Canadian Pacific Railway
EN ROUTE (and in motion)
Aug. 11, 1952
There are two terms you refer to in relation to the Titanic which enter the core of the poem 'peak' and 'claw.' You have explained them so incisively that I had to read through the poem again to discover the degree of their relevance.
It is astonishing how much a critical reader will bring to the surface what had been but dimly implicit in the thought of a writer. Part of a critic's job is to perform this interlinear task. It is the emphasis on the 'peak and claw' antithesis which strangely and powerfully moved me your reference to the combination of exaltation and terror, the constructive and destructive elements in nature and life. As with the iceberg, so with the ship the parallelism is there. One might enlarge it into the relation between Evil and Good in the Universe, between chance and purpose.
Before you elaborated this point, I held the 'claw' only loosely in my mind as a symbol of the subconscious, though Wundt, Freud, James and D.H. Lawrence (Fantasia) must have been working underneath. The 'peak,' like the proud run of the ship, was a visible and conscious process, but the 'spur' was invisible a depth-hidden symbol which had not only discarded the last 'touch' of the peak but assumed in the darkness an utterly malevolent function.
It is very natural to move over on to theistic ground, but I did not do so directly, as I do not like too much philosophical didacticism in a poem. I leave that to the reader who may wish to work it out for himself. But I think it is implicit in the contrast between the disaster itself and the courage exhibited by the engineers, the Band (playing fox trots), Ida Straus and the lad. Those ideas are at any rate latent without being too much underscored. Those descriptions are brief but, I imagine, they serve to indicate the qualities of compassion and sacrifice to which you refer. So, more lengthily, is the account of the ape as distinct from the dinosaur reason versus the pin-point brain of the Saurian.
Again, one could hardly fail to be moved by the sight of a Newfoundland lifeboat pulling out in an attempt to save the crew of a wreck. If the effort were fruitless, it would not mar but accentuate the heroism and compassion, though it would deepen the sense of tragedy. I did not refer to the numerous steps taken afterwards to preserve life on ships as a result of the Titanic's loss. That's another matter outside of the scope of the poem, though again to be chalked up to the credit of man on his constructive and humanitarian side. That phase of 'creative evolution' is emphasized in Green's Prologomena, though I did not need a knowledge of such a work to realize the essentials.
To come back to James' Varieties. I was impressed by his own confession that his theistic beliefs were very thin and unsatisfactory to an audience largely favouring providential or paternalistic qualities in God. He calls his own attitude an 'over-belief' which you mention in your quotation that subconscious welling up of something within us which baffles formulation. Not that he accepts dogmatically (or rationalistically) an orthodox or evangelical position not at all, but he is not far from the Methodist emphasis on the phrase 'I have felt.' That sounds mystical, but it is an ineradicable element in the nature of many people, sailors sharing it to an unusual degree. Without wishing to sermonize, I find it expressed in Job's statement 'though he slay me yet I will trust in him;' and it helps, at least emotionally, to resolve the dualism in the interest of theistic unity. Such a feeling may not be present at the time of the announcement of a shipwreck, but it asserts itself in the subsequent groping for a faith. (With some people.)
I feel that myself at times, though my themes have largely been realistic and tragic where the dualism is paramount.
I don't know that I can add much more to this statement, for the subconscious groundwork is tremendously operative though darkly present to the so-called rationalist.
And now, my good friend, many thanks for your interest. I shall be back in Toronto about Aug. 23, and any correspondence with you will be welcomed most heartily.
Your issue is on the stalls of the leading bookstores, prominently displayed.
You will be interested to know that the 'Titanic' last year was placed in the 'longer poems' for Matriculation Students (in Ontario), the other two being The Ancient Mariner and The Death of Arthur. It was my first substantial 'break' in royalties, as 11000 students had to take it. The Ont. Dept. of Education for the first time decided to put on one long Canadian poem as a text.
Incidentally, my telephone rang often from teachers who asked about the poker game and its significance. And my reply was:
(1) the parallel between a game of chance within the ship and the chances outside of the Titanic hitting that spur, is the irony of coincidence;
(2) the game ending with a player calling for water and ice which was most instantaneously handed by the iceberg through the port-hole of the cabin. It was but an illustration of the irony which enveloped the ship.
you refer to
Ida Straus and the lad
The Ancient Mariner and The Death of Arthur