The “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”: its representations in art and literature

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The sea is nature’s greatest gift to artists and writers. The mystery of what hides in its depths allows it to stand for the unknown, as does the fact that it separates the continents, making distant lands into a mystery. Something that can represent the unknown can be used to represent everything and anything; that is to say, the gaps in our knowledge of the sea mean that the sea can be used to fill any other gap. This versatility, and the mystery itself, has gripped the imaginations of artists and writers for generations. As a result, the sea has been vastly and variously represented throughout history.

Matthew Arnold, one of the greatest Romantic poets, often used the sea as a disguise for various greater concepts: religious faith, cruel fate, and so on. His most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach’, explicitly contrasts a real sea – the Aegean – and a metaphorical “Sea of Faith”. Though Arnold’s use of metaphor is fascinating, it is his manipulation of language that emphasises the physical power of the ocean. “Listen! you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling” – the reader responds to his invitation, imagining the thousand tiny crashes of each pebble onto another. The imagined sound is so vivid that we can almost hallucinate it. When Arnold watches the sea “Begin, and cease, and then again begin,” the gentle breaks in the line suggest the momentary pauses in the ebb and flow of the tide. Despite its softness, this description is also somewhat menacing: the sea is clearly acting on its own terms, and cannot be controlled. Arnold described the sea in another poem as “unplumbed, salt, [and] estranging”. As well as powerful, Arnold’s sea is raw like salt; it is unexplored (“unplumbed”); and its “estranging” quality makes other things unexplorable. Before even delving into metaphor, Arnold depicts the sea as an enigma with great physical force.

As well as powerful, Arnold’s sea is raw like salt

Therefore, although the sea has been used to illustrate various metaphors, one of the most powerful ways to look at it is simply as a great force of nature. This perspective can allow an artist to make the strongest possible impression when capturing the sea in pen or paint. Hokusai’s well-known print ‘The Great Wave’ makes the sea its centrepiece. Focusing on a tidal wave, Hokusai captures its vast size and pouncing, claw-like shape. The final form of this print is globally recognisable, but it is a shame that Hokusai’s earlier versions are less well-known: they imbue the sea with a different kind of power. As shown in the below left image, the earlier incarnation of the wave is still a towering force, but its verticality and grim grey power give it a sense of severity. Meanwhile, in the final print (below right), the impression is changed by brighter colour and detailed splashes: the sea appears hysterical and wild, rather than powerful.

This disparity is made clearer by the depiction of the canoes in each print. A neatly sequenced story appears in the earlier version, with one canoe over the brim of the wave, and another facing up to it. In the later print, both canoes have yet to be tested by the wave, which gives the viewer an impression of chaotic destructive force. Both prints are undeniably powerful. Yet it is the former in which Stephen Crane’s words – from his short story, The Open Boat – ring true: “Nature […] was indifferent, flatly indifferent.”

For me, the power of the sea lies in its steady rhythms and uncontrollable, yet never capricious, behaviour. Artists and writers often go beyond this, but when they confine themselves – that is, before Arnold’s poetry descends into metaphor, and before Hokusai reworked ‘The Great Wave’ – then we may fully appreciate the sea, as an unplumbed and enigmatic force.

Image credit: Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons


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