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Tales of the Sea

1898


It is by his irresistible power to reach the adventurous side in the
character, not only of his own, but of all nations, that Marryat is
largely human. He is the enslaver of youth, not by the literary
artifices of presentation, but by the natural glamour of his own
temperament. To his young heroes the beginning of life is a splendid and
warlike lark, ending at last in inheritance and marriage. His novels are
not the outcome of his art, but of his character, like the deeds that
make up his record of naval service. To the artist his work is
interesting as a completely successful expression of an unartistic
nature. It is absolutely amazing to us, as the disclosure of the spirit
animating the stirring time when the nineteenth century was young. There
is an air of fable about it. Its loss would be irreparable, like the
curtailment of national story or the loss of an historical document. It
is the beginning and the embodiment of an inspiring tradition.

To this writer of the sea the sea was not an element. It was a stage,
where was displayed an exhibition of valour, and of such achievement as
the world had never seen before. The greatness of that achievement
cannot be pronounced imaginary, since its reality has affected the
destinies of nations; nevertheless, in its grandeur it has all the
remoteness of an ideal. History preserves the skeleton of facts and,
here and there, a figure or a name; but it is in Marryat's novels that we
find the mass of the nameless, that we see them in the flesh, that we
obtain a glimpse of the everyday life and an insight into the spirit
animating the crowd of obscure men who knew how to build for their
country such a shining monument of memories.

Marryat is really a writer of the Service. What sets him apart is his
fidelity. His pen serves his country as well as did his professional
skill and his renowned courage. His figures move about between water and
sky, and the water and the sky are there only to frame the deeds of the
Service. His novels, like amphibious creatures, live on the sea and
frequent the shore, where they flounder deplorably. The loves and the
hates of his boys are as primitive as their virtues and their vices. His
women, from the beautiful Agnes to the witch-like mother of Lieutenant
Vanslyperken, are, with the exception of the sailors' wives, like the
shadows of what has never been. His Silvas, his Ribieras, his Shriftens,
his Delmars remind us of people we have heard of somewhere, many times,
without ever believing in their existence. His morality is honourable
and conventional. There is cruelty in his fun and he can invent puns in
the midst of carnage. His naiveties are perpetrated in a lurid light.
There is an endless variety of types, all surface, with hard edges, with
memorable eccentricities of outline, with a childish and heroic effect in
the drawing. They do not belong to life; they belong exclusively to the
Service. And yet they live; there is a truth in them, the truth of their
time; a headlong, reckless audacity, an intimacy with violence, an
unthinking fearlessness, and an exuberance of vitality which only years
of war and victories can give. His adventures are enthralling; the
rapidity of his action fascinates; his method is crude, his
sentimentality, obviously incidental, is often factitious. His greatness
is undeniable.

It is undeniable. To a multitude of readers the navy of to-day is
Marryat's navy still. He has created a priceless legend. If he be not
immortal, yet he will last long enough for the highest ambition, because
he has dealt manfully with an inspiring phase in the history of that
Service on which the life of his country depends. The tradition of the
great past he has fixed in his pages will be cherished for ever as the
guarantee of the future. He loved his country first, the Service next,
the sea perhaps not at all. But the sea loved him without reserve. It
gave him his professional distinction and his author's fame--a fame such
as not often falls to the lot of a true artist.

At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, another man wrote of
the sea with true artistic instinct. He is not invincibly young and
heroic; he is mature and human, though for him also the stress of
adventure and endeavour must end fatally in inheritance and marriage. For
James Fenimore Cooper nature was not the frame-work, it was an essential
part of existence. He could hear its voice, he could understand its
silence, and he could interpret both for us in his prose with all that
felicity and sureness of effect that belong to a poetical conception
alone. His fame, as wide but less brilliant than that of his
contemporary, rests mostly on a novel which is not of the sea. But he
loved the sea and looked at it with consummate understanding. In his sea
tales the sea inter-penetrates with life; it is in a subtle way a factor
in the problem of existence, and, for all its greatness, it is always in
touch with the men, who, bound on errands of war or gain, traverse its
immense solitudes. His descriptions have the magistral ampleness of a
gesture indicating the sweep of a vast horizon. They embrace the colours
of sunset, the peace of starlight, the aspects of calm and storm, the
great loneliness of the waters, the stillness of watchful coasts, and the
alert readiness which marks men who live face to face with the promise
and the menace of the sea.

He knows the men and he knows the sea. His method may be often faulty,
but his art is genuine. The truth is within him. The road to legitimate
realism is through poetical feeling, and he possesses that--only it is
expressed in the leisurely manner of his time. He has the knowledge of
simple hearts. Long Tom Coffin is a monumental seaman with the
individuality of life and the significance of a type. It is hard to
believe that Manual and Borroughcliffe, Mr. Marble of Marble-Head,
Captain Tuck of the packet-ship _Montauk_, or Daggett, the tenacious
commander of the _Sea Lion_ of Martha's Vineyard, must pass away some day
and be utterly forgotten. His sympathy is large, and his humour is as
genuine--and as perfectly unaffected--as is his art. In certain passages
he reaches, very simply, the heights of inspired vision.

He wrote before the great American language was born, and he wrote as
well as any novelist of his time. If he pitches upon episodes redounding
to the glory of the young republic, surely England has glory enough to
forgive him, for the sake of his excellence, the patriotic bias at her
expense. The interest of his tales is convincing and unflagging; and
there runs through his work a steady vein of friendliness for the old
country which the succeeding generations of his compatriots have replaced
by a less definite sentiment.

Perhaps no two authors of fiction influenced so many lives and gave to so
many the initial impulse towards a glorious or a useful career. Through
the distances of space and time those two men of another race have shaped
also the life of the writer of this appreciation. Life is life, and art
is art--and truth is hard to find in either. Yet in testimony to the
achievement of both these authors it may be said that, in the case of the
writer at least, the youthful glamour, the headlong vitality of the one
and the profound sympathy, the artistic insight of the other--to which he
had surrendered--have withstood the brutal shock of facts and the wear of
laborious years. He has never regretted his surrender.


Joseph Conrad