“The Convergence of the Twain” was completed by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) on 24th April 1912, only nine days after the event that is its subject matter, namely the sinking of the “Titanic” with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. The poem was first published in the programme of a dramatic and musical event that was held at London’s Covent Garden Theatre on 14th May in aid of the Disaster Fund.
Thomas Hardy, in common with millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic, was deeply moved by the disaster, which occurred when the most opulent ocean liner ever built struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Hardy had known two of the victims personally, but the poem he wrote is not a lament for their passing. Indeed, there is no mention at all of the human losses, which might seem strange in a poem written for the occasion mentioned above. The only references to people (“the opulent” and “the sensuous mind”) seem callous and unfeeling, almost as though Hardy rejoiced in the fact that such people had met a terrible end. However, such an interpretation would misunderstand the purpose Hardy had in mind when writing the poem.
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
“The Convergence of the Twain” comprises eleven three-line stanzas, each being two trimeters followed by a hexameter (i.e. three and six metrical feet respectively), with all the lines rhyming. This structure not only gives the poem an insistent rhythmical beat, as of a large ship’s engines thudding their way across the ocean, but allows for the third line to state a starkly contrasting meaning to that of the first two. There is therefore a mechanistic atmosphere to the poem that complements perfectly the theme that Hardy explicates.
The title of the poem is ironic in that the Titanic was built to usher in a new era of transatlantic luxury travel that would bridge the two worlds of Europe and America. However, the “twain” that Hardy mainly has in mind are the ship, which represents the work of Man, and the iceberg which stands for the immutable force of Nature. Their convergence, which is portrayed as a form of marriage, is inevitable and results in the victory of Nature.
There is another structure in the poem, namely that of thesis, antithesis and resolution. The thesis is contained in stanzas one to five, the antithesis in stanzas six to ten, and the resolution in stanza eleven. This structure also helps to reinforce the message of determinism that pervades the poem.
The theme of retribution for folly is stated right at the start of the poem, with the great ship being described as the “Pride of Life” that has been created out of “human vanity”. In the third stanza mention is made of “the mirrors meant / To glass [i.e. reflect] the opulent”, but which are now only seen by sea-worms which are “grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent”. In the fourth stanza it is “Jewels in joy designed / To ravish the sensuous mind” that are “bleared and black and blind” on the ocean floor, and the thought is voiced in the fifth stanza by “Dim moon-eyed fishes” which ask “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” Hardy could not have made his point more clearly as he rams it home time and again.
In the sixth stanza, which is the first of the “antithesis” group, the theme changes to pointing out how the “convergence” has come about. This is the work of an “Immanent Will” that can be regarded as God, Fate, or whatever force one wishes to assign to this role. As the ship is being constructed, so is the iceberg. In the seventh stanza the iceberg is mentioned as “a sinister mate” for the ship that, as with ships everywhere, is seen as female. The point is stated explicitly in the eighth stanza:
“And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too”.
One has to allow for a little poetic licence here, given that icebergs do not actually grow once they have been formed by breaking off from an ice shelf or glacier. However, this is being somewhat picky!
Hardy then states that the “august event” of the meeting of ship and iceberg could not have been foreseen by “mortal eye”, but concludes, in the “resolution” stanza, with the “Spinner of the Years” saying “Now!” and forcing the ship and iceberg together. The meeting, in the poem’s last line, is called a “consummation” as the marriage of the “twain” becomes a violent rape with the penetration of the female ship by the male iceberg. The final words, “and jars two hemispheres”, bring the reader back to the idea that the “twain” are not only the ship and the iceberg but the two sides of the Atlantic that are brought together in grief by the tragedy. Given that many of those lost were American citizens, including some prominent and very wealthy people such as John Jacob Astor (who may have been one of the two victims with whom Hardy was acquainted), it is no surprise that the sinking did exactly what Hardy said.
The twin themes of this poem, namely the destruction of wealth and luxury and the inevitability of the sinking given the courses followed by ship and iceberg, fit together well when considered as an example of “hubris”, which is the ancient Greek idea that, when Man sets himself on too high a pedestal, the gods will take their revenge and bring him down to his rightful place. Put another way, “pride comes becomes a fall”. Thomas Hardy’s novels contain several examples of characters who overreach themselves and pay the consequences. Sometimes they bring destruction down on their own heads, but often there is an element of Fate, or the force of Nature, taking a hand to restore the balance and ensure that the natural course of things is not countermanded. Michael Henchard in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” comes to mind as such an example, in that his foolishness is followed by misfortune in his downfall.
“The Convergence of the Twain” seems to fall into this category of a statement that “the gods must not be mocked”. It is a powerful and effective poem but, as stated above, there is no hint of sympathy for the victims or their families, and one wonders how this poem would have been received by its first readers as they attended the Disaster Fund concert and read their programme, only a month after the event. Had a modern Thomas Hardy written a poem a few weeks after “9/11” that made no mention of the victims but stated the inevitability of such a tragedy given the anti-American feelings then current in the Muslim world and the lax security at American airports, one can imagine what the reaction would have been. However, Hardy’s popularity as a poet was not diminished as a result of “The Convergence of the Twain”, so it would appear that he got away with it.