in 1660, the Royal Society had placed a high value upon the empirical observations to be gained from ships’ logs and the journals of travelers on long voyages, including, not only verbal and numerical data, but graphic records also. In order that such potentially valuable records to science should be accurate and comprehensive, the Society included ‘Directions for Seamen, bound for far voyages’ in the first volume of its ‘Philosophical Treatise.

Bernard Smith, Art Historian, in his book, ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ (1959.) examines the challenging new field of experience for Europeans that the Pacific Region provided, both for biblical creation theory and ideas of landscape art. Natural philosopher, Sir Joseph Banks and James Cook himself both inherited traditions of empirical observation derived from maritime practice and the precepts of the Royal Society, and on Cook’s voyages, professional artists trained in academies worked side by side with nautical and scientific draftsmen, and as Smith observes ‘were called upon to do similar work.’ ( B. Smith. P3.)

The Endeavour, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook sailed from Plymouth on 26th August, 1768. Cook was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the face of the sun and to seek the southern continent. His Secret Instructions set out other tasks, much in the spirit of the Royal Society’s Directions for Seamen bound for far voyages. Among other things Cook was instructed:

‘carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty, and in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones, you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also specimens of the Seeds of Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary, that We may cause proper examination and Experiments to be made of them.

You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives.

You are to send by all proper Conveyances to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Copies of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus ; and you are at the same time to send to our secretary, for our information, accounts of your Proceedings and Copys of the drawings and Surveys you shall have made.’ ( Ref. B. Smith, P14.)

‘The baggage in the hold.’

The Great Chain of Being:

It was widely considered by naturalists and writers of the period that Captain Cook’s scientists, aided by his seamen, would gradually complete the picture of the universe as a vast, ordered chain of Being which had been partially known to man from early times. As a concept, the chain of being derived from Plato and Aristotle, developed during the Middle Ages and reached full expression in early modern Neo-Platonism.

The chain of Being was believed to be composed of a great number of hierarchical links from the most basic elements, minerals and metals to plants, upward to animal life, on to humans, thence to the highest immutable perfection, in other words, God. Each link in the chain was divided into sub-groups, for example, wild beasts like lions were superior to domesticated animal and docile animals, fish came below birds and fish sub-divided from other sea creatures. The cosmology rested on a platonic sense of permanence and inviolability of species, a cosmology expressed by Linnaeus, the most influential naturalist of the eighteenth century:

‘If we consider the generation of Animals, we find that each produces an off-spring after its own kind … and that from each proceeds a germ of the same nature with its parent; so that all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves form one ‘chain of universal Being’, from the beginning to the end of the world; in this sense truly may it be said that there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Cited B. Smith. P167.)

Antipodes Inversion:

Opinion about whether a geographical antipodes exists at all depends on views concerning the shape of the world as sphere or flat earth. With the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, one of the problems that Ancient Greece and Rome had investigated, a spherical world and existence of an antipodes was largely supplanted in the medieval period by Christian doctrine based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Important in keeping alive the theory of a geocentric universe and spherical earth were the observations of Pliny the Elder, influencing other monks like the Venerable Bede and mathematician Gerbert of Aurillac who became Pope Syllvester 11, which over time led to its reinstatement. Ref: From Rome to the Antipodes: the medieval form of the world, Amelia Sparavigna.

Regarding an antipodes, Pliny notes the gulf between the learned and the vulgar:

‘We maintain that men are dispersed over every part of the earth, that they stand with their feet turned towards each other, that the vault of heaven appears alike to all of them , and that they, all of them, appear to tread equally on the middle of the earth. If any one should ask, why those situated opposite us do not fall, we directly ask in return, whether those on the opposite side do not wonder that we do not fall.’ (In.Sparavigna. P2.)

What lingered post the acceptance of a geocentric universe, was the view of an antipodes as an absurdity, like Lewis Carol’s world down the rabbit hole, a place of inverted logic and inverted physical phenomena. This blinkered view sometimes acted as a constraint on objective investigation. John Byron in his ‘Journal of his Circumnavigation., 1764.’ described a Patagonian chief ‘of gigantic size’ who seemed to realize the tales of monsters in human shape.’(B. Smith. P34 ) French naturalist Francoise Peron found in New South Wales ‘inversions and contrarieties of nature in a great many phenomena, including floods that were quite unpredictable according to the known laws of meteorology in the northern part of the world. (B.Smith. P 225.)

Classical Ideas of Landscape Art:

The Royal Society’s instructions to travelers to carefully observe’ was easier said than done, think Nietzche’s mordant comment on the claims of realism in painting cited in Ernst Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion.’:

‘All nature faithfully! – But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art’s constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint.’

The illustrations in Bernard Smith’s ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ offer many examples of tension between the science of precise botanical draftsmanship and pictorial embellishment into the picturesque and sublime by artists trained in the precepts of classical art. Joshua Reynolds expresses them in the following:

‘A landscape painter certainly ought to study anatomically (if I may use the expression) all objects which he paints; but when he is to turn his studies to use, his skill as a man of genius, will be displayed in showing the general effect … for he applies himself to the imagination, not the curiosity, and works, not for the virtuoso or the naturalist, but for the common observer of life and Nature.’ ( In B. Smith P111.)

The Noble Savage:

The Royal Society’s instructions ‘to observe the Genius and Temper of the Natives’ also presented problems of observation, accounts and illustrations colored by the artist’s classical learning. Influenced by Plato’s theory of forms and ‘back to Golden Age’ purity, a south-seas’ portrait was often invested with classical dignity, as ‘the noble savage.’ Sometimes, where observation loosened the bonds of classical thought and illustrations were insufficiently ‘noble,’ the illustration would be subjected to the idealism of engravers, as well.

“Inhabitants of Terra Del – Alexander Buchan”
“Indians of Terra del Feuge – engraving, Bartolozzi”

The clash of the classic and the exotic.

Accounts of voyages to the Pacific, Cook’s three voyages and those by the European and American expeditions of the first half of the nineteenth century provide a wealth of evidence as to the way the sciences of visible nature, geology, botany, meteorology, anthropology and the like, imposed their interests upon the graphic arts and a classical point of view.

The classical vision of the noble savage had never been the single stereotype imposed on native peoples. Naval captains William Dampier and La Perouse, for example, viewed native peoples as inferior beings. Later, close up observation of native practices not in keeping with classic idealism, and Captain Cook’s death at the hands oh natives of the Islands of Hawaii, provoked Christian evangelist attitudes to native peoples as primitive savages in need of saving.

By the first half of the nineteenth century greater care was being taken to meet the requirements of science in depiction of native peoples, not only in drawings and modeling but with the new invention of photography being brought into service to render illustrations accurately. The publication of Dumont d’Urville’s ‘Voyage Au Pole Sud, 1842-7,’ includes these photographs of lithographs by Leveille after busts modeled by Bisson. The portraits are of natives of Van Dieman’s Land, Worraddey, chief of the island of Briny, Troggarnanna, last surviving member of her tribe.


The objectivity with which natives came to be depicted is paralleled in illustrations of landscape and documentation of flora and fauna. In landscape illustration we see the documentary requirements of science and the picturesque of the classical arts battling it out in the paintings and writings of William Hodges who accompanied Cook on his Second Voyage. Hodges’ landscapes show his attempts to capture the different quality of light in his Southern voyages while still adopting classical stereotypes of the picturesque and the sublime.

With reference to the difficulties of applying the precepts of classical art to the exotic, Hodges, like Joshua Reynolds’ also cited ‘perfect knowledge’ of the art, and judgement and fancy to choose his subjects and predispose them to advantage, but by adding a third point of submitting the imagination to the strict guidance of cool judgement’ he gives Reynolds’ theory a geographical twist. (B.Smith P78.)

45865-pcA View of Cape Stevens, New Zealand – William Hodges

In later landscape painting we see closer renditions of typical landscape replacing the idealized, for example, in paintings by John William Lewin, such as ‘Campbell River,’ painted when Lewin accompanied Governor Macquarie, in 1815,on a sightseeing expedition to the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. These paintings dispensed with the contriving of picturesque composition and illustrated the openness of foliage of Australian Eucalypt trees that do not completely shroud the background.

CampbellRiverCampbell River, New South Wales – John Lewin

Naturalists and illustrators became increasingly less dominated by great chain of Being and neo-classical theories of art and more influenced by empirical habits of vision as they studied and illustrated unfamiliar flora and fauna. From a large cast of scientific observers in the South Pacific, mentioning just three or four:

One of the important influences brought to bear on travelers was the scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt who, in his writings. described the influence that the paintings of William Hodges had on his own career. Humboldt came to view the world as made up of different climatic zones and advised how written description, landscape painting and botanical illustrations could be used to give Europeans a better idea of the multiformity of nature. Humboldt’s books were widely read including by Charles Darwin. By 1810, it was said that, with the exception of Napoleon, Humboldt was the most famous man in Europe.

Another observer was Ferdinand Bauer. No one was abler than Bauer to illustrate nature’s multiformity in the South Seas. When Matthew Flinders sailed from England in the sloop Investigator in 1801 with instructions to chart the coasts of Australia, the influence of Flinders’ patron, Sir Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society, is evident in his instructions to bring back to bring back ‘such papers as the Naturalists and Painters think to send home.’ ( In B.Smith P189.) The choice of naturalist for the task was, another of Bank’s protégés, Robert Brown, accompanying him, botanical designer, Ferdinand Bauer, both masters in their fields. Bauer, a botanist of considerable ability himself, sought to reveal both the beauty of the plant and its scientific structure in his drawings and using a magnifying glass, made a practice of drawing, not only the leaf and flower, but also sections and diagrams of buds, seed pods, petals and the roots of plants.

Banksia_coccinea_(Illustrationes_Florae_Novae_Hollandiae_plate_3) Florae Novae Hollandiae – Ferdinand, Bauer

While Brown and Bauer were making a collection pre-eminent collection in botany, zoologist Francois Peron and Charles Lesueur were doing the same in the field of zoology. On a scientific voyage to the Mauritius in 1800 by order of Napoleon, the drawing abilities of Lesueur, who had not been appointed as an artist, quickly became apparent in his drawings of fish and phosphorescent animals.

charles-alexandre_lesueur_museum_dhistoire_naturelle_ville_du_havre_4Scyphomeduse- Charles Lesueur

Sea-change rich and strange.

Confronted with problems presented by the multiformities of nature in the South Pacific, naturalists were finding it difficult to classify their materials according to the presuppositions of a great chain of Being, The three scientists whose efforts to establish organic evolution as a scientific history of life on earth themselves spent formative years as naturalists on scientific voyages to the South Pacific.

James Hooker, appointed naturalist to Ross’s Expedition to the South Pole in 1839, who greatly admired the work of Ferdinand Bauer, employed himself in the work at which Charles Lesueur had excelled, the dissection and drawing of tiny marine animals. In the course of his work he became convinced that his earlier belief in the immutability of species was false. ( B. Smith. P 315.)

The influence of the Pacific upon Charles Darwin’s other great friend, Thomas Huxley, was not such that it led directly to evolutionary theory, but his own work, as assistant naturalist aboard the Rattlesnake on a survey in tropical waters in 1846, led him to fundamental discoveries of the morphology of marine animals and the conclusion ‘that biological individuality was a process; that individuality was not to be expressed in static, but in dynamic terms.’ (B. Smith. P 315.)

Charles Darwin himself recorded how important was his voyage on the Beagle* in influencing the subsequent course of his life, of the parallel’s he discovered in South America’s fossil record and the nature of its living animals and plants that first intimated to him the organic evolutionary possibility of life on earth. Darwin’s later work in the Galapagos and research into coral islands involving exhaustive reading of the literature of Pacific voyages helped confirm his speculations. Darwin’s visit to Australia also promoted questioning, as revealed in a note in his journal during a trip across the Blue Mountains:

‘I had been lying on a sunny bank and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of the country compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each is complete.” ( In B.Smith. P314.)

Say, do not expect plain sailing when you put to sea.

An added thought:

Bertram Smith’s book was published just two years before Thomas Kuhn published his essay, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution.’ Not sure that Smith’s account of the long journey to evolutionary theory based on observation and detailed empiric studies fits Kuhn’s theory of paradigm containment and that midnight crisis ‘gestalt switch.’

* In the poop deck of the Beagle, adjacent to Darwin’s cabin, a library of four hundred books, books on sea voyages that included the voyages of Alexander von Humboldt and books on natural history and geology….Url Library on the Beagle.


Master and Commander.



All aboard fer yr next sea voyage, me hearties, Patrick O’Brian’s famous Aubrey-Maturin historical novels of naval battles and fortunes of war in the Napoleonic era, oh, and much, much more.

For a voyage with Commander Jack Aubrey in the various ships he commands in the Master and Commander series not only contains all the action and excitement you could hope for in a historical novel, but involvement in a fully realized world aboard a man of war of the period, weapons, food, rituals and manners, conversations, characters and relationships richly observed…You are there.

While Melville’s voyage of The Pequod explored the mysteries of the deep ocean and its largest inhabitants, O’Brian’s voyages traverse its surface. Suspense replaces mystery as Aubrey engages in battles against Britain’s traditional enemies and others. The focus is on the consequences of urgent decisions. At sea, you learn by your mistakes, feed back immediate. If you’re a commander mistakes may incur loss of authority, even mutiny, loss of a ship, court martial. If you’re crew, there’s falling overboard, drunken and other excesses, penalty of flogging according to the navy articles, even young midshipmen may be physically punished for misdemeanors. If you’re a surgeon, there’s loss of patients, multi-shades of individual angst, loss of professional regard by officers and crew.

On land you may get away with fooling yourself or others, at sea feedback will take place. Think Ahab. Character, toughness and courage are needed to survive at sea. Prince of Denmark equivocation won’t work in battles with the elements, waves, wind, currents, or enemy ships.

The friendship of the two central characters in ‘Master and Commander’ begins with onshore in Minorca at a musicale soiree at the house of the Governor, where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin first meet, each biding time, each in impecunious circumstances, depending for relief on the arbitrary decisions of others. Lieutenant Aubrey is waiting orders to command his first ship, physician Maturin is waiting payment due for medical services.

The meeting begins badly when Aubrey, carried away by the music, beats time and is rebuked by the man seated next to him. ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’

Rather hurt, Aubrey contains his enthusiasm until once more he’s carried away by the music and feels an elbow jab in his ribs … ‘A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate, was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront; and what affront was graver than a blow?’ At the end of the concert, names and contact details are exchanged.

When Aubrey returns to his lodgings an official letter addressed to Captain Aubrey awaits him giving him command of His Majesty’s sloop Sophie. What a difference a day makes. The following day despite the malicious attempts of a particular admiral to foil his promotion, Jack Aubrey has his ship, though short in crew and lacking a ship’s surgeon. In the midst of his errands, he runs in to his enemy of the previous night:

‘Why there you are sir. I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music – are so unused to genteel company – that we grow carried away,’

‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every right to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life, – such unity, such fire. May I propose a cup of chocolate, or coffee? It would give me great pleasure.’

That evening over dinner at Jack Aubrey’s lodgings, Jack offers Stephen Maturin, physician and naturalist, the position of ship’s surgeon on the Sophie with opportunities to study wild life species on the voyage. Maturin accepts the post, the beginning of a long friendship between the two men and distinguished careers for both.

Anchors Away.

In the global adventures with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin we experience a sense of the times and life on board ship that is quite wonderful. O’Brian has made full use of naval records, maritime museum data, ships logs and letters, to create this world.

There’s the ritual of Aubrey taking command of his first ship, marines presenting arms, naming of the officers, the reading of his commission: ‘By the right Honorable Lord Keith’ … ending with ‘Hereof nor you nor anyone of you may fail as will answer at the contrary at your peril.’ On to the ship yard, conferring with niggardly wheeling and dealing, no problem to Jack, at sea since the age of twelve, he knows what he needs to overhaul the Sophie.

Later, in consultation with the purser, he’s presented with a heap of ship’s books, supplies, expenses, provisions received and returned … all requiring his signature. Noting a certain smoothness in the way the purser presents his balances, Aubrey fixes on a name in the muster book, ‘Rickett,’ the purser’s own name, no age beside the name, rating ‘able seaman,’ then ‘midshipman.’ ‘Yes, sir, my son, sir. Ha ha …’ an everyday fraud, but nevertheless illegal. The purser gets the message, no purser’s tricks with the books or else.

In The Mauritius Command, there’s a nice description of the lubberly part of the Boudicea’s crew becoming accustomed to the unchanging routine of ship life where all hands should be piped just before eight bells in the middle watch and sleepers start from their hammocks. Watch relays and numbers depend on space below deck, since naval regulations allot only fourteen inches width of sleeping space per man. Though this is not possible, with a third or more of the crew on watch at a time, those not on watch gain a few more inches sleeping space.

At eight bells in the forenoon watch all hands are piped to dinner, this dinner to consist of cheese and duff on Monday, two pounds of salt beef on Tuesday, dried peas and duff on Wednesday, one pound of salt pork on Thursday, dried peas and cheese on Friday, two more pounds of salt beef on Saturday, one pound of salt beef on Sunday and some treat such as figgy-dowdy pudding. Meals are accompanied by a daily pound of ship’s biscuit, dinner and supper followed by a pint of grog.

Maturin is surprised to hear how much rum is consumed by the crew. When he learns from a gunner that an expired young crew member consumed a quart of grog at one sitting, Maturin proposes a watering down of the ration. ‘Oh dear me ‘says the gunner, ‘if they was to get a half a pint of three-water grog, we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right too.’

Battle Stations.

Life on board a Royal Navy brig in the period involved many battles. The battles Patrick O’Brian describes so dramatically are actual battles, carefully researched as to location, comparative advantages of rival ships and strategies adopted but in the novels O’Brian’s characters are slipped into the leading roles. ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey wins most of the battles, even his 14 4 pounders and 54 men against the superior force of the Spanish Cacafuego’s 32 guns and 319 men which establishes his reputation.. Luck plays only a small part in it. No sooner does Aubrey take on a new crew but he’s into daily gunnery practice, stop watch in hand. ‘Two minutes five … a not discreditable exercise.’

Here’s Captain Aubrey bound for New South Wales with an unexpected consignment of convicts on board in ‘Desolation Island,’ a tale of treachery, encounter with ice bergs entailing an enforced stay at Desolation Island, its wild life explored by Steven Maturin, and in the wild seas of the Roaring Forties the murderous pursuit of Aubrey’s 52 gun brig, Leopard, by Dutch 74 gun man of war, the Waakzaamheid.

That pursuit, it’ll make your hair stand on end. News of an enemy man of war’s presence in the vicinity prompts Aubrey to step up gunnery practice and set up his own deck cabin as an adaptable gunning station in case of a meeting. In the doldrums, despite heroic efforts by Maturin, Aubrey has lost one hundred and sixty crew members as well as most of the convicts to an outbreak of goal fever. When the two ships meet, short on man and fire power, Aubrey does his best to elude capture. Light winds that favour his smaller ship help at first. When the wind drops and the Waakzaamheid gains and attempts a moonlight boarding, the Leopards prompt response, firing grape shot at the boarding boats giving Aubrey time to escape.

Aubrey realizes this is a temporary respite. The Waakzaamheid’s captain knows where they are bound and the stormy waters of the Roaring Forties will be an advantage for the larger ship. At the next stage of the pursuit, a shock for Aubrey. There in his glass he sees the Dutch Captain, dressed in a black coat this time, looking straight at Aubrey. Aubrey wonders if the Dutchman lost a relative in their recent encounter, ‘His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’

No time to waste with the seventy-four only a few miles away, and now sailing in the wild Roaring Forties, Aubrey decides to strengthen Leonard’s masts with hawsers, bouse the massive cordage so that it could stand a most uncommon force – a mast lost in these seas was sure destruction. Taking all the crew to erect the hawsers and raise the top and main sails, the Leopard begins to outpace the Waakzaamheid, racing furiously over the heaving sea, both ships driven very hard. The first to lose an important spar or sail that night would lose the race. At eight bells, Jack set the inner jib. It might be the last chance to do so, ‘the ship was tearing through the sea at a rate he would never have believed possible, a rate that would have been impossible without those hawsers to the mastheads’

‘And now the extreme danger of sailing in a heavy swell became more and more apparent: in the troughs, the valleys between the waves the Leopard was almost becalmed, while the crest struck her, threatening to tear her sails from their bolt-ropes to carry away her masts, even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water.’

Here the Waakzaamheid, with her higher masts had an advantage and was now within a thousand yards and soon she began firing at the Leopard. Aubrey had never expected that the Dutchman would fire in this weather. Certainly the aim of warfare was the destruction of the enemy but in single-ship actions the idea of capture usually predominated. Aubrey had expected the seventy-four-pounder to hunt him down and take the Leopard when the weather moderated. In this sea there was no possibility of capture and any engagement and loss of a sail must mean the loss of all souls on board ship, ‘the Dutch Captain’s intent could only be to kill.’

In the switch back of enormous seas, in troughs before the green hill of water parts them, dead astern, the Waakzaamheid fires and Leonard returns fire. Aubrey operating the cabin nine-pounder is injured by a flying spar, then hears cheering. Through the shattered leadlights, as the Leopard reaches the crest of a wave, ‘he sees the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached too. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.’

‘My God, oh my God,’ Aubrey said,. ‘Six hundred men.’

Hair raising engagements with the enemy like the above make the Master and Commander novels the suspenseful reading that they are, but it is O’Brian’s skill in depicting character and human relationships that create the complex foundation on which the action is based. There’s the love interest, Aubrey in falls in love with the beautiful and gentle Sophie Williams, Maturin with her equally beautiful, witty but reckless cousin, Diane Villiers, but the books’ main focus is on the character realization and developing friendship of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

The Commander and the Surgeon.

The two men are very different. Jack, a large man physically, is optimistic, open hearted, too trusting onshore but a superb commander afloat, with an instinct for getting the best out of his crew and ships. Stephen, part Irish, part Catalan, is subtle and brilliant, a gifted physician who becomes the finest surgeon afloat. He’s a natural scientist who identifies new species, writing up his notes in a code he’s invented, but has to be helped aboard ship to avoid falling into the sea.

But there are characteristics that Aubrey and Maturin share. As well as their deep love of music, there’s the humour and enjoyment of word play, though Jack’s inordinate enjoyment of his own simple jokes, as someone remarked, is incommensurate to their wit. Stephen’s humour is more sardonic. There’s an amusing scene in ‘H.M.S.Surprise’ for example, where he walks into the captain’s cabin and finds his precious sloth sitting on Jacks lap, wearing a bemused expression and smelling of strong drink. Stephen exclaims; ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

Other characteristics; Aubrey and Maturin both have courage and something of that enthusiast, non-petty quality characteristic of Ishmael. Maturin’s joy in the natural world, concern for his patients, Aubrey’s enthusiasm for everything naval and care of his officers and crew. Several times Aubrey dives into the sea to rescue a ship member and rescues Maturin in a daring raid ashore when Maturin is captured by the enemy. Later Maturin also rescues Aubrey. Lord Keith of the Admiralty recruits Maturin as a spy for his Catalan contacts and ability to speak the language. Refusing payment, Maturin becomes a spy because he hates Napoleon and tyranny. In Master and Commander he says to Jack Aubrey:

‘I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross the road to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind – it is my own truth alone –but man as part of a movement is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations or nationalism. The only feeling I have – for what they are – are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.’

The Friendship.

Their friendship: In ‘Post Captain,’ in an impecunious period between voyages, Aubrey and Maturin are holed up in a small cottage and practicing rigid economies:

‘They were looking after themselves and there was no greater proof of their friendship than the way their harmony withstood their very great differences in domestic behavior. In Jack’s opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic’d bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cosy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade.

Jack took off his coat, covered his waistcoat and breeches with an apron and carried the dishes into the scullery. ‘My plate and saucer will serve again,’ said Stephen. ‘I have blown upon them. I do wish, Jack, that you would leave that milk-saucepan alone. It is perfectly clean. What more sanitary, what more wholesome, than scalded milk.’

The subtlety of their relationship is revealed in scenes like this from ‘The Letter of Marque’ where they sit talking and Stephen picks out some notes on his cello. An astonished Aubrey asks him if it is the ‘Marseillaise.’ ‘It is not,’ he said. ‘It is, or rather it is meant to be, the Mozart piece that was no doubt lurking somewhere in the Frenchman’s mind when he wrote it. Yet something eludes me…’

‘Stephen, ‘cried Jack. ‘Not another note, I beg. I have it exactly, if only it don’t fly away. He whipped the cloth off his violin-case, turned roughly, and swept straight into the true line. After a while Stephen joined him, and when they were thoroughly satisfied they stopped, tuned very exactly, passed the rosin to each other and so returned to the direct statement, to variations upon it, inversions, embroideries, first one setting out on a flight of improvisation while the other filled in and then the other doing the same, playing on and on.’

And I could read on and on … Happy I am that I am only halfway through the journey and several more of Patrick O’Brian’s master series still await me. I could almost wish that this particular voyage might never end.




Fer Judith C.


Ocean Reveries.

If yer happen ter have accompanied me in my Serf Under_ground, minnow voyages of discovery, yer may have noticed a few ocean references, a serf’s fascination with harbours ‘n such, a fateful attraction seems I share with quite a few other land lubbers.

Says Ishmael in the opening chapter of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, ‘Moby Dick’:

‘Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? – Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousand upon thousand of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against spikes, some seated upon the pier-heads, some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging as if striving to get a better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they do here?’

What do they there watching the water come ashore? Why they wish to embrace the Mysteries and escape the narrow certainties of life on shore, they wish to put to sea.

Here’s Ishmael again:

‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses; and bringing up at the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking peoples’ hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.’

And if you can’t take to the ship, what’s the next best thing? Why it’s read the great stories about the sea, none greater than Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick, Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, and Patrick O’Brien’s grand historical fiction, ‘Master and Commander’ series, set in the Napoleonic era sea battles between England and France.

So let’s begin our great ocean circumnavigation of the globe with Captain Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale. But if you happen to think Melville’s focus is this narrow quest, think again. Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is so much more, the theme of whales and whaling a metaphor for the mystery of life itself, its glory and the terror, no less. For while the fanatical commander of The Pequod may drive the action, the action is enlarged by the book’s master narrator, Ishmael-Melville.


‘Moby Dick’ begins with a catalogue of extracts from the Bible, Pliny, Shakespeare, Milton and on to Nantucket whalers. Its narrative encompasses sermons, descriptions of the hunt and other experiences transmuted and transcribed through Ishmael’s expansive sensibility.

Says Ishmael, in the chapter, ‘The Fossil Whale':

‘Give me a condor’s quill. Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an ink-stand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere thought of penning my thoughts of this leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with the outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past present and to come with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole earth, not excluding its suburbs.’

Mysteries and More.

There are the mysteries. Sailing in the Azores, south of St Helena, mysterious midnight sightings of the ‘spirit-spout’ of a distant whale:

‘It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god, uprising from the sea.’

And there are the glories. Travelling the long and narrow peninsular of Malacca, The Pequod sees on the horizon a semi-circle of whale jets up-playing and sparkling in the mid-day air. Coming closer the whalers find a great multitude of sperm whales herding as a continuous semi circle. When three boats are set down from The Pequod and approach the whales, they begin to display irresolution and consternation, swimming hither, thither and in ever expanding circles, Ishmael observes that had these leviathans been a flock of sheep pursued by three fierce wolves, they could not have evinced more dismay.

Gliding between two whales Ishmael’s boat enters the inner-most centre of the shoal:

‘We were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks in the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so close shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might have easily over-arched the middles ones, and so have gone round on their backs.’

With no chance to escape from this inner centre, Ishmael’s boat must wait for a breach in the living wall. And as they wait, becalmed, they are visited by young whales, evincing a wondrous fearlessness or perhaps a still becalmed panic:

‘Like household dogs they came sniffing around us, right up to our gun whales and touching them.; till it almost seemed that some spell had domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads, Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance…’

Gazing over the side of the boat another wondrous world beneath the surface:

‘For suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girths seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and yet while drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; – even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.’

Ishmael observes one of the babies, some fourteen feet long, seemed hardly a day old:

‘He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarcely recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule, where, head to tail, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.’

And thus within circle upon circle these inscrutable creatures at the centre indulge in all peaceful concernments. Meanwhile a wounded whale, carrying half of a harpoon line along with it, in the extraordinary agony of his wound is dashing around in the revolving circle:

‘that by one of the unimaginable accidents of the fishery, this whale had become entangled in the harpoon-line that he had towed; he had also run away with the cutting -spade in him; and while the free end of the rope attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in the coils of the harpoon-line around his tail, the cutting tool itself had worked loose from his flesh. So that tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades.’

Then the entire herd of whales came tumbling upon the inner centre ‘as if to pile themselves up in one common mountain.’ Calm is transformed into horror.

The Expanded Self.

The reader experiences scenes like the above from Melville’s chapter, ‘The Grand Amada,’ through the expansive intelligence of Ishmael, always making connections between things and at the same time discerning differences.

In the Wordsworth Classics edition of ‘Moby Dick,’ there’s an insightful introduction by David Herd in which he explores the writing process of Ishmael-Melville:

‘Generous enthusiasm’ is the key. ‘Enthusiasm,’ one of Emerson’s favorite words, ‘in which any man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other,’ Melville calls it ‘the all feeling.’ But Ishmael is no naïve Emerson. Seated at the masthead on a summer’s day, he warns of the dangerous complacency of living too fully in the moment:

‘There is no life in thee, now, except the rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek, you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists.’

For Ishmael, enthusiasm does not mean the disappearing self but the expanded self, for Ishmael, like Melville himself, feeds on reading, his narrative expanding, growing in stature with the texts he takes on. As he says in his chapter, ‘Cetology,’ I have swum through libraries and sailed through oceans,’ and observes David Herd, ‘with the enthusiasm of the autodidact,’ David Herd observes, Ishmael ‘ thinks of himself, and would think of his reader, as contemporaries of the ancients.’

‘Oh! The metempsychosis!’ says Ishmael. ‘Oh! Pythagorus, that in bright Greece two thousand years ago, did die, so good and wise so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage – and foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!’

Melville’s opening ‘Extracts’ suggest what Melville has learned in the composition of Moby Dick writing with his books around him, but indicate also something of the enthusiasm, of reading pushed out as writing and transmuted into something else, that Ishmael-Melville is sharing with his reader.

‘… if we begin the book with an image of the writer or narrator as a antiquarian (accumulating books on his favorite subject), as we read, we soon understand that the extracts enfold a much more noble, generous enthusiasm. Melville, after all is not just a collector but a reader, and not just a reader but someone who reads to write.’

Herd makes a comparison with Robert Burton, anatomist of melancholy who says of his relation to the writers he has used and learned from, ‘The matter is theirs most part, and yet mine, (which Seneca approves),yet it becomes something different in its new setting.’

What Melville shows through his narrator, Ishmael, says Herd, ‘is that reinvention or self-expansion is an effect of going to the library. Ishmael never stops changing throughout the novel, displaying not the integrity of a conventional character, but the capacity for growth of a curious mind.’

I’d say, that between Ahab, the single-minded enthusiast and Ishmael the generous enthusiast, there hovers a Descartian void. Ishmael is able to tell Ahad’s story, Ahab could never tell Ishmaels’. Ahab is unable to deal with uncertainty and is horrified by any form of exchange, Ishmael can accept complexities and is able to appreciate what it means to live in what he calls ‘a joint-stock world.’

A voyage with master narrator, Ishmael and single-minded commander, Captain Ahab, a sea-trip like no other …


MORE THOUGHTS ON … An Addendum On Love.


                          Raphael's 'Angels'

Serfs like me think those gods don’t know much about love, sweet love in all its subtleties. Human love is an emotion asperger gods jest don’t get. Fer them its capture and retreat, a war game that captivates fallible earthlings too. But those complex humans, why some of them relate in ways the gods don’t dream of. Hear sweet love expressed in human poetry and song.

Schubert ‘Impatience.’  ‘Thine is my heart, and shall be thine, alone, for ever.’

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see;
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin.

Fragile, fraught love betwixt the sexes, maternal love and brotherly, sometimes almost other-worldly, who can explain it, who can tell yer why, fools give yer reasons, wise men nevah try…

Brotherly love? Says Michel de Montaigne, regardin’ his friendship and love fer Steven de la Boitie: ‘If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feele it cannot be expressed but by answering, ‘Because it was he, because it was myselfe.’

Romantic love? ‘Tis mysterious … :

Somewhere I have never traveled.
gladly beyond

Somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

e e cummings.

Here’s rich metaphor fer adult love in ‘The Silken Tent,’ ‘loosely bound by countless silken ties,’graceful acceptance of responsibilities with love.

The Silken Tent.

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all the ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe nought to any single cord,
But strictly held by none is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Robert Frost.

Always serious territory with W.H, Auden.


Lay your sleeping head my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rock
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but not from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless.
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden.

And how can yer have a selection of verses about emotions without a sonnet by the bard?

Sonnet 29.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I myself am in love with the river god,
the silver perturbations on the surface
that disturb the river’s opacity, the
mysterious depths of cool indifference.

Say,how about you?



Whom the gods …

We envy the gods their longevity,
not recognizing that they envy us.
Envy the heightened drama of existence
that comes with knowledge of life’s brevity
– over before you know it,
– got to have something to show for it,
serious ambition, love, and dynasty,
creativity, can’t just sit around
like gods on Olympus clouds, dreaming
up low tricks to play on us below.

Those gods! Can’t keep their jealous eyes off us,
entertain themselves by fooling us,
mortals existing just for their sport.
Stuff of Greek tragedy, they have to fill
all those tomorrows and tomorrows
of eternity with something, theatre
of the absurd. Sometimes they even come down
to earth, like goddam randy Zeus, making
more mischief, more mayhem via god children,
like Herakles, son of Zeus, whom Hera makes mad
so that he kills his wife and children in
a frenzy. And then there’s Helen, daughter of Zeus.
Time to bring on the Trojan Wars.


Sophocles: Chorus from Antigone.

Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas
That surge and sway.

He is master of ageless Earth, to his own will bending
The immortal mother of gods by the sweat of his brow,
As year succeeds to year, with toil unending
Of mule and plough.

He is lord of all things living; birds of the air,
Beasts of the field, all creatures of sea and land
He taketh, cunning to capture and ensnare
With sleight of hand;

Hunting the savage beast from the upland rocks,
Taming the mountain monarch in his lair,
Teaching the wild horse and the roaming ox’
His yoke to bear.

The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain
He learnt; found out the laws of living together
In cities, building him shelters against the rain
And wintry weather.

There is nothing beyond his power. His subtlety
Meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth.
For every ill he found a remedy,
Save only death.


William Butler Yeats: Long-Legged Fly.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if you move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practice a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on the scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make,
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.


Archibald MacLeish: You Andrew Marvell.*

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night.

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthly chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow.

And strange at Echbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change.

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass.

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on.

And deep on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light in the sea
And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …

* Reference to Andrew Marvell’s Poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress.’


Oh Ozymandias!

Well that’s all, folks …



Adrian: Though this island seems to be desert, –
It must needs be of subtle, tender and delicate temperance.

Adrian:The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.

Sebastian: As if it had lungs, and rotten ones.

Antonio: Or as ‘twere perfumed by a fen.

Gonzales: Here is everything advantageous to life.

Antonio: True; save means to live.

Sebastian: Of that there’s none, or little.

‘The Tempest.’ William Shakespeare.

Human response to landscape – repeating some lines by Nietzche:

All nature faithfully! – But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art’s constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite! And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint.

Guess we all, you and us serfs, impose our own preoccupations upon the landscape. No such thing as the innocent eye.


Figures in a Landscape 1.

Just look at them! Hokusai’s
small figures in a landscape,
a master’s thirty-six views of
Mt Fuji, calm, serene even,
two sweeps of the calligrapher’s
brush capturing its perfect
conic symmetry.

There they are, clambering like
beavers up its slopes, though they’re
not fooled by Nature’s randomness,
know Nature gives but also takes,
look how they wrest a living
from it, pit their energy
against it, pulling together, even
against that great wave.


Figures in a Landscape 2.

In Hokusai’s woodblock-print,
Ejiri in Suruga Province,
Nature in playful mood
blows the leaves from trees,
sends scribes’ papers sailing
sky-wards, snatches hats
from the heads of peasants
who react with strange
physical contortions,
clutching flailing clothing,
grimacing into the wind.


Hunters in the Snow.

In Bruegel’s masterpiece
‘Hunters in the Snow,’
though peasants skate upon
the frozen river, no
winter wonderland is this.
Silhouettes of leafless trees
stand stark against a leaden sky
that matches matt-grey river.
Exhausted dogs, hunters with meagre prey,
peasants laboring on the snow fields,
each trying to survive the Little Ice Age.


A Pastoral in Iambic Pentametre.

So delightful, the pastoral landscapes
Of Claude Lorrain, where, bathed in misty haze
In golden valleys, comely shepherds dressed
In Grecian robes, graceful shepherdesses,
With names like Philomene and Diocles,
Beneath cerulean skies and splendid trees,
Pass halcyon days in leisurely pursuits,
Pipe madrigals, sing songs, enjoy the fruits
That Nature doth provide, each in its time,
The early cherry, fig and later lime,
While sheep, lambs, bullocks, kine and fallow deer,
On sweet pastures graze conveniently near.

One wonders what they do when Winter comes?
Retreat to one of those ancient ruins
In the Claude Lorrain landscape, spend Winter
Nights discussing Plato and playing chess.
All so golden age and innocent

The Old Couple.

Every year the forest creeps closer,
Small pines encroaching in the meadow,
Tiny outposts in enemy territory.

Seems to the aging couple, days and years
Are also changing, days seem shorter, nights darker,
Does the harvest moon wane faster than before?

Tonight there is a frost. Against the cold he selects
Another pine log from the pile, lifts it firmly
With his strong forearm, throws it on the fire.

The fire crackles and sends out sparks. In its glow
His wife looks like the girl he married long ago, hair
Glinting, shadows concealing the lines around the mouth.

Shadows, too, hide his stooped shoulders,
Bowed by years of doing battle with the elements.
In the dark forest, the bark of a lone fox.

Early morning, sun’s already melting the frost.
The postman calls, a rare event. Foreign
Postmark, the couples daughter arriving from France,
Grandchildren in tow, they’ll spend Easter on the farm.

Outside, the day grows warm. In the budding plum tree
A thrush bursts forth in song.

kelly 5

Ned Kelly – Sydney Nolan

Back-yard Haku.

Back-yard barbecue,
Oz outback dream-time, tossed down
With cold beer and prawns.

Beneath Canopies.

Something fascinating
about canopies.
Lying on your back in a meadow,
gazing up and up at a blue canopy
that seems to go on for ever. Or
here, beneath tall trees, canopy
of patterned leaves, hidden world
of green mysteries, squirrels’ abodes
in northern hemisphere, possums’
in southern hemisphere, gatherings
of birds in both. Or kinda’ in reverse,
you’re peering, at ground zero,
into forests of clover, watching
ants following scented trails,
mantids that lurk in thickets like
ancient dinosaurs. Then there’s
the magic of familiar things, walking
in wet weather, the pavement
shining beneath your feet, rain
drumming down on your umbrella.