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HIS book is not a volume of Sea Prose or of Seamen's Prose. Such a book, if compiled, would be found on inspection to be stuffed with quaint words and larded with strange oaths. To some the dish might prove not unpalatable. Indeed it is probable that Ned Ward dissector of The Wooden World, Parson Teonge the naval Diarist, and Jack Nastyface the unraveller of Nautical Economy, might attract a wider audience to-day than they could draw from their own generation. But the passages here presented are the traffics of authors on the ocean ways, not the wanderings of seafarers in the thorny labyrinths of language.
The present anthology, it is hoped, may help in some measure to show how the masters of English Prose have been affected by the sea; how soon they waked responsive to its influence; how faithfully they have pictured it in storm and calm; how skilfully they have used it for stage effect or to create an atmosphere; how deeply they have plumbed its sundering floods; how subtly they have been lured by the spell of its colour or the thrall of its music; how far they have followed like mendicant sea-gulls in the wake of its painted ships.
Some men of letters have at best betrayed a casual or curious interest in the subject. Some with contemptuous deliberation have passed it by on the other side. Some in their environment have found no occasion for so much as a passing reference to it. Izaak Walton never left the
dimpled willow-shaded waterbrooks to follow the leaping salmon past brackish estuaries out into the deep beyond. John Bunyan dreamed no vision of Christian endeavour labouring through rocks and shoals and waterspouts to be beguiled by dreamy lotos-isles and sweet-voiced mermaidens.
But although some illustrious names are absent from the list, the great majority of famous authors have something to contribute. There are those who have wrapped themselves in the shadows of the deep as a troubadour in his cloak of romance; Ossian whose hero plunges through the mist to battle with the spirit of the storm; Malory whose sable barge of death moves with mystery out of the unknown with majesty into the unseen. There are those who, to enhance the realism of their story, have grappled boldly and successfully with matters properly beyond their ken; none with more baffling skill than Shakespeare in the first scene of The Tempest, where the efforts of the Master [through his mouthpiece the boatswain] to work his ship off a dead lee shore are suggested by a few deft touches. There are those too, less scrupulous, who have lifted their material, with little alteration and no acknowledgment, from some professional work on seamanship or pilotage. Such was Dean Swift, who stole a passage from The Mariner's Jewel by James Love, mathematician, and so brought Gulliver's ship, well handled, through the teeth of a snoring gale. Then there are those who in search of health have overcome their repugnance to salt water; and those who in pursuit of ambition or gain have mastered a natural disinclination to embark. Fielding, to wile away the tedium of a voyage to Lisbon, propped up his sickly frame in the cabin of the Queen of Portugal and with brave but failing fingers sketched for us the most trivial incidents with bright-eyed animation. Pepys
under date, 23 March, 1660, plaintively whispers to his diary, "The weather being good, I was not sick at all yet. I know not what I shall be"; and under date, 22 May, "Holding my head too much over the gun, I had almost spoiled my right eye." But inconveniences greater than these would not have deterred him from describing in detail the fleet that brought the King to his own again.
And there are those who have owed all, or almost all, to the ocean, and paid their debt to mankind; patient Hakluyt, cheerfully enduring restless nights and painful days, searching famous libraries, redeeming from obscurity old records, patents, privileges and letters; seeking acquaintance with many mariners, neglecting fair opportunities of private gain, preferment and ease, to preserve the principal navigations of the English nation from the "greedy and devouring jaws of oblivion"; Defoe, with his unrivalled genius for "lying like truth," calling from his inner consciousness such invention of plausible circumstance that he lives as the creator of an immortal tale instead of perishing as an ill-starred pamphleteer; Smollett, with an empty purse in one pocket and an unpublished tragedy in another, at the happiest and most miserable moment of his life pressed by the gang to gather afloat "copy" for his facile and vitriolic pen; Marryat, by no means the only naval-officer novelist, but by far the ablest and most talented, carrying his readers through the turmoil of battle with a precision of detail that converts fiction into fact, and alternating moments of danger and excitement with welcome glimpses of life below deck and the gun-room's bubbling fun.
This last group unite with their literary talent so remarkable an acquaintance with the sailor's life, with seamen, or with ships that they have received in this volume, as is justly due, an allowance of space more generous than their fellows.
When attention is turned from mind to matter, from men to material, certain topics may be noted that meet with special favour. There is the aspect of ocean; to Addison, the throne of the eternal, the mirror of the infinite; to Lamb, touring on a cockney's trip to Margate, so absurdly disappointing in its magnitude as to extort from him the question, "Is this all?" There is the beauty of the deep, its colour, its motion; and the stateliness of ships. Michael Scott saw in the gun-brig leaning over to the breeze, with her burnished copper glinting through the liquid green, such loveliness that he described her under every aspect so that others might feast upon her beauty through his eyes. Ruskin teaches the most careful observers how little they have noticed in the shape of a breaking wave, and sets in a glowing mosaic of words the tints of a southern sea.
The privations of a sailor's existence invite frequent comment, provoking sometimes disgust and sometimes pity. "Their bread is so hard," wrote Lyly in 1584, "that one must carry a whetstone in his mouth to grind his teeth; the meat so salt, that one would think after dinner his tongue had been powdered ten days. Oh! thou hast a sweet life, Mariner, to be pinned in a few boards and to be within an inch of a thing bottomless."
The seafaring man by his visits ashore has afforded literary artists many a notable opportunity for study. Sometimes he has been treated with respect, more often with chaff and badinage. "He is careful," writes Fuller, "in observing the Lord's Day. He hath a watch in his heart though no bells in a steeple to proclaim that day by ringing to prayers." "His body and his ship," writes Sir Thomas Overbury, "are both of one burden. Nor is it known who stows most wine or rolls most....A barnacle and he are bred together; both of one nature and, 'tis feared, one reason....In a storm 'tis disputable whether