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A SALT BREEZE
WHEN one first catches the smell of the sea, his lungs seem involuntarily to expand, the same as they do when he steps into the open air after long confinement indoors. On the beach he is simply emerging into a larger and more primitive out-of-doors. There before him is aboriginal space, and the breath of it thrills and dilates his body. He stands at the open door of the continent and eagerly drinks the large air. This breeze savors of the original element; it is a breath out of the morning of the world, — bitter, but so fresh and tonic! He has taken salt grossly and at second-hand all his days; now let him inhale it at the fountain-head, and let its impalpable crystals penetrate his spirit, and prick and chafe him into new activity.
We Americans are great eaters of salt, probably the largest eaters of salt and drinkers of water of any of the civilized peoples; the amount of the former consumed annually per capita being more than double the amount consumed in England and on the Continent; and the quantity of water (with ice in it) we drink is in still greater proportions. Our dry climate calls for the water, and probably our nervous, dyspeptic tendencies for the salt. Hence our need, as a people, of that great tonic and sedative, the seashore. In Biblical times, newborn babies were rubbed with salt. I suppose it stimulated them and quickened their circulation. American babies are not thus rubbed, and there comes a time with most of us when we feel that the operation cannot be put off any longer, and we rush down to the sea to have the service performed by the old nurse herself, and the pores of both mind and body well cleansed and opened.
Nothing about the sea is more impressive than its ceaseless rocking. Without either wind or tide, it would probably be restless and oscillating, because it registers and passes along the fluctuations of the earthy crust. The solid ground is only relatively solid. The scientists, under the direction of the British Association, who sought to determine the influence of the moon upon the earth's crust, found, as soon as their instruments were delicate enough to register the influence of that body, many other agencies at work. They could find no really solid spot to plant their instruments upon. Thus, over the area of a high barometer, the earth's crust bent beneath the weight of the column of air. At sea the waters are pressed down. The waves of the atmospheric ocean, as they sweep around the earth in vast alternations, cause both land and water to rise and fall as beneath the tread of some striding Colossus. This unequal barometric pressure over the Atlantic area would, doubtless, of itself keep its equilibrium perpetually disturbed. Thus, “the cradle endlessly rocking,” of which our poet sings, is not only bestrode by the winds and swung by the punctual hand of the tides, but the fairest summer weather gives it a nudge, and the bending floor beneath it contributes an impulse. Its rocking is secured beyond peradventure. Darwin seems to think it is the cradle where the primordial life of the globe had its infancy,— a conclusion of science anticipated by an old Greek poet who said, —
“Ocean, father of gods and men.”
Whether or not it rocked man, or the germ of man, into being, there can be little doubt that it will continue to rock after he and all things else are wrapped in the final sleep.
Its grandest swing, I found during a couple of weeks' sojourn upon the coast, is often upon a fair day. Local winds and storms make it spiteful and angry. They break up and scatter the waves; but some quiet morning you saunter down to the beach and find the sea beating its long roll. The waves run parallel to the shore and come in with great regularity and deliberation, falling upon it in a succession of long, low cataracts, and you realize the force of the Homeric epithet, “the far-resounding sea.” It is a sort of prostrate Niagara expiring in intermittent torrents. Often there is a marked explosion from the compression of the air in the hollow cylinder of the curling wave. These long swells are of the character of those which in the Hudson follow the passage of one of the great steamers, — large, measured, uniform. Something here has passed, probably a cyclone far at sea; and these breakers, with their epic swing, are the echo of its retreating footsteps.
Nothing is more singular and unexpected to the landsman than the combing of the waves, — a momentary perpendicular or incurving wall of water, a few yards from shore, with other water spilling or pouring over it as over a milldam, thus exhibiting for an instant a clear, perfectly-formed cataract. But instantly the wall crumbles, or is crushed down, and in place of it there is a wild caldron of foaming, boiling water and sand.
There seems to be something more cosmic, or shall I say astronomic, in the sea than in the shore. Here you behold the round back of the globe: the lines are planetary. You feel that here is the true surface of the sphere, the curving, delicate sides of this huge bubble. On the land, amid the wrinkles of the hills, you have place, fixedness, locality, a nook in the chimney-corner; but upon the sea you are literally adrift; place is not, boundaries are not, space is vacant. You are upon the smooth disk of the planet, like a man bestriding the moon. Under your feet runs the line of the earth's rotundity, and round about you the same curve bounds your vision.
Then the sea brings us nearer that time when the earth was without form and void, — a vast, shoreless, and therefore voiceless, sea. You look upon the youth of the world; there is no age, no change, no decays here. It is older than the continents, and, in a measure, their creator. That it should devour them again, like Saturn his children, only adds to our sense of its mystery and power.
The sea is another firmament. The land is fugitive: it abides not. Vast areas have been scalped by the winds and the rains; but the sea, whose law is mutation, changes not, — type of fickleness and instability; yet the granite crumbles, and it remains the same. The semicircle that bounds your view seaward, and that travels with you along the beach, a vast, liquid crescent or half-moon, upon the inner, jagged edge of which you stand, is the type of that which changes not, which neither ends nor begins, and into which all form and all being merge.
This is a part of the vague fascination of the shore; 't is the boundary of two worlds. With your feet upon the present, you confront aboriginal time and space. If we could reach the point in the horizon where the earth and sky meet, we might find the same fascination there. In the absence of this the best substitute is the beach.
We seem to breathe a larger air on the coast. It is the place for large types, large thoughts. 'T is not farms, or a township, we see now, but God's own domain. Possession, ownership, civilization, boundary lines cease, and there within reach is a clear page of terrestrial space, as unmarred and as unmarrable as if plucked from the sidereal heavens.
How inviting and adventurous the ships look, dropping behind the rim of the horizon, or gently blown along its edge, their yard-arms pointing to all quarters of the globe! Mystery, adventure, the promise of unknown lands, beckon to us from the full-rigged ships. One does not see them come or depart; they dawn upon him like his own thoughts, some dim and shadowy, just hovering on the verge of consciousness, others white and full, a solace to the eye. But presently, while you ponder, they are gone, or else vaguely notch the horizon line. Illusion, enchantment, hover over the sail-ships. They have the charm of the ancient world of fable and romance. They are blown by Homeric winds. They are a survival from the remotest times. But yonder comes a black steamship, cutting across this enchanted circle in defiance of wind and tide; this is the modern world snubbing and dispelling our illusions, and putting our poets to flight.
But the veritable oceanic brine there before one, the continental, primordial, original liquid, the hoary, eternal sea itself, — what can a lover of fields and woods make of it? None of the charms or solacements of birds and flowers here, or of rural sights and sounds; no repose, no plaintiveness, no dumb companionship; but a spirit threatening, hungering, remorseless, decoying, fascinating, serpentine, rebelling and forever rebelling against the fiat, “Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther.” The voice of the sea is unlike any other sound in nature; more riant and chafing than any roar of woods or storms. One never ceases to hear the briny, rimy, weltering quality, — it is salt to the ear no less than to the smell. One fancies he hears the friction and clashing of the invisible crystals. A shooting avalanche of snow might have this frosty, beaded, anfractuous sound. The sands and pebbles and broken shells have something to do with it; but without these that threatening, serrated edge remains, — the grainy, saline voice of the sea.
'T is a pity the fabulous sea-serpent is not a reality. The sea seems to imply such a monster, swimming as a leech swims, with vertical undulations, splitting the waves, or reposing across them in vast scaly coils. There is something in the sea that fills the imagination of men with the image of these things. The sea-serpent will always be seen by somebody, because the sea itself is serpentine, — a writhing, crawling, crested, glistening saurian with the globe in its embrace. How it rises up and darts upon you! In storms, its breath blackens and blights the shore vegetation; it devours the beach and disgorges it again, and piles the shore with foam, like masses of unwashed wool. Often a hissing, sibilant sound seems to issue from under the edge of the bursting wave. Then that ever-recurring rustle calls up a vision of some scaly monster uncoiling or measuring its length upon the sands. I was told of two girls, in bathing-suits, sitting upon the beach, where the waves, which were running very high, reached them with only their laced and embroidered edges; then, as if it had been getting ready for a spring, a huge wave rushed up and snatched them both into the sea, and they were drowned. In a few days the body of one was cast up, but the other was never seen again. Such fawning, such treachery, are in the waves.
The sea shifts its pillow like an uneasy sleeper. The contour of the beach is seldom two days alike; that round, smooth bolster of sand is at times very prominent. The waves stroke and caress it, and slide their delicate sea-draperies over it, as if they were indeed making their bed. When you walk there again it is gone, carried down under the waves, and the beach is low and naked.
Both the sight and the sound of the waves fill the mind with images. One thinks of rockets, windrows, embroideries. How they lift themselves up and grow tall as they approach the shore! They are entering shallower water, they are running aground, and they rise up like vessels.
I saw little in the waves that suggested steeds, but more that reminded of huge sheep. At times they would come wallowing ashore precisely like a great flock or mob of woolly-headed sheep; the wave breaks far out, and then comes that rushing line of tossing, leaping woolly heads and shoulders, diminishing as it comes, and leaving the space behind it strewn with foam. Sometimes the waves look like revolving cylindrical knives, carving the coast. Then they thrust up their thin, crescent-shaped edges, like reapers, reaping only shells and sand; yet one seems to hear the hiss of a great sickle, the crackle of stubble, the rustle of sheaves, and the screening of grain. Then again there is mimic thunder as the waves burst, followed by a sound like the downpouring of torrents of rain. How it shovels the sand and sifts and washes it forever! Every particle of silt goes seaward; it is the earth-pollen with which the sunken floors of the sea are deeply covered. What material for future continents, new worlds and new peoples, is hoarded within its sunless depths! How Darwin longed to read the sealed book of the earth's history that lies buried beneath the sea! He thought it probable that the first continents were there; that the areas of elevation and of subsidence had changed places in the remote past.
Turning over the collections of sea-poetry in the libraries, it is rare enough to find a line or a stanza with the real savor of the shore in it. 'T is mostly fresh-water poetry, very pretty, often spirited and frothy, but seldom gritty, saline, and elemental. That bearded, bristling, savage quality of the sea, to which I have referred, you shall hardly find hinted at, except, perhaps, in Whitman, who is usually ignored in these anthologies. Tennyson's touches, as here and there in “Sea-Dreams,” always satisfy, and one chafes that Shakespeare should have left so little on the subject.
The poets make a dead set at the vastness, power, and terror of the sea, and take their fill of these aspects of it. 'T is an easy theme, and soon wearies. We crave the verse that shall give us the taste of the salt spray upon our lips. Bryant's hymn to the sea is noble and stately, but it is only his forest hymn shifted to the shore. It touches the same chords. It has no marine quality or atmosphere. The bitterness and the sweetness of the sea, as of a celestial dragon devouring and purifying, are not in it. The poet wings his lofty flight above sea and shore alike. When Emerson sings of the sea, there is more savor, more tonic air, a closer and stronger hold upon the subject; but even he takes refuge in the vastness of his theme, and speaks through the imperial voice of the sea: —
“I heard, or seemed to hear, the chiding Sea Say,
Pilgrim, why so late and slow to come?
Am I not always here, thy summer home?
Is not my voice thy music, morn and eve,
My breath thy healthful climate in the heats,
My touch thy antidote, my bay thy bath?
Was ever building like my terraces?
Was ever couch magnificent as mine?”
There are strong lines in Rossetti's “Sea Limits,” but, like the others, it is a far-off idealization of the subject, and does not bring one nearer the sea.
There are occasionally good descriptive lines in Miller, as
“ I crossed the hilly sea.”
And again, —
“The ships, black-bellied, climb the sea.”
There is something fresh and inviting in this comparison: —
“As pure as sea-washed sands.”
But when the poet of the Sierras places old Neptune on the anxious bench, in this wise,
“Behold the ocean on the beach
Kneel lowly down as if in prayer;
I hear a moan as of despair,
While far at sea do toss and reach
Some things so like white pleading hands,”
one has serious qualms.
The breakers usually suggest to the poets rearing and plunging steeds, as in Arnold:
“Now the wild white horses play,
Champ and chafe and toss in the spray,”
and Stedman's spirited poem, “Surf,” makes use of the same image. Byron, in “Childe Harold,” lays his hand upon the “mane” of the ocean. Whitman, recalling the shapes and sounds of the shore by moonlight, startles the imagination with this line:
“The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing.”
One of our poets — Taylor, I think — has applied the epithet “chameleon” to the sea, — “the chameleon sea,” — which fits well, for the sea takes on all hues and tints. To the genial Autocrat the Bea is “feline” and treacherous, — something of the crouching and leaping tiger in it. The poet of “The New Day,” as a foil to his love and admiration for it, calls it “the accursed sea.” There is sea-salt in Whitman's poetry, strongly realistic epithets and phrases, that had their birth upon the shore, and that perpetually recur to one as he saunters on the beach. He uses the word “rustling” and the phrase “hoarse and sibilant” to describe the sound of the waves. “The husky-voiced sea” expresses the saline quality to which I have referred:
“Sea of stretch'd ground-swells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life, and of unshovell'd yet always ready graves,
Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
I am integral with you; I too am of one phase and of all phases.”
“Oh, madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.”
Or this, written upon the beach at Ocean Grove in 1883,
“With husky-haughty lips, O Sea!
Where day and night I wend thy surf-beat shore,
Imaging to my sense thy varied strange suggestions,
The troops of white-maned racers racing to the goal,
Thy ample smiling face, dash'd with the sparkling dimples of the sun,
Thy brooding scowl and murk —thy unloos'd hurricanes,
Thy unsubduedness, caprices, wilfulness;
Great as thou art above the rest, thy many tears — a lack from all eternity in thy content,
(Naught but the greatest struggles, wrongs, defeats, could make thee greatest — no less could make thee,)
Thy lonely state — something thou ever seek'st and seek'st, yet never gain'st,
Surely some right withheld — some voice, in huge monotonous rage, of freedom-lover pent,
Some vast heart, like a planet's, chain'd and chafing in those breakers,
By lengthen'd swell, and spasm, and panting breath,
And rhythmic rasping of thy sands and waves,
And serpent hiss, and savage peals of laughter,
And undertones of distant lion roar,
(Sounding, appealing to the sky's deaf ear—but now, rapport for once,
A phantom in the night thy confidant for once,)
The first and last confession of the globe,
Outsurging, muttering from thy soul's abysms,
The tale of cosmic elemental passion,
Thou tellest to a kindred soul.”
Whitman is essentially of the shore; his bearded, aboriginal quality, — something in his words that smites and chafes, a tonic like salt air, not sweet, but dilating; his irregular, flowing, repeating, elliptical lines; his sense of space, and constant reference to the earth and the orbs as standards and symbols. His poems are rarely architectural or sculpturesque, either to the eye or mind; no carving and shaping merely for art's sake; but floating, drifting, surging masses of concrete events and images, more or less nebular, protoplasmic, and preliminary, but always potent and alive, and full of the salt of the earth, holding in solution as no other poet does his times and country.
The sea is the great purifier and equalizer of climes, the great canceler, leveler, distributer, neutralizer, and sponge of oblivion. What a cemetery, and yet what healing in its breath! What a desert, and yet what plenty in its depths! How destructive, and yet the continents are its handiwork.
“Sea, full of food, the nourisher of kinds,
Purger of earth, and medicine of men.”
And yet famine and thirst, dismay and death, stalk the wave. Contradictory, multitudinous sea! the despoiler and yet the renewer; barren as a rock, yet as fruitful as a field; old as Time, and young as to-day; merciless as Fate, and tender as Love; the fountain of all waters, yet mocking its victims with the most horrible thirst; smiting like a hammer, and caressing like a lady's palm; falling upon the shore like a wall of rock; then creeping up the sands as with the rustle of an infant's drapery; cesspool of the continents, yet “creating a sweet clime by its breath;” pit of terrors, gulf of despair, caldron of hell, yet health, power, beauty, enchantment, dwell forever with the sea.