Web and Book design image,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures) 

Click Here to return to
Ships and Havens
Contents Page




 OF all the things that man has made none is so full of interest and charm, none possesses so distinct a life and character of its own, as a ship.

 "Ships are but boards," says Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But we feel that this is a thoroughly wooden opinion, one of those literal judgments which stick to the facts and miss the truth. Ships have something more in them than the timbers of which they are made. Human thought and human labor and human love, — the designer's clever conception, the builder's patient toil, the explorer's daring venture, the merchant's costly enterprise, the sailor's loyal affection, the traveller's hopes and fears, — all the manifold sympathies of humanity, inform the dumb pilgrims of the sea with a human quality. There is a spirit within their oaken ribs, a significance in their strange histories.

 The common language in which we speak of them is an unconscious confession of this feeling. We say of a ship, "She sails well. She minds her helm quickly. The wind is against her, but she makes good headway. We wish her a prosperous voyage." We endow her with personality; and, as if to acknowledge the full measure of our interest, we express it in terms which belong to the more interesting sex.

 One reason for this is undoubtedly the fact that the ship appears to us as a traveller to an unseen, and often an unknown, haven. It is the element of mystery, of adventure, of movement towards a secret goal, that fascinates our imagination, and draws our sympathy after it. When this is wanting, the ship loses something of her enchantment.

 There is a little cottage where I have spent many summers on the sleepy southern shore of Long Island. From the white porch we could look out upon a shallow, land-locked bay. There we saw, on every sunny day, a score of sailboats, flickering to and fro on the bright circle of water in swallow-flights, with no aim but their own motion in the pleasant breeze. It was a flock of little play-ships, — a pretty sight, but it brought no stir to the thought, no thrill to the emotions.

 From the upper windows of the house the outlook surpassed a long line of ragged sand-dunes, and ranged across

"The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea."

 There went the real ships, of all shapes and sizes, of all rigs and models; the great steamers, building an airy pillar of cloud by day, a flashing pillar of fire by night; the ragged coasters, with their patched and dingy sails; the slim, swift yachts, hurrying by in gala-dress, as if in haste to arrive at some distant, merry festival of Neptune's court. Sometimes they passed in groups, like flights of plover; sometimes in single file, like a flock of wild swans; sometimes separate and lonely, one appearing and vanishing before the next hove in sight.

When the wind was from the north they hugged the shore. With a glass one could see the wrinkled, weather-beaten face of the man at the wheel, and the short pipe smoking between his lips. When the wind was southerly and strong they kept far away, creeping slowly along the rim of the horizon. On a fair breeze they dashed along, wing and wing, with easy, level motion. When the wind was contrary they came beating in and out, close-hauled, tossing and laboring over the waves. It was a vision of endless variety and delight. But behind it all, giving life and interest to the scene, was the invisible thought of the desired haven.

 Whither is she travelling, that long, four-masted schooner, with all her sails set to catch the fickle northwest breeze? Is it in some languid bay of the West Indies, or in some rocky harbor of Patagonia, amid the rigors of the far southern winter, that she will cast anchor? Where is she bound, that dark little tramp-steamer, trailing voluminous black smoke behind her, and buffeting her way to the eastward in the teeth of the rising gale? Is it in some sunlit port among the bare, purple hills of Spain, or in the cool shadows of some forest-clad Norwegian fiord, that she will find her moorings? Whither away, ye ships? What haven?

 How often, and how exquisitely, this question of ships and havens has been expressed by the poets (in prose and verse), who translate our thoughts for us. Longfellow recalls a dream of his childhood in the seaport-town of Portland: —

"I remember the black wharves and the slips,
     And the sea-tides tossing free;
And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
     And the magic of the sea.
     And the voice of that wayward song
  Is singing and saying still:
  'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.' "

George William Curtis wanders down to the Battery, and meditates on Sea from Shore: —

"The sails were shaken out, and the ship began to move. It was a
fair breeze perhaps, and no steamer was needed to tow her away.
She receded down the bay. Friends turned back, — I could not
see them, — and waved their hands, and wiped their eyes, and went
home to dinner. Farther and farther from the ships at anchor, the
lessening vessel became single and solitary upon the water. The
sun sank in the west; but I watched her still. Every flash of her sails,
as she tacked and turned, thrilled my heart .... I did not know the
consignees nor the name of the vessel. I had shipped no adventure,
nor risked any insurance, nor made any bet, but my eyes clung to
her as Ariadne's to the fading sail of Theseus."

 And here is a bit of Rudyard Kipling's gusty music from The Seven Seas: —

"The Liner she's a lady, an' she never looks nor 'eeds —
 The Man-o'-War's 'er 'usband, an' 'e gives 'er all she needs;
 But, oh, the little cargo-boats, that sail the wet seas roun',
 They're just the same as you and me, a-plyin' up an' down!"

 But it is Wordsworth, the most intimate and searching interpreter of delicate, half-formed emotions, who has given the best expression to the feeling that rises within us at sight of a journeying ship :—

"With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh
 Like stars in heaven, mid joyously it showed;
 Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
 Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
 A goodly Vessel did I then espy
 Come like a giant from a haven broad;
 And lustily along the bay she strode,
 Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
 This Ship was naught to me, nor I to her,
 Yet I pursued her with a Lover's look;
 This Ship to all the rest I did prefer:
 When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
 No tarrying: where she comes the winds must stir;
 On went she, and due north her journey took.

"Where lies the Land to which yon Ship must go?
 Fresh as a lark mounting at break of day
 Festively she puts forth in trim array;
 Is she for tropic suns, or polar snow?
 What boots the inquiry? — Neither friend nor foe
 She cares for; let her travel where she may
 She finds familiar friends, a beaten way
 Ever before her, and a wind to blow.
 Yet still I ask, what haven is her mark?
 And, almost as it was when ships were rare,
 (From time to time, like Pilgrims, here and there
 Crossing the waters), doubt, and something dark,
 Of the old Sea some reverential fear
 Is with me at thy farewell, joyous Bark!"

 And is not this a parable, beautiful and suggestive, of the way in which we look out, in our thoughtful moods, upon the ocean of human life, and the men and women who are voyaging upon it? In them also the deepest element of interest is that they are in motion. They are all going somewhither. They are not stationary objects in our view. They are not even, in this aspect, parts of the great tide of being in which they float. They arc distinct, individual, separate. We single them out one by one. Each one is a voyager, with a port to seek, a course to run, a fortune to experience. The most interesting question that we can ask in regard to them is: Whither bound? What haven?

But this inquiry comes to us now not as an idle or a curious question. For, first of all, we feel that these men and women are not strangers to us. We know why we take a personal interest in one more than in another. We know why we "pursue them with a lover's look." It is as if the "joyous Bark" carried some one that we knew, as if we could see a familiar face above the bulwarks, and hear a well-beloved voice hailing us across the waves. And then we realize that we also are en voyage. We do not stand on the shore as spectators; we, too, are out on the ocean, sailing. All the "reverential fear of the old Sea," the peril, the mystery, the charm, of the voyage, come home to our own experience. The question becomes pressing, urgent, importunate, as we enter into the depth Of its meaning. Surely there is nothing that we can ever ask ourselves in which we have a closer, deeper interest, or to which we need to find a clearer, truer answer, than this simple, direct question: What is our desired haven in the venturesome voyage of life?

Click the icon to continue

to the next section of Ships and Havens