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TRYST (v) To mutually agree to meet at a certain place. [Scot.] Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

Did Celia Thaxter Predict the Titanic Sinking?

Titanic postcard Years before the sinking of the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic, island poet Celia Thaxter wrote "A Tryst." Published in her 1896 collection, the poem tells a hauntingly similar tale of a ship fated to collide with an iceberg. Thaxter writes of "Brave men, sweet women, little children bright" who do not suspect the looming tragedy on a cloudless night.

The poem is far from a precise portending. In the Titanic disaster, 1522 passengers were killed on April 14, 1912, but others survived. Celia imagined, not the world's largest passenger ship, but a traditional sailing vessel. Her tragedy occurs midway through the journey, not near the very end as with Titanic, and in her version all aboard are lost. Some Titanic passengers survived.

Titanic poster The most intriguing connection, is not simply with the tragedy, but with the modern blockbuster film version by James Cameron. Celia's poem too is a story about star-crossed lovers. In "Poet on Demand," Celia scholar Jane Vallier writes:
"The image of the ship and iceberg as ill-fated lovers whose meeting is decreed by Fate is the kind of cosmic theme Thaxter found most attractive." Modern audiences too were drawn to the tragic romance between Leonard DiCapria and Kate Winslet. The 1997 film was hugely successfuls, garnering 14 Academy Award nominations and launching hundreds of private fan websites adrift onto the Internet.

Celia's iceberg shipwreck is only one of a series of strange foreboding connections that preceded the Titanic disaster. Hers and many others were presented in a 1986 book edited by puzzlemaster Martin Gardner called "The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?" The book was reprinted in 1998 in response to Titanic fever following the release of the Cameron film. Among the most intriguing literary works cited is the short story "Wreck of the Titan" by Morgan Robertson which is fully reprinted in Gardner's book. One of the most intriguing predictions in literature, the 1898 novella warned of an iceberg collision with the "largest craft afloat and the greatest works of men."

thomas hardy and celia thaxter

Celia's original theme of fated lovers in an iceberg shipwreck also appears in the powerful poem "Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy. We have no evidence that Hardy knew Thexter's poem, a thought that might make members of the scholarly Thomas Hardy Associaion toss their eyes to heaven. Hardy wrote the poem very soon after reading about the tragedy and first recited it on May 14, 1912. Hardy used his poem to help raise funds for victims of the Titanic.

The literary merits of Celia's popular poem aside, there is still plenty to compare here, not the least of which is the great difference between Hardy's "Convergence" and her Victorian style in "Tryst". Barely two decades separate the two poems, and Celia (1835-1896) had been born only five years earlier than Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Although contemporaries, the two poets were as distant in their writing as sailing ships and ocean liners. But here, in this one fateful topic, the two converged with history.
-- JDR

© 1999 SeacoastNH.com

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A Tryst
By Celia Thaxter (1896)

From out the desolation of the North
   An iceberg took it away,
From its detaining comrades breaking forth,
   And traveling night and day.

At whose command? Who bade it sail the deep
   With that resistless force?
Who made the dread appointment it must keep?
   Who traced its awful course?

To the warm airs that stir in the sweet South,
   A good ship spread her sails;
Stately she passed beyond the harbor's mouth,
   Chased by the favoring gales;

And on her ample decks a happy crowd
   Bade the fair land good-by;
Clear shone the day, with not a single cloud
   In all the peaceful sky.

Brave men, sweet women, little children bright
   For all these she made room,
And with her freight of beauty and delight
   She went to meet her doom.

Storms buffeted the iceberg, spray was swept
   Across its loftiest height;
Guided alike by storm and calm, it kept
   Its fatal path aright.

Then warmer waves gnawed at its crumbling base,
   As if in piteous plea;
The ardent sun sent slow tears down its face
   Soft flowing to the sea.

Dawn kissed it with her tender rose tints. Eve
   Bathed it in violet,
The wistful color o'er it seemed to grieve
   With a divine regret.

Whether Day clad its clefts in rainbows dim
   And shadowy as a dream,
Or Night through lonely spaces saw it swim
   White in the moonlight's gleam,

Ever Death rode upon its solemn heights,
   Ever his watch he kept;
Cold at its heart through changing days and nights
   Its changeless purpose slept.

And where afar a smiling coast it passed,
   Straightway the air grew chill;
Dwellers thereon perceived a bitter blast,
   A vague report of ill.

Like some imperial creature, moving slow,
   Meanwhile, with matchless grace,
The stately ship, unconscious of her foe,
   Drew near the trysting place.

For still the prosperous breezes followed her,
   And half the voyage was o'er;
In many a breast glad thoughts began to stir
   Of lands that lay before.

And human hearts with longing love were dumb,
   That soon should cease to beat,
Thrilled with the hope of meetings soon to come,
   And lost in memories sweet.

Was not the weltering waste of water wide
   Enough for both to sail?
What drew the two together o'er the tide,
   Fair ship and iceberg pale?

There came a night with neither moon nor star,
   Clouds draped the sky in black;
With fluttering canvas reefed at every spar,
   And weird fire in her track,

The ship swept on; a wild wind gathering fast
   Drove her at utmost speed.
Bravely she bent before the fitful blast
   That shook her like a reed.

0 helmsman, turn thy wheel! Will no surmise
   Cleave through the midnight drear?
No warning of the horrible surprise
   Reach thine unconscious ear?

She rushed upon her ruin. Not a flash
   Broke up the waiting dark;
Dully through wind and sea one awful crash
   Sounded, with none to mark.

Scarcely her crew had time to clutch despair.
   So swift the work was done:
Ere their pale lips could frame a speechless prayer,
   They perished, every one!

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The Convergence of the Twain
By Thomas Hardy (May 14, 1912)
Lines on the loss of the "Titanic"

      I

   In a solitude of the sea
   Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

      II

   Steel chambers, late the pyres
   Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

      III

   Over the mirrors meant
   To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls - grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

      IV

   Jewels in joy designed
   To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

      V

   Dim moon-eyed fishes near
   Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"

      VI

   Well: while was fashioning
   This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

      VII

   Prepared a sinister mate
   For her - so gaily great -
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

      VIII

   And as the smart ship grew
   In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

      IX

   Alien they seemed to be:
   No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

      X

   Or sign that they were bent
   By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

      XI

   Till the Spinner of the Years
   Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

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