Joseph Mallord William Turner The Thames near Walton Bridges

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Shipwreck
Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘The Shipwreck’

The Shipwreck

John Wain

This canvas yells the fury of the sea.
Across a quiet room, where people murmur
their poised appreciations, it shrieks out
the madness of the wind.
How can that be?
Woven of voiceless threads, its pigments laid
with ‘no more sound than the mice make’, it hurls
the tempest at my eardrums, and my eyes
smart in the lashing spray. But not before
the colours of tragedy have enkindled them:
it must be so, because the colours hold
the secret. They are noise, and tilt, and steepness.
The colours are through, and crash, the cry of gulls
lifted and blown away like part of the spume.
The colours are the bawling of the wind.
That yellow sail, its mast snapped sideways, catches
into itself and holds that gleam of light
amid the livid waters, the evening gleam
through torn black cloud as the sullen day departs.
One last message of life. Over and out.
The people in the small escaping boat
(too frail for the uncaring slide and smash
of those tall water-cliffs, promising only
ten minutes more of life, of clinging on
before the toppling plunge) see in that yellow
the last of life that they will ever see.
A goodbye signal, perhaps a welcoming
to those new neighbours, whoever they will be,
who wait for them on the other side of darkness,
below the clap of the waves and lace of foam
down there in the dark, and then below the dark,
in the calm of the still depths (the most tremendous)
storm makes no disturbance below nine fathoms).
Will their new world be down on the ocean-floor,
among the caves? Or, following the blown gulls,
through some still gleaming crevice of the sky?
Or will they start again on the green earth,
as newts this time, or leaning-tower giraffes,
or crocodiles who lie still as old tyres
in estuary mud?  Or human children
wit h different facial bones and frizzy hair?
Or will they be the atoms of the water
next time, and hammer some trim ketch to planks
and floating spars? Will they be starfish, lying
five-pointed on the beach these voyagers
would give, in this death-minute, everything
they ever owned to be treading, calmly, now?
Who knows? What we can ask, I think, is
whether death will seem beautiful to them when it comes,
and to us, for that matter, after the pain
is over, I mean. Many great artists have
extolled the beauty of death, have loved and called to it,
and Turner here seems to be saying  Now
I will show you how terror and agony
and the utterly final arrival of death can distil
an essence of beauty-in-terror, and enrichment
in the moment of final relinquishment of all:
as if it took that knowledge, that edge of torment,
to peel away the cataract from our vision,
to reveal the beauty of those mad waters
and that last gleam of light from a hostile day.
Meanwhile one thing I know: the silent canvas
has stored the howl and thunder of that hour,
the yell of death in the ears of the sacrificed;
the last groan of the timbers, the frantic slap
of the saturated sail. Canvas to canvas. Sound
to silence, through the artist’s compassionate mind,
and back to sound again, as I stand here.

Oh, it has ‘painterly values’ too, and can be discussed
in purely abstract terms: but not now, not now.
Some other time, not in the presence of
the human creatures, air-breathers, gulping their last,
and the sea’s roaring that never will be quenched,
and beyond, the starfish at his supine vigil
on the final beach whose shingle we shall be.

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Thames near Walton Bridges
Joseph Mallord William Turner The Thames near Walton Bridges

John Wain was born and bred in Staffordshire, has spent the last fifty years mostly in Oxford, with incidental spells in London, Paris and New York. In a working life that has involved many kinds of writing (fiction, biography, autobiography, drama, polemic, and literary and social criticism) his first and most consistent love has been poetry: his first book, in 1951, was the traditional ‘ slim volume’ of poems, and it was followed by eight more volumes of his own poetry plus a string of anthologies, notable Everyman’s Book of Enlish Verse (1981) and the Oxford Library of English Poetry (1986).
In 1973 Oxford University elected him to serve his five-year term as its Professor of Poetry, an experience described in Professing Poetry (1977). In the last ten years, he has been largely occupied with a long sequence of novels set in Oxford (Where the Rivers Meet, Comedies, Hungry Generations), and has written very little verse; as he puts it, ‘I have a trickle of creativity which never stops and never increases, and if it goes into one thing it doesn’t go into another.’  But he hopes soon to resume his involvement in poetry, both as practitioner and critic.
His contribution to With a Poet’s Eye led to his marriage to the book’s editor, Pat Adams, which was, to quote him again, ’the most generous payment ever received for a poem.’ 

Joseph Mallord William Turner yacht approaching the coast
Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘Yacht approaching the coast