Fatal attraction – writers' and artists' obsession with the sea

From Shakespeare to Woolf, Turner to Gormley, Philip Hoare explores the eternal allure of the ocean

‘The sea has many voices / Many gods and many voices,” TS Eliot wrote. “We cannot think of a time that is oceanless.” “In civilisations without boats,” Michel Foucault observed, “dreams dry up.” It is, plainly, a fluid state, a place of transition and transmutation; the place from which we all came.

In the womb we swim in salty water, sprouting residual fins and tails and rudimentary gills, turning in our little oceans, queer beasts that might yet become whales or fish or humans. We first sense the world through the fluid of our mother’s belly; we hear through the sea inside her. We speak of bodies of water, Herman Melville wrote of “the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin”.

And when we return to swim beneath that skin, our identities and stories are blurred and reinvented. Jellyfish – ancient evolutionary survivors that predate and may yet outlive us – change sex as they mature; cuttlefish and moray eels slip from one gender and back again, shape-shifting in the alien deep. Ever since we began, we have found an affinity in this mutative place and its sense of the sublime. Creation myths from the Maori and Haida to the Christian and Islamic begin in the sea, as if in pre-Darwinian knowledge of our origins. And for modern artists and writers, that deep narrative retains its fatal allure.

Shakespeare – a man who played with identity and gender and whose own persona remains fluid – knew as much about the power of the shifting sea. Some believe he was a sailor in his former life, hence the 200 mentions of the word “ocean” in his works. And in his last great play, The Tempest, the rising, transforming sea seems to mirror, as if in Elizabethan magician John Dee’s occult dark glass, our own tempestuous world.

My new book was partly inspired by the discovery – in a row of secondhand paperbacks in a nature reserve on land once owned by Shakespeare’s Fair Youth and lover, Harry Southampton – of a 1968 Penguin edition of The Tempest, with an evocative woodcut cover by David Gentleman depicting a galleon lurching on high seas. Rereading the play, I realised that it was conjured out of the past into the future, as if it were happening before it was written. “Deliberately enigmatic”, in the words of critic Anne Righter, it is fraught with meaning as a ship is filled with freight; though here the cargo is both human and magical: refugees seeking shelter or colonists seeking resources, only to find themselves on an island of strange noises and weird creatures.

A late 19th-century wood engraving – the only known image of Moby-Dick drawn during Herman Melville’s lifetime.
A late 19th-century wood engraving – the only known image of Moby-Dick drawn during Herman Melville’s lifetime. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

After the opening storm, which turns out to be a theatrical effect summoned up by Prospero, the ambisexual Ariel tells Ferdinand that his father, the king, lies “full fathom five”; he has been made immortal by the water, becoming a kind of baroque jewel in the process. “Of his bones are coral made; / Those pearls that were eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” Shakespeare’s rich and strange transition has haunted writers and artists, from Melville to Derek Jarman, from JMW Turner to Virginia Woolf. And it haunts me, too. I swim in the sea every day, summer, spring, autumn and winter. I suppose I’m catching up on lost time, having been so fearful of the water as a boy that I didn’t even like to take a bath. I never learned to swim until I was in my late 20s, living on the dole in the East End. On seeing me floundering about in a Victorian pool, an elderly lady wearing a rubber hat took pity on me and taught me how to make an alliance with the water. Now I cycle out every morning, often long before daybreak, to an urban shore on Southampton Water, close to where I grew up and where I still live.

This is not a pretty place. It is overlooked by a vast refinery with its ever-burning flame, and passed by leviathanic liners and container ships. Behind me stands a ruined abbey, a gothic site hymned by Horace Walpole, John Constable and Turner, and visited by Jane Austen. I imagine the Cistercian monks casting off their white robes and wading into the sea, as St Cuthbert did. But my companions are oystercatchers, grebes and seals that might turn into selkies – familiars out of medieval marginalia – scraping a living in this industrial estuary.

Two hundred years ago, John Keats came here, seeking refuge from London. Unfortunately, when he arrived, there was no sea. Rarely, Southampton boasts a double tide – and when it is out, the sea disappears. “The Southampton water when I saw it just now was no better than a low water. Water which did no more than answer my expectations,” Keats told his brothers. His nerves were raw, so he took out The Tempest. “There’s my comfort,” he said. That afternoon he left on the rising tide, with Shakespeare’s play in his pocket, sailing to the Isle of Wight, another island of strange noises, to compose his sonnet “On the Sea”, filled with “eternal whisperings around / Desolate shores”.

Keats’s fascination with the sea had its fatal counterpart in “Adonaïs”, Shelley’s tribute to his fellow poet – whom he considered to have been murdered by the critics: “My spirit’s bark is driven, / Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng / Whose sails were never to the tempest given.” And if Keats’s grave bore the inscription, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, it is ironic that Shelley’s “Adonaïs” should be found in the sea-soaked notebook salvaged from his drowned body in 1821. While researching my book, I was granted an audience with the surviving text at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. With most of its sepia squid-ink washed away, it looked like it had gone through a spin cycle. It is kept in the dark to preserve the bizarre, stalking demons that Shelley doodled on its thick Italian paper: I was allowed to handle the pages with my bare hands. It was like having unprotected sex with a book.

Meanwhile, in a nearby college cloister lay the marble, drowned Shelley, like a turbot on a slab, as one unkind commentator called it. (The well-like space in which the sculpture stands was once flooded by undergraduates and filled with goldfish. From his time at Oxford, Paul Foot recalled the braying cries of a drunken rowing crew who’d assailed the memorial: “We’ve got Shelley’s balls!”)

Shelley, who earned the nickname Ariel, had never learned to swim. Yet he could not resist the water – “the Deep’s untrammelled floor”, as he wrote in “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples” – a place where the Oceanids cast human fates, and where sharks gnawed at the bones of jettisoned African slaves. The poet’s piratical friend Edward Trelawny recalled Shelley jumping into a river and sinking to the bottom, as if seeking his amniotic origins, an unplugged foetus. Having been dragged out by Trelawny, Shelley declared: “I always find the bottom of the well, and they say Truth lies there.” He added: “It’s a great temptation; in another minute I might have been in another planet.” He had fallen to Earth and kept on falling, a dark angel, like Icarus. And like Byron (who loved swimming but often vomited while in the process), he sought the water as an antidote to an industrial century. As Shelley’s body was burned on the beach, like a smouldering comet, Byron stripped off and plunged into the sea to defy the element that had taken his friend from him.

A century later, another young man found his muse in the water, led there by Keats and Shelley, and by his own father. Tom Owen was a railway clerk in Birkenhead, but on his days off he’d dress up as a captain and visit Liverpool docks, even bringing back black lascars to take tea with his family. Tom instilled that fantastical attachment in his son, Wilfred, whom he hoped would be a sailor. On teenage visits to Torbay – following Keats, Shelley and other writers drawn to the English Riviera, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose beloved brother drowned in the bay) to Oscar Wilde (who swam like a shark, according to his son) – Owen wrote his watery ode to Keats: “Eternally may sad waves wail his death.” He was, as he confessed to his mother, “in love with a dead ’un”.

Even through the first world war, as Owen enlisted and trained, he always seemed to find a beach, or a river or pool in which to swim. The last thing he ever did on English soil was to swim on Folkestone beach. It was the end of August 1918, and he was about to leave for the western front, for the second time. After a shave at the town barbers, Owen went down to the beach and got his kit off. There was nothing about that sea which spoke of the violence he was about to rejoin – his men would use lifejackets taken from the ferries as they waded through the flooded trenches, their feet anointed with whale oil, while tanks, called “land ships”, surfed a drowned landscape, as though Turner had reprised his Sunrise with Sea Monsters out of the Flanders mire.

“But these are not Lines written in Dejection,” Owen told Siegfried Sassoon. “Serenity Shelley never dreamed of crowns me.” Nor was he alone. “Moreover there issued from the sea distraction, in the shape, Shape I say, but lay no stress on that, of a Harrow boy, of superb intellect and refinement ... refinement because of the way he spoke of my Going, and of the Sun, and of the Sea there; and the way he spoke of Everything. In fact, the way he spoke –” And there he left his words hanging in unspoken desire. Three months later, a week before the armistice, Owen was killed while attempting to cross a French canal. I imagine his body falling by the dark water, where his name was written.

Virginia Woolf, left, with her sister Vanessa in St Ives in 1894.
Virginia Woolf, left, with her sister Vanessa in St Ives in 1894. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

For Virginia Woolf, who had spent her childhood summers in St Ives, the sea took on an even more fated symbolism. She constantly evoked a cryptic image, a residual memory of the dolphins she had seen off the Cornish coast, an almost synaesthetic emblem of something “frightening and excited in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is: One sees a fin passing far out.” That enigmatic shape accompanied her from To the Lighthouse, through Orlando, and to The Waves.

Woolf owned two copies of Moby-Dick and had read it at least three times after 1919. Melville’s book was then virtually unknown in the United States; it owed its rediscovery to British writers such as Woolf, DH Lawrence and EM Forster, who found their queerness reflected in its pages. The unattainable white whale became Woolf’s unattainable white lighthouse; Melville’s playing with time and space and gender resurfaces in Orlando; and his benthic darkness is implicit in The Waves. Indeed, whales and dolphins make a surprising number of appearances in Woolf’s writing – from the porpoise frozen in the Thames as seen by Orlando, to the sex-changing Renaissance prince herself: Vita Sackville-West, whom Woolf turned into a sensual shape. At Christmas 1925, the two women, who’d just spent their first night together, went shopping in Kent, where they saw a porpoise lit up on a fishmonger’s slab. Virginia elided that lustrous vision with her elusive paramour: Vita in her pink jersey and pearls, next to the marine mammal. “Ain’t it odd how the vision at the Sevenoaks fishmonger’s has worked itself into my idea of you?” she told Vita – who herself boasted of “having caught such a big silver fish” in Virginia.

In Woolf’s most elegiac work, The Waves, which weaves together six characters’ internal monologues, the sea is borne into the city itself. In the tube station under Piccadilly, Jinny feels the trains running “as regularly as the waves of the sea”. Neville reads a poem and “suddenly the waves gape and up shoulders a monster” (an image which would be replayed in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, with its own Tempest-inflected story and its cracked actor, Charles Arrowby, who sees a sea serpent rising out of the Channel). And in a passage auguring her author’s own fate, Rhoda imagines launching a garland of flowers over a cliff, to “sink and settle on the waves” and her body with it, like the suicidal Ophelia. “The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.” Those who have survived drowning speak of euphoria as the panic leaves them. “Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him,” as Shakespeare wrote.

A sunset over the waves in Nicaragua.
A sunset over the waves in Nicaragua. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Woolf joined her fellow modernists in venerating Melville. In a 1923 essay, Lawrence called the American writer “a futurist long before futurism found paint”. Like Turner’s paintings – another strong influence on Moby-Dick – and like a later transitional alien, Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Melville slid between zones of time and space. He had, said Lawrence, “the strange, uncanny magic of sea creatures, and some of their repulsiveness. He isn’t quite a land animal. There is something slithery about him. Something always half-seas-over. In his life they said he was mad – or crazy.” Melville’s animal otherness is at one with his homoeroticism, from Moby-Dick – in which the tattooed South Sea islander Queequeg and the inconstant narrator, Ishmael, proclaim themselves a married couple – and his last story of the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd, in which Billy’s innocent, beautiful body is consigned sacrificially to the sea. Forster would co-write the libretto for Britten’s operatic version of Melville’s novel, and in 1938, Auden composed his ominous poem “Herman Melville”, seeing the writer as haunted by his own creations: “The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex, / The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare”.

Sixty years later, Melville’s numinous, crazed paean to the whale reconnected me to the sea. In 2001, I went to Provincetown in Cape Cod, invited there by the film director John Waters. Witnessing wild cetaceans off this fugitive, sandy spit held out into the Atlantic turned my life around. They became my muses, my obsession. I’d found a new home in New England; the sea’s birds and whales had led me there. John accused me of being a whale-stalker, and of circulating whale porn, and introduced me to his landlady, Pat de Groot, an artist in whose house he spends his summers.

Pat is now in her 80s, but it was only recently that she gave up kayaking out to sea to draw cormorants and whales; she spent one summer feeding flounder to a female orca. She is feral and ferocious, always walking unshod (“Bare feet are older than shoes,” as Thoreau says) and sunbathing naked in the dunes, disdaining all bylaws. Her wooden house hangs over the sea like an ark; high spring tides flow beneath it. Once she had approved of me, I found myself living and working in one of her studios, seeing the sea through her eyes and her art. She always paints the same view, but it is always changing: a driving blizzard, luminous moonlight, sea smoke rising as if the waves were on fire. Her art is not conceptual, she insists. It’s an elemental meditation, in the way that Buddhists believe there is no difference between the real world and our dreams.

The sea is both loss and hope, like the lighthouses that flash across Cape Cod Bay. Out of the January snow, Pat calls me in from the beach. I shiver from the water in which I have just swum. We watch the seals slip off her sea float and eider ducks take their place. As we crouch around the wood stove, peering into its glowing interior, the light begins to fail. Pat tells me how she has lost good friends, but they came to see her as they died, even though they were far away.

I see those figures walking up the beach to her, passing on the news of their passing. I remember walking on another beach with my mother by my side; and I remember her at the end, all colour leached out of her red hair and her high cheekbones, lying there in her hospital bed while the machines bleeped like a cetacean’s sonar. And in the silence of the night, broken by the waves lapping on the shore, Pat and I look out through the windows to the blackness beyond. Somewhere out there, the whales are diving into the dark, never-ending sea.

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is published by 4th Estate on 13 July. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

• The Tale, an arts event inspired by the themes of the book, is in Torbay, 8-24 September: the-tale.co.uk


Philip Hoare

The GuardianTramp

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