Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime
Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 1857
The sea, shipwreck and the sublime
Can that wide world in due subjection keep?
I broke the globe, I scoop’d its hollow side,
And did a bason for the floods provide;
Work’d up in tempests, hears My great decree;
‘Thus far thy floating tide shall be convey’d;
And here, O main! be thy proud billows stay’d.’
And heaven, sky, and land appear a frightful jumble.
Toward the stars flies up the ship, then plunges down again,
Sails on washed by waves, with naught but ruin all around,
Here lightening, there thunder, the whole ether storming,
Swell towering up on swell, and cloud on cloud,
The ship is shattered, and I...nothing happened to me,
Because I only watched the storm from shore.15
Of tempests and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo terror to delight us; ... but to hear
The roaring of the raging elements, ...
To know all human skill, all human strength,
Avail not, ... to look round, and only see
The mountain wave incumbent with its weight
Of bursting waters o’er the reeling bark, ...
O God, this is indeed a dreadful thing!
And he who hath endur’d the horror, once,
Of such an hour, doth never hear the storm
Howl round his home, but he remembers it,
And thinks upon the suffering mariner!18
Shipwreck narratives and the Medusa
Byron and sublime misadventure
‘Once more upon the waters! Yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’r it lead!
Though strain’d mast should quiver as a read,
And rent canvas fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on; for I am as a weed,
Flung from the rock, on Ocean’s foam, to sail
Where’er the surge may sweep, the tempest’s
With little hope in such a rolling sea,
A sort of thing at which one would have laughed,
If any laughter at such times could be,
Unless with people who too much have quaffed
And have a kind of wild and horrid glee,
Half epileptical and half hysterical.
Their preservation would have been a miracle.
And all things for a chance had been cast loose,
That still could keep afloat the struggling tars,
For yet they strove, although of no great use,
There was no light in heaven but a few stars,
The boats put off o’ercrowded with their crews.
She gave a heel and then a lurch to port,
And going down head foremost – sunk, in short.
Then shrieked the timid, and stood still the brave,
Then some leaped overboard with dreadful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave.
And the sea yawned around her like a hell,
And down she sucked with her the whirling wave,
Like one who grapples with his enemy
And strives to strangle him before he die.
Louder than the loud ocean, like a crash
Of echoing thunder, and then all was hushed,
Save the wild wind and the remorseless dash
Of billows; but at intervals there gushed,
Accompanied with a convulsive splash,
A solitary shriek, the bubbling cry
Of some strong swimmer in his agony.45
Byron, Géricault and the Medusa
Suffering, despair and the sublime: the case of Ugolino
this sinner first wiped off his messy lips
in the hair remaining on the chewed-up skull, then spoke:
‘You want me to renew a grief
so desperate that just the thought of it,
much less the telling, grips my heart with pain’.67 (Inferno, XXXIII, 1–6)
by then gone blind, groped over their dead bodies.
Though they were dead, two days I called their names.
Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.68 (Inferno, XXXIII, 72–75)
They wept, and my little Anselmuccio spoke:
‘What is it, father? Why do you look that way?’
For them I held my tears back, saying,
All that day, and then all of that night.77
Remember Ugolino condescends
To eat the head of his archenemy
If foes be food in hell, at sea
‘Tis surely fair to dine upon our friends
When shipwreck’s short allowance grows too scanty,
Without being much more horrible than Dante.81 (II, 83, v–viii)
And looked upon it long, and when at last
Death left no doubt, and the dead burden lay
Stiff on his heart, and pulse and hope were past,
He watched it wistfully, until away
T’was borne by the rude wave wherein ‘twas cast.
Then he himself sunk down all dumb and shivering,
And gave no sign of life, save his limbs quivering. 82
They knew not where nor what they were about.
Some fancied they saw land, and some said, ‘No!’
(canto II, stanza 96, lines 3–5.)
Or thought they saw, and shaped their course for the shore,
(canto II, stanza 97, lines 5–6.)
And others, looking with a stupid stare,
Could not yet separate their hopes from fears
And seemed as if they had no further care...
(canto II, stanza 98, lines 1–4.)95
Conclusion: spectacles of sublimity?
How to cite
Christine Riding, ‘Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, https://www