June 15, 2007
Sailing in American Literature
America was shaped by explorers racing to the New World, men-of-war plotting to catch or elude being caught, entrepreneurial crews of clipper ships rushing their cargos to port, and fishermen seeking to be the first to get their catch to market. Modern day sailboat racing reenacts those historical efforts to be the first. And then there is the magical allure of wind, water and sail and their affect on the human spirit. These are the reasons why, for centuries, sailing has been inextricably linked to American literature.
We have selected quotes from several authors – both American authors and those who influenced them – to highlight this connection. We have also chosen to open this exhibit with three quotes which provide a literary context.
…over the breaking billows, with bellying sail,
and foaming break, like a flying bird…
But now a breeze came up for us astern-a canvas-bellying breeze, hale shipmate sent by the singing nymph with sun-bright hair; we made fast the braces, took our thwarts, and let the wind and steers-man work the ship with full sail spread all day above our coursing, till the sun dipped, and all the ways grew dark upon the fathomless unresting sea.
– Homer, from The Odyssey
They that go down to the sea in ships
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord,
and his wonders in the deep.
On looking to windward, he beheld the green masses of water that were rolling in towards the land, with violence that seemed irresistible, crowned with ridges of foam; and there were moments when the air appeared filled with sparkling gems, as rays of the rising sun fell upon the spray that was swept from wave to wave.
– James Fenimore Cooper , from The Pilot
We study the sailor, the man of his hands, man of all work; all eye, all finger, muscle, skill and endurance; a tailor, carpenter, cooper, stevedore, and clerk and astronomer besides. He is a great saver, and a great quiddle by the necessity of his situation.
The sail, the play of its pulse so like our own lives: so thin and yet so full of life, so noiseless when it labors hardest, so noisy and impatient when least effective.
– Henry David Thoreau, from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
My Soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a trilling pulse through me.
This is the ship of pearl, which poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,-
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purple wings.
If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by wind and spry together. They blind, deafen, and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection.
When, staunchly entering port,
After long ventures, hauling up, worn and old,
Better’d by sea and wind, torn by many a fight,
With original sailing on all gone, replaced or mended,
I only saw at last, the beauty of the ship…
The profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelop of the storm, and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion.
Image: “Swiftboat” – by Arthur Barnes.
Twenty years from now, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, rather than the things you did do. So cast off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I have built barns and houses and I know the peculiar trait such things have of running past their estimated cost. This knowledge was mine, was already mine, when I estimated the probable cost of the building of Snark, at $7,000. Well, she cost $30,000. Now, don’t ask me, please. It is the truth. I signed the checks and raised the money. Of course, there is no explaining it.
– Jack London, from The Cruise of the Snark
Ships, young ships,
I do not wonder men see you as women-
You in the white length of your loveliness
Reclining on the sea!
Never, in these United States, has the brain of
man conceived, or the hand of man fashioned,
so perfect a thing as a clipper ship.
– Samuel Eliot Morison, from The Maritime History of Massachussetts , 1921
I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself-actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within place and unity and wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man, to Life itself. To God, if they want to put it that way.
– Eugene O’Neill, from A Long Day’s Journey into Night
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves in the sea
I have noticed that most men when they enter a barber shop and must wait their turn, drop into a chair and pick up a magazine. I simply sit down and pick up the thread of my sea wanderings, which began more than fifty years ago and is not quite ended. There is hardly a waiting room in the east that has not served as my cockpit, whether I was waiting to board a train or to see a dentist. And I am usually still trimming sheets when the train starts or drill begins to whine.
– E.B. White, from “The Sea and the Wind That Blows”
Image: Angel and Defiant aground after the storm. Drawing by Rebecca Burg .
The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy. Or too impatient.
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from Gift From the Sea
He picked up the ball of twine and put it to his nose and drew in a smell of boats-caulking smell, rope locker smell-the smell which, savored in the deepest gloom of wintertime, had the power of evoking faraway wavetops, a canted mast, splashing bow-waves, a warm summer breeze on a helmsman’s cheek.
– John Hersey, from A Single Pebble
One thing had impressed us deeply on this little voyage: the great world dropped away very quickly…The matters of great importance we had left were not important…We had lost the virus, or it had been eaten by the anti-bodies of quiet, Our pace had slowed greatly; the hundred thousand small reactions of our daily world were reduce to very few.
– John Steinbeck, from The Log from the Sea of Cortez
Like the skipper of a grounded ship, one must sometimes go forward by going back.
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.
Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of our world.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.
To me, nothing made by man is more beautiful than a sailboat under way in fine weather, and to be on that sailboat is to be as close to heaven as I expect to get. It is unalloyed happiness.
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