What was the visceral experience of a coastal shipwreck during the the mid nineteenth century? Newspaper accounts, sermons, customs records and court transcriptions give a sense of the particulars of the experience–the weather, the place, the people, the sequence of events and vessels involved. But what about the intangibles–the terror, fury and fear–of a shipwreck? This is an important question for my dissertation research and I’ve increasingly relied on poetry (and fiction) to answer it. As I see it, Plato had it right: “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” Fortunately, there is much shipwreck poetry. [See this or this earlier post for more.]
Here’s the text of Walt Whitman’s “Patroling Barnegat,” first published in 1880. [Yes, Whitman spelled it patroling not patrolling.] The poem was eventually added to the Sea Drift section of Leaves of Grass.
Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering,
Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing,
Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing,
Out in the shadows there milk-white combs careering,
On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting,
Where through the murk the easterly death-wind breasting,
Through cutting swirl and spray watchful and firm advancing,
(That in the distance! is that a wreck? is the red signal flaring?)
Slush and sand of the beach tireless till daylight wending,
Steadily, slowly, through hoarse roar never remitting,
Along the midnight edge by those milk-white combs careering,
A group of dim, weird forms, struggling, the night confronting,
That savage trinity warily watching.