Hardy describes the Titanic as she is now by saying, “Jewels in joy designed / To ravish the sensuous mind / Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind” (lines 10-13). For Hardy, all the opulent details that made the Titanic a luxurious mode of transportation are now ruined by seawater and darkness. The sea swallows up all evidence of human vanity. Like in Byron’s “Apostrophe to the Ocean”, humans may be bold enough to think they can conquer the sea, but in time, the sea covers all evidence of their presence.
In Hardy’s poem, the fish ask, “’What does this vaingloriousness down here?’” (line 15). While Byron sees the sinking of ships and deaths of their passengers as a type of payback for the abuses humanity heaps on nature (see my blog on Byron!), Hardy seems to view the Titanic disaster as a result of fate and human vanity. Hardy’s reply to the fish is “while was fashioning / This creature of cleaving wing, / The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything / Prepared a sinister mate / For her—so gaily great— / A shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate” (lines 16-21). The “Immanent Will” seems to be much like fate in this case. As humans are creating this unsinkable pinnacle of modern machinery, fate is plotting unseen.
The iceberg seems to be both a source of balance and a mechanism that will teach men a lesson. As a balance, Hardy sets up the poem so that the iceberg and the ship are equals and opposites. He describes the iceberg as growing along with the ship, it’s “sinister mate”. However, he also describes the opposing natures of each object. The Titanic was designed by man “to ravish the sensuous mind” with mirrors, jewels, and warmth aplenty. The iceberg merely grows in the cold and “shadowy silent distance” (lines 24).
It also seems like the more presumptuous and vain humanity gets, the more fate acts to check that foolhardy behavior. Hardy writes, “And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too” (lines 22-24). The simultaneous development also adds to the idea that these are two parts of a whole fated to meet.
The combination of these parts makes the sinking of the Titanic into a warning for humanity—inevitably, as our arrogance and pride in our achievements grow, this “vaingloriousness” will be counteracted by fate. Humanity cannot become so assured of our power that we assume we are untouchable. There always exist outside forces—whether fate, a god, or merely weather phenomenon—that will destroy what man worked so hard to create. Overall, the message of this poem warns against excessive pride by citing an extreme example of the consequences.