On the Irresistible Pull of Tidal Metaphors
The Language of Love and Death Deep Beneath the Sea
When did the tide come to be imagined as a moral force as well as a physical one? Why should a blameless cycle of nature be chosen as a metaphor of punishment and mortality? The sun and moon do not judge us in this way. Is high tide good and low tide bad in this scheme, or is it the other way around? Is the ebb to be preferred to the flood? How does this notion really work?
It must start with the fact that, unlike celestial bodies, the tide has the power to take human lives. Who does it claim? It claims the ignorant, the reckless, and the merely unlucky. But the sea would claim many of these lives even if it did not rise and fall, so we must look further if we are to explain why the tide specifically carries the symbolism that it does.
The tide introduces the vertical movement of the sea. It is surely significant that we naturally tend to speak of the moods and emotions that govern our moral behavior in terms of high and low. In this, the tide joins many natural metaphors used to describe high and low mood. High tide represents hope and opportunity—the “tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Low tide stands for the loss of these things, as we see in John Betjeman’s poem “Youth and Age on Beaulieu River.” The poet’s tanned erotic fancy here is not the tennis-playing Miss Joan Hunter Dunn but “Clemency, the General’s daughter,” who sails out on the tide and “Will return upon the flood,” while old Mrs. Fairclough eyes her enviously through binoculars: “the older woman only / Knows the ebb-tide leaves her lonely / With the shining fields of mud.”
This vertical movement, unlike that of the poet’s skylark or the burrowing mole, say, also occurs within a certain range, within what one might, in fact, be tempted to call an appointed range, its high and low limits apparently set by some godlike power. This aspect of the tide is reflected in our adjective “tidy,” which derives from the Middle English “tide” and first meant “seasonable”—hence, later “neat,” as of something “in its place.”
This sense of the tide operating within defined bounds is clear in the lines of the 1860 hymn known as the “Navy Hymn”:
Eternal father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
The hymnist William Whiting based the work on Psalm 107, in which storm waves terrify “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters.” This being the Mediterranean, however, there is no mention of the tide; the suggestion of tidal movement was the addition of the British hymnist. In a powerful scene in another of Britten’s operas, Noye’s Fludde, the audience joins in singing the hymn as the flood rises and Noah’s Ark is floated on the stage.
The tidal metaphor provides a useful safety valve for our emotions because we know that its vertical movement is both regular and cyclical. It can be a comfort when we feel low, because we know that high tide will come. It provides a salutary check when we are in high spirits, reminding us that euphoria cannot last.
But the tide is a dynamic force. It is not only the extremes of high and low that characterize its role in our lives, but the transitions between the two, the flood and the ebb. Depending on where we are standing, the flooding tide is a threat, as Crabbe so powerfully demonstrates. Any 19th-century reader of his poem would be instantly put in mind of the biblical flood, which was God’s punishment for humanity’s evil. The rising tide, then, provides a twelve-hourly reminder of our sinfulness. Yet the flood is also life-giving. Water generates life of all sorts and is the symbol of that life. The idea that animal life emerged from the water is contained in Genesis and the Qur’an, as well as in canonical evolutionary theory. And of course, mammalian birth is accompanied by a flood of amniotic fluid.
The ebb is, in many ways, more interesting psychologically. The belief that no creature can die except when the tide is ebbing is attributed to Aristotle, and has been repeated, if not necessarily endorsed, by many distinguished writers since, from Pliny the Elder to Sir Thomas Browne and James Frazer in The Golden Bough, as well as Dickens. The belief is perhaps the inevitable corollary of the less arguable association between birth and the flood.
This piece of folklore has doubtless also been perpetuated by the custom, in seaside parishes, of recording parishioners’ time of death in relation to the state of the tide. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Mistress Quickly tells how Falstaff died “just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide.” However, in the closing chapter of Moby-Dick, as Captain Ahab is lowered into a rowboat to do final battle with the White Whale, he tells Starbuck rationally enough, “Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood.”
Parish records confirm, of course, that people die at any state of the tide, and the custom of noting the death in relation to the tide should be appreciated more as an indication of the former importance of the tide in shaping coastal communities’ sense of time than of anything else. Nevertheless, in some places this belief persisted even into the 20th century. David Thomson’s People of the Sea records a Mayo fisherman’s thoughts as his wife dies on the ebb tide: “I thought to myself, and I still praying, if God spares her now for these few minutes, and the tide to turn, she will be safe.” Of course, God does not spare the tide to turn: linking death with the inexorable tide is a way of accepting its inevitability.
Alfred Tennyson was impressed by the sea throughout his long life. As a boy growing up in Lincolnshire, he was taken for holidays to Mablethorpe and Skegness, where he would recite his poems out on the mudflats at low tide. He especially enjoyed stormy days when he could watch the breakers crashing on the broad sands. He later settled at Farringford near Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, where the island is almost cleaved in two by the vigorous tides. In Maud, he wrote of “Listening now to the tide in its broad-flung shipwrecking roar.” This is no romantic fancy; the island’s exposed south coast was indeed a shore of wrecks and smugglers.
“Crossing the Bar” is Tennyson’s famous anticipation of his own death. It was written quickly, in 1889, when Tennyson was eighty years old, during a crossing of the Solent to the Isle of Wight. In the poem, he gives a scrupulous description of the mighty sweep of the tide: “But such a tide as moving seems asleep, / Too full for sound and foam.” The flood has borne him far and wide in his life, he records, but now the tide “Turns again home,” and it is this swift ebb—calm and silent, yet also powerful and undeniable—that will now carry him away “to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crost the bar.”
Three more British seafarers allow themselves to be carried here and there on the flood tide in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1894 adventure The Ebb-Tide, which was coauthored with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. The sailors arrive on an idyllic Pacific island in a stolen ship, the Farallone, hearing first the breakers on its reef, before the flood tide obligingly lifts them into a lagoon sheltered by the walls of a coral reef:
Twice a day the ocean crowded in that narrow entrance and was heaped between these frail walls; twice a day, with the return of the ebb, the mighty surplusage of water must struggle to escape. The hour in which the Farallone came there was the hour of the flood. The sea turned (as with the instinct of the homing pigeon) for the vast receptacle, swept eddying through the gates, was transmuted, as it did so, into a wonder of watery and silken hues, and brimmed into the inland sea beyond.
The three are a dissolute bunch who spend their time squabbling and drinking, having been previously thrown off various ships. On the island, they meet a compatriot, scarcely better than they are, who is amassing a hoard of pearls that he hopes will make him rich if he ever gets home. Why the “ebb-tide”? The men are literal drifters, arriving where they do as a result of being “taken by the flood”; the ebb, though, is a symbol of moral turpitude, the measure of the depths to which the four Britons have sunk.
The tide is given a different moral power in another Victorian poet’s best-known work. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has been much admired and much puzzled over since its publication in 1867, and it is still a popular text for analysis in literature classes. The short poem begins as a simple nocturne: “The sea is calm to-night. / The tide is full, . . .” But the mood quickly darkens. A light on the distant coast goes out; the pebbles on the beach make an incessant “grating roar”; the poet’s mind turns to miserable thoughts, and then to this grim aperçu:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
This earth, Arnold concludes, “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
It seems at first that the poem might be a lament on the crisis of Christian faith induced by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. But Arnold is believed to have conceived the lines when staying at Dover on his honeymoon in June 1851. (Whether Mrs. Arnold enjoyed the trip as much as her husband is not recorded.)
But the idea of faith as a tidal sea immediately raises complex questions. Arnold’s overt pessimism seems to indicate that faith might withdraw forever, but the metaphor tells us it will return. Perhaps it shows the poet’s faith in faith. Yet the supposition that faith may rise and fall, that it is cyclical, subject to some kind of celestial mechanism, is itself surely a profane thought. The poet reconciles himself to something more like classical stoicism than like the stupid reverence of Victorian churchgoing.
The fashion for tidal metaphor during the Victorian period is surely explained in part by growing awareness in a land no longer “hedged in with the main,” as Shakespeare has it in King John. A maritime empire ensured that the sea was no longer a vast unknown. Its depths were charted by the British Admiralty, its lengths crossed by exotic goods and, increasingly, by leisure travelers. Seaside resorts grew up where people had once only feared the sea and turned their backs on it. Now, they began to look out on it, and to paddle and swim in it. Aldeburgh is one of many old coastal towns where the dwellings show ample evidence of both of these attitudes toward the sea.
Today, however, our employment of the tide as a metaphor has grown rather more casual than the poets’. We forget it is a cyclical phenomenon, in which each station and action is bound to recur. Instead, the flood becomes a one-off cataclysm. News reports warn of a flood of immigrants, of data, of cheap imports. That’s perhaps forgivable, since a flood is not only a flood tide, but a one-off pluvial deluge. But the ebb is treated with the same lack of regard and seen as a terminal loss of opportunity. When we say that hopes of finding survivors after an earthquake or similar disaster are “ebbing away,” we really mean that hope is lost. If the chances of a successful outcome of a summit meeting are “ebbing away,” we mean to say that that chance will not come again. If we were more precise about it, we would be suggesting almost the opposite: that another chance, just as good, will come along pretty soon.
From THE TIDE: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth. Used with permission of W. W. Norton and Company. Copyright 2016 by Hugh Aldersey-Williams