Thursday, June 9, 2011

Byron's "Apostrophe to the Ocean"

In the section entitled “Apostrophe to the Ocean” on page 364, Byron does his best to explain the overwhelming power and justice of the ocean. While he acknowledges his inability to fully describe these characteristics, he also proclaims the truth of his statements. He writes, “ . . . I steal / From all I may be, or have been before, / To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal” (lines 1599-1602). He describes leaving behind his previous self—somewhat like shedding a skin—and looking with honesty at the truth of things or the things which cannot be concealed. He writes of facts that cannot be hidden either through intentional disguises or through a lack of appropriate words.

Byron appears to be rejecting the falseness of men, the claims of human dominance, and the façade of civilization. Byron looks at the works of men that were designed to conquer lesser things and sees failure and pretence. He writes, “Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; / Man marks the earth with ruin—his control / Stops with the shore” (lines 1604-1606). Byron acknowledges activities of humans such as deforestation and mining to create cities do indeed change the shape and workings of the earth, but he notes that nothing man has built can yet conquer the sea. The ships men build traverse the ocean “in vain”. Ships can cross the sea but not change it. The moment ships pass, the ocean wipes away all traces of their passage. Even more interesting is the fact that men build ships around the demands of the sea. Humans bow to the demands of the ocean when designing the shape of the hull or the on board equipment. The ocean gives no quarter—its demands and characteristics are omnipotent even as humanity changes forms around it. For example, “in all time, / Calm or convulsed—in breeze, or gale, or storm, / Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime / Dark-heaving;--boundless, endless, and sublime— / The image of Eternity—the throne / Of the Invisible; even from out thy slime / The monsters of the deep are made; each zone / Obeys thee” (lines 1640-1647). In these descriptions, the form and appearance of the ocean may change with the weather, but the ocean always wins out over creatures formed from the deep. This segment could be read as if Byron references the birth of man from evolutionary changes in the ocean; in which case, we would be the monsters “[marking] the earth with ruin”. Or, Byron could simply refer to all the animals and plants subject to the raging seas and icy temperatures. Regardless, the ocean controls everything around it.

Byron further comments on the ocean’s supremacy by stating, “upon thy watery plain / The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain / A shadow of man’s revenge, save his own, / When for a moment, like a drop of rain, / He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, / Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown” (lines 1606-1611). Usually, the grave marker, coffin, and bells would all represent celebration, reverence, and respect for a life well lived or for a man/woman well loved or well respected. Here, the sunken ships as well as their captains receive none of these common observances. And yet, this lack seems to complete Byron’s observations in a just manner. Byron begins this section detailing the lack of respect and reverence humanity shows for the earth. The earth and its creatures suffer endless abuses at the hands of humanity. It seems only fitting that humanity experiences the same in the embrace of the ocean. Ultimately, Byron shows not only the ocean’s infinite power over man but also the ocean’s ability to enact justice for the abuses nature suffers.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah,

    Excellent job, as usual! This is a very preceptive and insightful response to and analysis of Byron's poem. You handle the textual evidence well, and discuss it very impressively. Keep up the great work!