Analysis of – “The Convergence of the Twain” (Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”), By Thomas Hardy

RMS Titanic

Between the nights of 14th and 15th April 1912, the “unsinkable” steamship Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in North Atlantic Ocean.  She was on her maiden voyage from Southampton in the UK to New York.  On 24th April Thomas Hardy wrote the poem “The Convergence of the Twain” to be printed in the program of a charity performance given at the Royal Opera House to aid the victims of Titanic disaster.  ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ means the meeting of the two. The words Hardy chose, I think, are deliberately old fashioned.  Below is the poem and an analysis after it, which gave humanity an advise of caution much ahead of its time.   

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 far 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.

  • Thomas Hardy

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Titanic boasted itself as ‘unsinkable.’  She was the largest, most modern and pompous ship at that time.  She was a symbol of human flamboyance and ostentation.  An estimated combined wealth of the First Class passengers on board, when Titanic sank, was then $500 million or $12 billion by present value. In her maiden voyage itself, she met with this calamity and descended to ocean floor along with over 1500 passengers and crew members on her then, one of the most significant accidents in the maritime history.    

After the disaster, there was widespread criticism of the ship’s excessive luxury, of the different survival rates between first-class passengers, many of whom were rescued, and steerage passengers, many of whom weren’t. There was also criticism of the arrogance of the alleged claim that the vessel was unsinkable.  Thomas Hardy took an entirely different stand in his poem about this catastrophe.  The poem is philosophical and meditative and in my opinion, first warning about the inevitable human-nature conflict. 

What would you expect to find in a poem written immediately after the devastation of this scale? Perhaps a poem that appeals to the readers’ emotions upon the occasion, or sympathy with the victims’ families and their grief at the loss of lives.  Maybe the poem would raise questions about the life and its unpredictability and why do such things happen? Looks like, Hardy has consciously avoided all these emotional queries and sympathies.  For him, the disaster was an occasion for reflecting on the relationships among humans, nature, and an impersonal supernatural force controlling or at least foreseeing events. It is incredible to see that over 100 years ago this man had the vision to bring forth the contrast between human ego and power in the simplicity of nature. 

Hardy wrote this poem in eleven three-line stanzas. The stanzas fall into two groups: The first five verses describe the sunken ship and its grandiosity, and the last six trace the events leading up to the sinking.

Hardy from the first stanza emphasizes how the shipwreck is now wholly separated from the “human vanity” and “Pride of Life” and lies lifeless at the bottom in the solitude of the sea.  Thus, from the very beginning, Hardy disparages the possibility of creating an unsinkable craft. The second stanza details some of the tremendous engineering achievements in the engine-room of the ship – ‘Steel chambers, late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires…’ Pyres are huge fires that generate great heat; they are also used at funerals in places like India for burning the body. So ‘pyre’ indicates legendary fire and heat in the engine-room, but also anticipates the death.  The salamander is a species of lizard; according to legend, it could live in fire. So the words Hardy has chosen underline the exalted status of the vessel but at the same time create a melancholic mood.

The third and fourth stanzas set the details of the luxury of the liner against their present dimmed, lifeless place at the bottom of the sea. So the sea-worm (and worms eat decaying corpses) crawls over mirrors that were intended to reflect the wealthy (‘opulent’) and jewels that were intended to enrapture the senses ‘lie lightless.’  With the dim-moon-faced fishes’ query, the big question is posed: what are the Titanic and her glory doing at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? With this question, Hardy shows nature’s resentment and indifference towards human ‘vaingloriousness’ (what a selection of word!). 

Hardy stresses that, at the same time as the Titanic was fashioning and getting ready like a beautiful self-centered rich lady, ‘The Immanent Will,’ that is, the force of nature, was creating a sinister mate, an iceberg, for her at a far distant location… It is important to note here that he has called her mate as ‘sinister.’  

In final stanzas, although the ship and the iceberg seemed to be ‘alien,’ the limited perception of humankind failed to see that their later history would be intimate welding. I think it is remarkable to juxtapose sexual connotations, such as ‘mate’ and ‘intimate’ to the technological word ‘welding.’ Human understanding also failed to see any sign that the ship and the iceberg were destined to meet and copulate ‘By paths coincident.’  And finally, the Spinner of the Years (the Fates or nature which spins the web of life) said ‘Now!’   ‘And consummation comes,’ again the strangely unexpected word denoting a sexual union between the incompatible mates, the ship, and the iceberg. The shock waves from this catastrophe jar two hemispheres, the whole world.

I could not find any document giving details of specific environmental and marine damage done by the sinking of Titanic.  She was carrying 6000 tons of coal in her bunkers when she left Southampton. And presumably around half of it must have spilled in the Atlantic.  Coal besides its main elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur – always contains a large number of other elements in minor and trace amounts. Some of these are highly toxic, for instance, mercury (Hg), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), selenium (Se), and uranium (U). Titanic presumably 3000 tons of coal must have released all these in North Atlantic.  On the other hand, use of plastics, which is one more main elements of concern for marine debris, was not started by then.

Thomas Hardy or other academia by then was not aware of subjects of marine debris and pollution. Research about marine pollution mainly initiated after Torry canyon oil spill in 1967.  However, as I stated earlier, it is scintillating to see that, over 50 years before Torry Canyon,  Hardy had this vision and he could see that nature plays its role if human ego and vaingloriousness tries to challenge it.  It is essential to know that instead of using caring words towards loss of lives and property, Hardy has brought about this contrast between powers in the simplicity of nature and has forewarned humanity against materialistic demeanor.

Finally, I would like to close this blog by quoting Thomas Hardy’s famous quote “‘the ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own.”

Milind Joshi

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