The “Loss of the Steamship Pacific, November 4th, 1875” by Rev. George Mason, an Anglican rector from Nanaimo, British Columbia, is a poem commemorating in the assumed tones of sorrow and anger the wreck of SS Pacific off Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of the Olympia Peninsula, Washington State (US) and not far from Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Canada). One list of shipwreck casualties gives 236 as the number of those who died when the Pacific collided with another ship and sank, but a contemporary account gives the total as over 270.
This occasional poem is 112 lines in length, giving Mason room for drawing a number of lessons, most of them Christian, and is written in blank verse (unrhyming five-beat lines), the classic metre for English poets who wish to combine the formality of verse with a flexibility required by insight and argument. The poem exhibits the tendency of blank verse to compose itself into paragraphs, often twelve lines in length and sometimes fourteen, as though the blank verse were naturally resolving itself into sonnets, that other classic English verse form. Indeed, the poem ends with an almost independent sonnet (beginning “Well might we learn in these presumptuous times”) and they are the most impressive lines of the whole.
Mason begins with a mock invocation, addressing directly all such fast proud ships and encouraging them to believe in their own vulnerability. He turns then to the passengers and what we as readers already know to be the pathos of their imagining their future in California. A narrative skeleton is meant to give firmness to the observations and emotional outbursts, as Mason recalls the expectancy on deck in Victoria before departure (with passengers’ daydreams of the golden destination, San Francisco), the sudden and fearful premonition coming to those on land (“Hush!—didst thou hear?”), the terrible news of calamity, the survival of one passenger (H. F. Jelly) and one crewman (Neil Henley) who recount the collision, the panic and despair, the chivalry in vain, the mass deaths. The rest of the poem consists of Mason’s address consecutively to a dead mother who lost her child, the pitiless ocean and men heedless of God’s omnipotence.
The extent to which this poem displays formulas (however deeply felt it may be) is due in part to the fact that shipwrecks with considerable loss of life were almost commonplace in the nineteenth century and before, and poets naturally had been responding with verse printed in local newspapers, or, if merited and from the pens of proven poets, in volumes of verse. The year 1875 had already seen the collision of Vicksburg with ice on its way from Quebec to Liverpool and its sinking with seventy-five souls lost (May 31st) and the wreck of Schiller off the Scilly Isles with 312 lost (May 7th), and was to see the wreck of Deutschland off Harwich, at the cost of fifty-seven souls (December 6th). It was much the same every year, the death toll relentless, the ships foundering wholesale. Two other wrecks associate themselves with the SS Pacific. On January 22, 1906, SS Valencia, making the reverse run from San Francisco to Victoria ran aground on Vancouver Island, and though it was only sixty feet from shore, there were deaths in the rough weather and fear-stricken passengers and crew sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” six years before that hymn was to be immortally connected to Titanic. And in 1856, the identically named SS Pacific of the Collins Line disappeared between Liverpool and New York with anywhere between 190 and 280 souls on board.
The drowning of five nuns among the lost souls on board Deutschland inspired the Jesuit English priest Gerard Manley Hopkins to write his famous “The Wreck of the Deutschland” a mere month after Mason had commended the loss of Pacific to verse. Hopkins was a troubled soul and his celebrated experimental metres and rhythms (haywire to the uninitiated) were appropriate forms of expression for his questioning, angst-ridden, ultimately affirmative reaction to the drowning of five pious women who died while calling on Christ to come quickly. Hopkins can give the impression of sometimes being angry at God, or at least baffled by Him, whereas Mason’s anger is directed at Man’s overweening pride. Three years later, Euridice, a training ship for young seamen, sank off the Isle of Wight with around 300 crew, all of whom were lost. Hopkins again responded with a poem, more traditional than his previous one, perhaps because his spiritual anguish was less despite the far greater loss of life. Still, he wrote: “Deeply surely I need to deplore it, / Wondering why my master bore it.”
Mason was a more orthodox priest than Hopkins and his poem anticipates sentiments found, for example, in the innumerable sermons preached around the English-speaking world on April 21st, the first Sunday after the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. For example, Mason addresses a “Leviathan of art” (the very word that was used to describe such giants as Titanic years later) and a “boast of modern science.” Science in its most obvious guise of engineering marvels was seen in Mason’s day as typical of “these presumptuous days” and it was a sentiment at least as old as 1829, when Thomas Carlyle, while acknowledging the benefits of applied science, warned against the attempt to best Nature through machinery. Mason echoes Carlyle when he ironically bids the ships “Speed on in proud disdain / Of wind and storm!” This apparent support of hubris is of course Masons’ verbal irony, foreshadowing the dramatic irony of calamity awaiting Pacific. Commentators, particularly religious commentators, made much of this irony when Titanic went down, their sorrow mingling with the gratification that derives (as they saw it) from God’s showing Man who is Boss.
Carlyle also saw the new steamships widening the gap between the rich and poor, an issue that surfaced when Titanic went down with poor European emigrants and rich American businessmen on board. For Mason, the human cargo on such ships as Pacific is far more precious than “earthly dross, exhumed from mountain depths, / Or washed with anxious toil from mingled sand / On river beds.” It is hard not to hear in this sideswipe at materialism an echo from Milton’s Paradise Lost of the fallen angels under direction of Mammon plundering the mountains of hell for gold and other precious metals to build Pandemonium. But Mason has in mind the gold either in California (prospectors started or finished in San Francisco, “gay City of the Golden Gate”) or in British Columbia (from Victoria, as James Delgado tells us, prospectors set off for the Fraser River where gold was discovered in 1857). Mason is careful to place on board the merchant off on holiday from the cares of business.
Like the survivors of Titanic, Mason’s sole survivor tells of “the fatal crash, / the rush, the panic” and of that male chivalry that many saw as one of the few consolations amid the sadness of loss in 1912. Chivalry carries the notion of vain bravery. Man pits his “monster vessels” (what would Mason have said or thought had he imagined a ship as huge as Titanic?) against Nature and in observing this, Mason threatens to turn Nature from God’s instrument into a ruthless, hostile force unto itself—“Pitiless Ocean! Thou has done thy worst!”—just as many commentators interpreted the iceberg’s destruction of Titanic as an episode in the continuing warfare between Nature and Man. But for the religious, like Mason, the real, fruitless, and hopeless “war” was between God and Man, who would ignore Him and who operate their giant machines “with scarce a thought of the Omnipotent,” and yet in whose forgiving bosom the dead rest, another source of deep if sorrowful gratification, though only after such painful lessons as the Pacific disaster. Man has neglected to learn from the history of King Canute, seen by Mason, correctly, not as a foolish defier of Nature (and hence God), but as a wise demonstrator to foolish courtiers of the invulnerable power of Nature (and hence God).
Mason comes full ironic circle when he ends his poem: the waves that “lift in vain their crests of angry foam” at the poem’s outset and the ship’s departure become at the end “untamed billows” that “mock your pigmy toys.” The “sonnet” with which Mason closes his poem carries echoes of an earlier, if non-Christian, sonnet, “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Since in Shelley’s poem the broken statue is “sunk” in the sand and composes a “Wreck,” the desert and ocean are similar; the lone and level sands make pigmy the vast remains of the kingly effigy. Mason’s poem is like a gloss on the implied argument of “Ozymandias,” to which has been added his orthodox Christianity. “Loss of the Steamship Pacific” is a very modest composition in strictly poetic terms, but it is surprisingly rich in Victorian cultural motifs and sentiments, though expressed at the edge of the Empire.
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