Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century

Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century

Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century

Image of the Sea: Oceanic Consciousness in the Romantic Century


This book explores the unprecedented surge or oceanic feeling in the aesthetic expression of the romantic century. As secular thought began to displace the certainties of a sacral universe, the oceans that give life to our planet offered a symbol of eternity, rooted in the experience of nature rather than Biblical tradition. Images of the sea permeated the minds of the early Romantics, became a significant ingredient of romantic expression, and continued to emerge in the language, literature, art, and music of the nineteenth century. These pages document the evidence for this oceanic consciousness in some of the most creative minds of that century.


Thy way was through the sea,
Thy path through the great waters
Yet thy footprints were unseen

—Psalm 77

Our earth is the sea planet. the dry land on which for so many millennia we have been born and in which we have been buried covers only three-tenths of its watery surface, and at some time during our long journey to claim dominion over that land, we became seafarers. For thousands of years we have been drawn by the challenge of the oceans—sailing the seas for food, profit, and conquest. But century after century the sea exacted its toll on human life; going down to the sea in ships was full of life-threatening perils. Inevitably, in the course of time, the storm at sea and the shipwreck became archetypal symbols of the hazards of life; the ship became symbolically associated with the individual, along with the community or state, as they struggled for survival in a perilous world.

These pages are concerned with the sea as image—not as a geographical fact, but as it is beheld: nature’s palpable immensity against which our own human powers are forever tested. Impressions of the sea on human imagination are registered in the heritage of most cultures over the centuries, both in artistic and literary expression. in the Western world, the intellectual and political revolutions of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries gave new and widespread meaning to the old metaphor of life’s voyage on storm-tossed seas. By the end of those years the countries bordering on the Atlantic Ocean brought to a climax the age of sea travel in wind-driven ships; and during the nineteenth century—the century of romanticism and of the rise of science— . . .

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