The sinking of the Titanic has resonated now for 100 years in the consciousness of Canadians. The grief, wonder, and curiosity the disaster continues to inspire has been the impetus for countless literary works. While the majority of these are factual or biographical, significant imaginative works of poetry and prose have been produced, works that strive to understand the psychological, social and personal effects of the disaster. Here, then, is a survey of some of the most important works of poetry produced on the subject of the sinking of the Titanic, poetry read and loved by, and for the most part produced by, Canadians.
In poetry, a form in which the intellectual and the emotional spheres converge and find concentrated expression, the most successful and long-lasting responses to the loss of the Titanic have been found. Thomas Hardy’s terse, echoing “The Convergence of the Twain” (1915) remains the poem most Canadians likely recall when they think of the disaster. Opening with stanzas describing the ship’s existence in a chill, indifferent underwater world, Hardy’s poem suggests the work of fate in shaping a counter-force to the much-lauded, unsinkable machine:
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Canadians can also claim magnificent poems on the subject: Sir Charles G.D. Roberts’ “The Iceberg” and E.J. Pratt’s “The Titanic.” Roberts’ 1931 long poem recounts the birth of an iceberg in the Arctic seas “beyond Cape Chidley” in Labrador, and its irresistible progress, through “a thousand years” and great distances, along the coasts with their teeming life of gulls and whales and seals, to hover, “greatly incurious and unconcerned… a casual expectancy of death,” in the north Atlantic. Roberts’ presentation of the collision is chilling: the iceberg is an uncomprehending, indifferent witness, of course, to a scene of horror and death. The poem’s end brings the diminishment of the iceberg, too, in time, a scene of death which soothes the human loss of the first, suggesting a final unity:
Dissolved in ecstasy
Of many colored light,
And I breathed up my soul into the air
And merged forever in the all-solvent sea.
Pratt’s magisterial poem of 1935 (and Pratt was a master of the epic, sweeping form) speaks to his ever-present themes: the growth of technology and its effect on our ways of being; the human struggle for existence in a world dominated by an indifferent and even cruel nature; and human efforts to understand and succeed in a rapidly modernizing world. “The Titanic” was Pratt’s second major poem on shipwreck, preceded by “The Roosevelt and the Antinoe” of 1930; Pratt had of course been writing extensively on maritime life and teasing out its possibilities for commenting on the human condition for years. “The Titanic” begins with the ship’s birth in the opening section, “Harland & Wolff Works, Belfast, May 31, 1911”:
Mind and will
In open test with time and steel had run
The first lap of a schedule and had won.
The poem observes the hubris of proclamations of human victory, shifting to the approach of Roberts and Hardy as it chronicles the growth of the iceberg in language both mythic and scientific:
…with an impulse governed by the raw
Mechanics of its birth, it drifted where
Ambushed, fog—grey, it stumbled on its lair,
North forty—one degrees and forty—four,
Fifty and fourteen west the longitude,
Waiting a world—memorial hour, its rude
Corundum form stripped to its Greenland core.
The clamour and gaiety of the sections depicting the human feasting, sleeping, sport and speculation on board the ship is punctuated by brief, choppy messages from other ships in the area, warning of icebergs; the poem then presents different perspectives on the gathering realization of the ship’s desperate position. The tone is coolly ironic, commenting “So suave the fool—proof sense of life that fear / had … become a mere / illusion,” itemizing the furs and pearls of first class and the frequent contempt for the lower decks. “The Titanic” telescopes from large, encapsulating views to vital scenes of human sacrifice and weakness, folly and dignity.
Joining this company of works, this year another substantial poetic engagement with the Titanic’s loss has appeared: Halifax-born Vancouver poet Billeh Nickerson, who is increasingly well-known for his irreverent engagements with the sexual politics, gay scene and cultural landscape of the 21st century world, has shifted his focus and released the collection Impact: The Titanic Poems. Nickerson’s short lyrics draw the reader’s attention to small, significant moments in the lives of those who encountered Titanic. In “The Lost Worker,” Nickerson focuses on the sense of loss and doom that built even as the ship was being constructed:
Whether the rumours resulted from the faint clangs,
or the faint clangs resulted from the rumours,
even the oldest believed the possibility
of a lost worker could only be an omen.
The many commemorative ceremonies and discussions in this year of the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic’s disastrous plunge into the Atlantic indicate we will not forget the ship or the effects of its loss any time soon. It’s important, then, that we have literary works like these to translate the disaster from a collection of facts to a human experience, one that prompts us to consider our own relationships to the world, to technology, and to our fellow travellers.