Maritime Macabre: Poetry and the Sentiment of Loneliness and Death in Nautical Literature

From the Age of Sail through the Victorian period, the poet has used the sea and maritime culture to express loneliness and death.  Since the first sailor stepped onboard ship, the imagery of the sea, a mariner’s sense of duty, and the unexpected treachery of this calling has been used to stir the human soul.  From Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar to Poe’s Annabel Lee, maritime themes and symbolism bring forth emotion so strong that the reader feels a sense of emptiness, a vastness of scale so indescribable that only this precious elemental can emphasize the spirituality of permanent loss.

maritime lit paper

The Maldive Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.


However, the best poem by Melville may be his shortest!

The Tuft of Kelp

All dripping in tangles green,
Cast up by a lonely sea
If purer for that, O Weed,
Bitterer, too, are ye?

Herman Melville, 1888


Benito Cereno ~

Herman Melville will always be remembered for Moby-Dick, the acclaimed novel with poetry, Cetology, obsession, and of course, my favorite: Queequeg the cannibal, BUT have your read Benito Cereno?  By far, this short story is one of Melville’s best ever written. Beautifully crafted, a whaler stumbles upon a slave ship nearing perilously close to a reef – the American whaleship Captain Delano, goes to investigate and what transpires is nothing short of amazing.  The slave ship is a symbol of the institution itself – ugly, haggard, sad, and in need of destruction.  Melville takes you into a world that is simply impossible to pull away from.  Take an afternoon, read it, and beware of the kind manservant.  He is not what he appears to be!

But what I want you to think of most of all, while we feel some concern for Don Benito, think about the thousands of humans that were taken across the Atlantic, never to make it to their destination – and those that did, what type of true life did they have?  Was Bobo so wrong in his attempts?  What was Melville really trying to share with us?  Look deeper into the novel.  History has grey areas, but think of Melville, he was trying to share with his Victorian brothers and sisters the harsh reality of slavery,


Benito Cereno Librivox

Civil War Poetry & The Sea

Admittedly, after reviewing Whitman, Melville, Longfellow and a host of other writers, it is difficult to point directly at a favorite – especially being so enamored with E.A. Poe. However, of those who write war poetry, Walt Whitman by far is quite good. Perhaps it is his experiences as a nurse; Seeing the carnage and pain first hand that fills his work with the emotion, visualization, and word usage, that takes you to the moment.  There are several Civil War poems by the poet, and many from the battlefield to the shore that are excellent, however, one will always remain ingrained in our minds: O Captain! My Captain!  Arguably, this is not technically a sea or maritime poem, but the term Captain can be used for the army or navy.  Therefore, it is included herein.

In mind’s eye, one can see the assassinated president laying in state, his body cold, his work unfinished, but the battle is done.  Reconstruction and reconciliation would be left to another.  Mary Todd, his widow, refusing to leave the White House – inconsolable, like the rest of the country – shocked by the actions of John Wilkes Booth.  The country – “for you, they call,” but “my captain cannot answer.”  So many questions were left unanswered as a country in upheaval tried to understand and come to grips with the last four years of war.

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman, 1865


A TIMELINE FOR PYM: Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary and Historical Influences

For more information, videos, and music related to PYM: Click here to see a new timeline for Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym!  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, published in 1838, was Poe’s first and only full-length novel.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_Public Domain

Previously, he published two installments of the work in The Southern Messenger [Virginia]but the book never reached the acclaim of his short stories and poetry. The macabre author and father of the detective story wrote often about the sea.  Unfortunately, PYM met the same fate that many of Poe’s characters received…

Pym_1938_book_coverLike his work The Balloon Hoax, and many of his mystery short stories, PYM is written as if it is a real event.  The Narrative is set in the whaling community of Nantucket, Massachusettes, where two good friends, Arthur Gordon Pym and Augustus Berard, decide to go to sea.  Pym’s family is involved in the sea trades and forbids their son to go off on a whaling trip (most whaling voyages take two to four years to complete and are extremely dangerous).  Augustus stowed his friend away in the hold of the whaling ship.  He plans, when they are safely away from Nantucket, that Pym would present himself on deck and contribute to the voyage.

 True to Poe’s form, this cannot be just a sea voyage filled with adventure, but a great deal of dismemberment, mutiny, cannibalism, and death.

 The Death Ships

Different from ghost ships, which were vessels at sea completely unoccupied and appeared as if their crew simply disappeared, death ships are considered cursed vessels with corpses onboard.  The ships never return to port.  The Legend of the Flying Dutchman c. 1641  is one

We also cannot forget The Pirates of the Carribean series where a mutinous crew took over Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl and through a curse derived from stolen gold became a death ship.  But the classic death ship from the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem published by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 179that rivals The Raven’s length!



Essex disaster 1819-1821 (whaleship)

In 1821, Owen Chase wrote a Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.  Thomas Nickerson, the other survivor, wrote The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats but was published posthumously – after Poe’s PYM.

Watch an incredible documentary of the Essex and Herman Melville’s inspiration to write Moby-Dick:

The Essex

One could argue that the Essex, was one of the most influential disasters in American maritime history. Like the Donner Party, it resonates with everyone and feeds into our darkest fears.

Vessels Named Grampus – A Whaleship in PYM

There are over a dozen vessels that were named Grampus – most were British.  Poe mentions a Grampus in his novel.  we must acknowledge the USS Grampus built in 1821.  Most likely, the USS Grampus from 1821 was known by E.A. Poe.  This schooner was the first to be named such in the United States and was used to patrol for piracy.

 Grampus (2)

Vessels Named Ariel – Another Ship in PYM

The Pilot was written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1824 where the Ariel was prominently featured, but readers must also consider multiple publications, as the ship name is fairly common; the most famous being The Tempest by Shakespeare c. 1610, and Paradise Lost written by John Milton in 1667.

Cooper The Pilot


The Globe, a whaleship from Nantucket, experienced a very violent and bloody mutiny in 1824, which could have been a strong influence on Poe, but there have been several mutinies that have lived in infamy:

The Globe Whaler

Exploration Influences

During Poe’s writings, travel and adventure novels were immensely popular.  Poe did not necessarily agree with this genre.  To paraphrase editor J. Gerald Kennedy’s perspective in the Oxford World Classics edition, Poe was told by editors to write a book for the masses.  The author felt insulted that he had to reduce his metacognitive abilities to make this narrative palpable to a wider audience.

Captain Jeremiah N. Reynolds published an Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1836 (Reynolds believed in the hollow earth theory).  1837 Poe reviewed Reynolds’ work in The MessengerReynolds had a profound influence on Poe

The End

In true Poe fashion, the ending leaves the reader feeling empty, inquisitive, and morose.  The symbolism of white is everywhere: from the coldness of death, the environment, and the being that arrives for PYM, white is the color that envelopes the characters and the reader.  Without spoiling the ending, as I encourage those who enjoy Poe and maritime fiction to read PYM, I am still wondering… what happened to Tiger the dog?