Poet's Pick April 26
Thomas Hardy: "The Convergence of the Twain"
Selected by A. E. Stallings
National Poetry Month 2012

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A. E. Stalllings's Poetry Month Pick, April 26, 2012

"The Convergence of the Twain"
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

 (Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

                         I

        In a solitude of the sea
        Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

                         II

        Steel chambers, late the pyres
        Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

                         III

        Over the mirrors meant
        To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

                         IV

        Jewels in joy designed
        To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

                         V

        Dim moon-eyed fishes near
        Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?". . .

                         VI

        Well: while was fashioning
        This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

                         VII

        Prepared a sinister mate
        For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time fat and dissociate.

                         VIII

        And as the smart ship grew
        In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

                         IX

        Alien they seemed to be:
        No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.

                         X

        Or sign that they were bent
        By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one August event,

                         XI

        Till the Spinner of the Years
        Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.



* A. E. Stallings Comments:
That guilty pleasure, Downton Abbey, lets us know in its opening episode something about where it is coming from and where it is headed by anchoring us with a uniquely twentieth-century chimera of an event, part history, part tragedy, part soap opera, part spectacle, part media frenzy:  the sinking of the Titanic, on April 15th, 1912.  It can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster, what with devoted magazine issues, documentaries, and the rerelease of the eponymous film, in redundant 3-D—something of a boon if you are the mother of a seven-year old boy fascinated with big ships and catastrophe.

This year also marks the centenary of one of Thomas Hardy’s most anthologized poems, “The Convergence of the Twain.”  Poems written in the immediate aftermath of current events rarely survive their moment to become “news that stays news.”  But this is that rare exception that proves the rule.  (It is telling that Simon Armitage’s 9/11 memorial poem, also titled “Convergence of the Twain,” copes with the problem of writing on a contemporary disaster by modeling itself on Hardy’s poem.)  Published scarcely a month after the event, in the May 14, 1912 program of the “Dramatic and Operatic Matinee in Aid of the ‘Titanic’ Disaster Fund” given at Covent Garden (an event at which such celebrities as Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova performed), the poem encapsulates the essence of what would become the Titanic as legend:  a narrative of hubris (after all, the Titans were themselves giants punished for their arrogance by Zeus—it’s sort of like naming a skyscraper Babel), decadence, and doom; a morality tale of Modernity.

The poem not only rises above the occasional, but seems to be part of the actual myth-making.   How is this achieved?  For one thing, Hardy places the sinking not in the hot fluster of the present, but in what seems an ancient past, or a distant future in which the current event is part of ancient history—the opening is not one of  panicked screams and running to life boats, but of a “solitude” of sea, the ship—never named in the poem—“deep” from human vanity.  And with that Spenserian “stilly” and “couches,” the language withdraws into a distant era.  I love the muscular archaic “inversion” that sets the “she” of the ship on the floor of the syntax and the stanza.

The weird otherworldliness of the sunken second stanza is again a matter of diction and syntax (“salamandrine” having to do with ancient beings who can survive fire, “thrid” a quaintly Hardyesque version of “thread,” the “lyres” suggesting ancient bards).  Hardy plays continually off Anglo-Saxon versus Latinate diction (even in the title), monosyllables versus the polysyllabic, the most extreme example being in stanza V, where “Dim moon-eyed fishes” query about “vaingloriousness,” a gassy, expansive word that takes up most of the line.

The nonce form of the poem seems to embody the argument—that the maiden voyage of the Titanic is actually a sort of doomed nuptials between vessel and iceberg (wedding turns into “welding,” a grim “consummation”).  Each stanza consists of two half-lines of three beats (almost ballad-like) which “converge” into a full six-beat line, a measure little used in English partly because of its weight and sense of stasis.  Each stanza rehearses the event.

The poem also has a strange feeling of playing backwards, starting with the ship having sunk long ago and become part of the seascape, of little curiosity to the slimy sea creatures that blear its opulence, and then rewinding to the crucial moment.  The poem ends with a jolt to the “now” of the triggering event, so that it closes on the reverberation of the shock itself, which seems to shudder back up through the poem—the twain, it turns out, being not just the two objects, but two hemispheres.

Why does the Titanic continue to hold such fascination, even for seven-year-old boys?  An Irish poet was recently telling me that there is a new Titanic museum in Belfast (where the Titanic was built—the gantries featuring in the opening of Louis MacNeice’s “Carrickfergus”) and spoke with some disgust at what almost seems a celebration of the anniversary.  (After all, it was a catastrophe, with great loss of life.)  But the story stubbornly has all the elements of legend—including that “Shape of Ice” lurking silently in the cold ocean.  Elizabeth Bishop seems to put her finger on the allure:  “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship/ although it meant the end of travel.”  And Michael Donaghy has a marvelous poem (“A Disaster”) where the Titanic becomes metaphor (“We could almost smell her perfume./  And she went down in sight of us.”)  But it is arguably here in Hardy’s poem, written while the newspapers were still rolling hot off the press, that the transformation of the Titanic—from modern engineering marvel to disaster to tragedy to myth—was begun.       

 

About A. E. Stallings:
A. E. Stallings has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award;  Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006), which won the Poet's Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Benjamin H. Danks Award; and Olives (2012). She has also published a verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things (2007). Stallings is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. She lives in Athens, Greece.


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