The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


A Sea-Turn

 

    IT is a New England term, and you may hear the good Bostonian any hot summer day prophesy a sea-turn with falling night. It comes suddenly, too, sometimes nipping the unwary and mauling the frail. You must be no weakling if you are to live by the sea, even in July. She is a rough nurse, and cherishes her strong sons by the easy process of eliminating their tenderer brothers. The seaboard folk are hardy, you notice. Those who took hurt from the rude play of the elements have been disposed of. They sleep well under the gray stones.

    I remember one blazing morning several years ago. It had been an insufferable night, when you were content to lounge about the [Page 41] empty streets of Beacon Hill and rest on the deserted stone door-steps. Indoors there was nothing to breathe. Up over this city of dreadful night rose the brassy, unmitigated sun, till the asphalt sizzled in the steaming air. The whole town went to its office in shirt-sleeves — almost. Will you believe it? — before noon the newsboys were crying extras of the great change of temperature. The east wind on us like a frost. The wise ones sought a thicker coat, but the foolish took off their hats, let the cold wind blow under their arms, and many of them never needed a coat again.

    But for the average being (or perhaps one should say for the normal — that is somewhat better than average), the sea is a wonderful mother. And the dweller by the coast, waiting for the sea-turn to come in on the wings of the east wind, is a mortal favoured beyond his fellows. The cool of the mountains is not the same thing; it is a rare tonic shock, stimulant, thin, and keen, with nothing of the [Page 42] motherly befriending touch of the sea’s breath. For the coolness of the hills seems to be what it really is — the exhaustion and vanishing of all warmth, as if one were left to perish for lack of the generous sun. In that high, pure atmosphere the arrowy rays come down unobstructed and burn to the bone at times, but the moment our lord of day is behind the hill not a trace of his presence remains, not a vestige of all his vehement fervour. There may not be a ghost of air stirring, yet the chill is about you on the instant, and woollens are comfortable. It is like being left in a vault, for all you are on the roof of the world.

    The cool of the sea is a positive thing. In the first place it has a very real savour, and perhaps that helps to delude us; though I fancy the feel of it is different, too. Not so dry as hill cold, its touch must be softer, more velvety, with its cushion of humidity. It is more alive, too. How should it not be so, blown off the face of the breathing sea? [Page 43] And this wonderful life, this aliveness of the sea, it must be which impresses the inlander and the mountaineer. It may be that, as a people, whose fathers have been seafarers and maritime for hundreds of generations, we are under the sway and superstition of the ocean. One cannot be sure. And as you or I come within sound of the shore after a long absence, perhaps it speaks to us as it would not speak to men of an immemorially hill-bound race. Certainly it has more to say to one than the lofty homes of the forest and the eternal peaks that hold up the canopy of blue. And you may repeat with Emerson:

                        “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 hearts,
                        My touch thy antidote, my bay thy bath?”

    But of all sea poetry, perhaps no verses have more of the sea’s true rhythm, sombre and noble, than Rossetti’s “Sea-Limits:” [Page 44]

                        “Consider the sea’s listless chime;
                        Time’s self it is made audible —
                        The murmur of the earth’s own shell.
                        Secret continuance sublime
                        Is the sea’s end. Our sight may pass
                        No furlong further. Since time was,
                        This sound hath told the lapse of time.”

    There is in these line (is there not?) the slow cadence of the surf, the dirging undertone of mortal sorrow. The same note and feeling are in Arnold’s “Dover Beach:”

                        “Only from the long line of spray,
                        Where the ebb meets the moon-blanched sand,
                        Listen! You hear the grating roar
                        Of pebbles, which the waves suck back and fling
                        At their return, high up the strand,
                        Begin and cease and then again begin,
                        With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
                        The eternal note of sadness in.”

    There is an impressiveness in store for the citizen who comes out of his city to confront either the world of ocean or the world of hills; but they will affect him in different [Page 45] ways. The mountains may be your friend, but the sea is your lover. Those serene heights that have stood unmoved so many countless years, how they pique our thought — the eternal repose unanswering the restless mind. You may live with them in respectful companionship (if you are rightly modest and patient and lowly-minded), and after many days you may come to find that they have impressed upon your unworthy self something of their own austere character, their Spartan fortitude. But the sad-voiced sea is not so solitary nor so taciturn. All her turbulent, distraught life is yours in a moment. She is for confidences immediately, and never wearies all day of recounting the ancient story of her perished pride and innumerable tears. In her voice is the wistfulness of ages, and, as you listen, the echo beats and reverberates through your own human heart. You need not be a sentimentalist to know this. And, as I say, one never can know the true truth about nature, one can only know the apparent truth; [Page 46] and that is so largely a matter of heredity, a matter of our unnumbered experience since the first sunrise. Perhaps if a creature were to come into this earth endowed with sense and perceptions like our own, yet without our heritage of sentiments and our ageless endowment of emotions, the sea might seem to him to sing the gladdest songs. But to us who have lived by her side so many thousand gray years, with all their sea tragedies, sea sorrows, sea changes, it cannot be so. We unconsciously find in the face of the earth a likeness of ourselves. And we shall never in this world be other than prejudiced observers. But, then, our business is not to find gladness everywhere in nature, but to bring gladness everywhere with us. [Page 47]