Secrets of the Sea

“We live in one envelope with a multitude of voices…”

In a marvellous blog post on a marvellous book, Mat Tobin explores the role of the sea as it affects the psychological landscape of the book Town is By the Sea. It raises a challenge for me about how I understand and select what I mean by “landscape.”  Of course the very syllables of landscape tell us about the shaping of the “dry land” and mirrors the foundation text of the opening of Genesis “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas” (1:10). Who shapes the sea? Genesis and Job give the Judeao-Christian response. Job, full of glimpses of nature and acute turns of phrase, is of course worth a look, but is clear who shapes the sea:

He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them.
He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it.
He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.
The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.
He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud… (Job 26)

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it,
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,
And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed? (Job 38)

We are left in no doubt about the beauty and terror of the sea, and the descendants of these passages are Melville’s Ishmael in Moby Dick and R S Thomas in the religious meditation Sea Watching

You must wear your eyes out
as others their knees…

In contrast, Richard Greene sets his own journey from his native Newfoundland resolutely as a people study. In “Islands in Memory,” in Crossing the Straits, he does talk (as I think Schwartz and Smith do, at one level) of

Grey stones and poverty
engendering a discontent
that is hospitable, quaint
in the tourist’s eye…
ledgers of seasonal obligation,
tricks of credit,
lies over what a fish was worth,
but more so
the sea that stood outside
all resentment…

but in the eponymous poem, Greene centres on the people, the solid, repeating practices of crossing by ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia

and Newfoundlanders crossing
the Straits see water enough in warmer times
to forego the prospect now, but this moment
of pent chances, between home and home,
is not mine alone, and for most who travel
there is some tear in memory between
the longed for and the given, what they left
and what they are. Nova Scotia looms…

The sea is a highway to a new place, just as in Town is By the Sea it offers beauty and rest, a wider horizon of light – but it is an ambiguous offering, since the town also offers (?or maybe demands) stability…

Mat also mentions the

desire for change and new opportunities. Small, tight communities have a way of holding on to you and not letting go. Their comforting sense of familiarity, of friends and their families, homes and play spaces or shops, sea fronts and country lanes beguile you in believing you cannot live without them.

A multitude of voices – a multitude of views,  The visuals of the sea are fascinating in Town is By the Sea (Simon Smith has a subtly animated version here in his own review), where the sea is often “all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen” as Montgomery says in Anne of Green Gables. The play of light in Town is By the Sea immediately makes me think of this model, as it were, of light and beauty, although Martin Galway does wisely point out that there is a lot to be said about line and colour in this book – as Thomas puts it “Light’s peculiar grace/In cold splendour”  (Song at the Year’s Turning). In Town is By the Sea the wide sweep of light is in opposition to the claustrophobic mine under the sea…

But there is still more to think about when we look at sea and seaside. Here, in what is proudly announced as Allan Ahlberg’s 137th book, a mum takes the children and the dog shopping, and – a bit like Bear Hunt – they encounter a seaside with buildings – Fife or Dorset, Cellardyke or Lyme… It is not all that different from the Nova Scotia mining town in Town is By the Sea in that we seem to need to define sea by where it isn’t… With the poet of Job, we are depicting sea as boundaried and measured by human experience.

The structure and conventions William Grill employs in Shackleton’s Journey mean he is able to be bolder, so that the ship is almost there just for scale in one picture

From William Grill’s “Shackleton’s Journey”

and not there at all in the other.

From William Grill’s “Shackleton’s Journey”






This is a different sea again: almost as inhospitable as it can be.

Iain Sinclair, who begins this post, deserves a fuller quotation here, from his Edge of the Orison:

He (John Clare) had to learn the difficult thing, in different places we are different people. We live in one envelope with a multitude of voices, lulling us by regular habits, of rising, labouring, eating, taking pleasure and exercise: other selves, in suspension, slumber but remain wakeful.

Picturebook artists are as aware of this as Sinclair, I think, and share the insights too of Philip Hoare whose work on sea and culture in The Sea Inside could be seen as running alongside Peter Fiennes’ Oak and Ash and Thorn, dealing with marine rather than arboreal culture(s) we encounter and shape. Hoare gets is right when he says that the coastal terrain

may be managed by man [sic], but it has been edited by the wind.

Edited by wind and wave and light and bird and…  all of these editorial hands, or debating voices, whichever metaphor we choose.  The woods in Fiennes’ book likewise are cleared, colonised, full of missed histories and unknowable opportunities; his scale is time, where Hoare’s is spatial. Hoare is right when he challenges his reader

Take out your atlas and look at it.

You can’t. Just as no two-dimensional map of the world represents the true proportions of its continental masses, so no chart represents the reality of its greatest ocean.

Maybe this is a place for fiction. Town is by the Sea gives us a beautiful but threatening presence, and the threat – and something of the scale – is in William Grill. There is an attempt to domesticate in much of the seaside of children’s literature, but all of these give different faces to a goddess with many personas.  Maybe we are better off in the richness of poetry and fiction and picture, back in the pagan mysteries of Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch instead? Or maybe we admire and classify but cannot fully comprehend this vast presence in the world we crawl about on?

The facts defy that paltry layer of land which we call home.

This is just a blog post, and can’t approach the work of Hoare and Fiennes, but the danger is that the openness of the sea (like the Great Wood  where the unwary can get lost) is that the “multitude of voices” means “There is no such place as home” as Hoare reminds us in his bleak final pages.


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