Monday, September 01, 2008

This Distant Northern Sea

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

It's a rather commonplace observation to note that there is something about looking out to sea that reminds you of the vastness of time, the brief duration of your life and the relative insignificance of anything that you have done or will ever possibly do. We've been struck by the thought ever since 'Sophocles long ago', according to Matthew Arnold, after all. There is something of the eternal about a view out to sea; you become acutely aware of time - in particular, of the deep-time of the sea's patient, grinding assault on the coastline - and yet you imagine, also, that you somehow stand outside of time, too, as you stare out at the waves. I imagine, as I look out towards the Isle of Wight, that the view has not changed very much since the time when Romans must have stared out towards the barbarian island reputedly inhabited by Druids. The shape of the island would have been more or less the same and they would have seen the same strange, low hills on the horizon. They would have seen the same grey and white shapes of the waves and heard the same constant low rhythmic roar of those waves against the pebbles. Perhaps many of those Romans imagined that other people, centuries before them, must have seen and heard similar things on that same spot.

There is something vaguely terrifying about this sense of time and timelessness - but there is also something oddly comforting about it. One of the other commonplace remarks about staring out to sea is that it is quite a calming, almost hypnotic, experience. The sea is our death and oblivion. It is the aeons when we were not alive and the aeons after we are dead, but it also represents timeless continuity and prompts us to understand that things will carry on much the same without us. It impresses us with the relative insignificance not only of our lives but also of death. It is not nihilism that grips us when we look out to sea and see oblivion.

When I walk along the coast with the dog, I often see elderly people sitting in cars which have been parked as close to the shore as the various car parks will allow. They are staring out to sea. I imagine that when I am old, not so very long from now, I might want to do the same thing. Is there a time when, close to death, the old ask to be driven down to the beach to watch the sea for one last time? Do the old neatly wrap up their lives like that? One last glimpse of eternity.

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