Thursday, 12 April 2012

Thoughts on Thomas Hardy's poem on "Titanic"

I have today re-read Thomas Hardy's famous poem "The Convergence of the Twain" about the sinking of "The Titanic" which occurred 100 years ago (15 April 1912). For Thomas Hardy, the "smart" liner, Titanic was an image of industrial scale technology and industrial plutocracy that had overwhelmed Nature ("Wessex").  Ironically, a hundred years later, climate scientists are anxiously watching icebergs to see if we, and the Gulf Stream, are indeed going to be overwhelmed by Nature.

A re-reading of the poem raises a few questions about Thomas Hardy's ideas about the formation of icebergs. The fateful iceberg did not "grow" as Titanic was created. It split apart from an icesheet, millenia old.  Sea worms may not crawl over the wreck's mirrors - "rusticles" do - which are far more horrific, in my view. 
Hardy's most enduring notion is that Titanic was born of the arrogant and ridiculous notion that Man can withstand the power of Nature at its most powerful.  It is an idea which the 20th century took to its limits but which we are now reassessing.

I still find his idea of "Destiny" quite poignant. The poem does hint at an impersonal supernatural power but he was unsure whether Fate was merely coincidence.  At least, one of those who perished on Titanic is reported to have stepped aboard at Southampton with a deep sense of foreboding. 

We know most of the causes of the Titanic disaster. It was not as simple as “Man being overwhelmed by Nature” - for man is also subject to his own errors and over-confidence. The sinking of Titanic was caused by:

a) a mighty iceberg
b)a ship designed primarily for speed and moving too fast through an ice field
c) lack of full knowledge about the movements of icebergs
d) human error
e) a mishap
f) a moonless night
g) failure of "Californian", a passing liner, to respond to Titanic's distress calls
h) failure of safety regulations at Government level. 

It was claimed, by the officers of Titanic who survived that the radio operator, who worked for Marconi and who sadly perished in a lifeboat, had not passed on a serious warning from The Californian about icebergs ahead that evening day due to 

a) his external communications having broken down for part of the day
b) the press of telegrams to/from passengers. 

Of course, Titanic's radio operator also saved those who survived by sending out a mayday to the liner "Carpathia". 

Then there was what we might call "bad luck": the binoculars of the "look-out" watching for icebergs above the deck had been mislaid in Southampton.

Titanic's brave captain sheared off from the vast looming iceberg, instead of steering into it, which would have saved the ship from sinking - but the impact would surely have maimed many, including women and children. There was no moonlight to reflect off ice.

The Board of Trade’s officials had not required lifeboats for all the passengers - and, as a result, health and safety legislation has been tightened ever since. The North Atlantic Ice Patrol was born of the tragedy and has prevented a similar tragedy, for the last 100 years. Sadly, 1500 souls who tragically drowned never knew all the "converging" causes but their deaths have saved countless other lives since.  This is "providential".

I do wonder whether the incident was a warning shot "across our bows" - which Hardy’s poem captures in the last lines - "the jarring of two hemispheres".  There is something seemingly "prophetic" about this event which goes deeper than just the hard facts. Was Hardy saying that we must learn something profound from Titanic - which, in fact, we still need to heed? One hundred years later, our addiction to speed and movement is far stronger than in 1912. Nor have we erased our distain for the seriousness of melting icesheets and their effects

For similar viewsw on the meaning of this event and interesting data on who survived see a BBC video here.

Titanic's survival rates were : a sixth of the crew, a third of third and second class passengers and a half of first class passengers survived.  Overall, it was women and children who lived - from all classes.  Today, these figures might look very different.   

My own heroes are the group of well dressed musicians who carried on playing (hymns) to the end.  No undignified failed scrambling for a boat. 

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