Herman Melville hardly mentions the tide until the final — the 135th — chapter of Moby-Dick
. As Captain Ahab at last faces his doom, he tells Starbuck: "Some men die at ebb tide, some at low water, some at the full of the flood." He is issuing a rational refutation of a traditional shore-dweller’s belief that people only die when the tide is going out.
Yet we should not be surprised that this seafaring classic skimps on tidal detail. In Sailing Alone Around the World
, too, Joshua Slocum largely confines his discussion of tides to when he is at anchor or when he comes close to the shore rounding some cape or other. For it is not, as you might think, out at sea where the effect of the tide is most felt. It is along the coast that we think we know so well that the tide is most visible, most affecting — and most terrifying.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, of course. Alexander Pope taught us that. And in his Essay on Man
, the poet attacks the scientists of his age who wanted to know what he thought should remain unknowable. In the section of the verse that opens with the famous lines: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan," he derides those who would "Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides" — all tasks made newly urgent by Newton’s breakthrough theory of gravitation.
Unlike the weather, the tide is a natural phenomenon that may be predicted with great accuracy and yet is still wild and in some sense unknowable. Practical tide tables for important ports have existed since medieval times, and today it is possible to consult the tide times from the distant past to the far future for thousands of locations around the globe. Yet the tide remains a kind of mystery too. It is that rare thing, a cosmic force that may be directly seen in action. This duality is the essence of the tide’s appeal to writers of all sorts.
St Thomas Aquinas
chose the movement of the tides as evidence for the existence of God because it was the kind of thing that might persuade even an agnostic. Unregulated, unexplained movement might be something supernatural, conjured up by the devil. But the ceaseless motion of the tides, occurring in a relatively predictable way within apparently ordained limits — that could only be something divine. Thus, too, the Victorian "navy hymn": "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" with its lines about God "Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep / Its own appointed limits keep." Or, as Wordsworth put it in "The Triad": "What more changeful than the sea? / But over his great tides / Fidelity presides."
The regularity of the tides is there to be exploited by those who know them well. Charles Dickens grew up on the Kent shores of the Thames estuary, and his novels reveal the Thames tides as both a highway and a clock governing the lives of those who work on and by the river. In Our Mutual Friend
, Gaffer Hexam plies the waters looking to salvage what he can from the flotsam — including human bodies — transported by the tide. And in Great Expectations
, the tides provide the means by which Pip tries to help Magwitch escape to freedom.
Even those who move away from the coast find they are still ruled by the tides. Ellida, the eponymous character in Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea
, is the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper who "pines for the roaring tides," having moved to the mountains and married a provincial doctor. One day, she is visited by her long-lost lover, a sailor who has had to go on the run after he murdered his ship’s captain. Her husband concedes her ultimate freedom to choose between them. But the sailor’s return has come too late: "Henceforth," she tells him, "you are nothing but a shipwreck in my life that I have tided over." (Today, the phrase "to tide over" usually refers to a loan made to alleviate a temporary financial difficulty, but in its original meaning it refers to the ability of a ship to steer over a sunken obstacle by using the high tide.) Ellida’s husband can only wonder at her decision: "Your mind is like the sea — it has ebb and flow."
In most mythology, the moon is the symbol of the feminine, pair to the powerful masculine sun. What then of the sea? Its tides are raised by the moon. Perhaps it is feminine too, as Ibsen seems to suggest. That notion is sardonically echoed by Byron in Don Juan
, where he writes, misquoting Shakespeare’s speech of Brutus in Julius Caesar
, "There is a tide in the affairs of women, / Which, taken at the flood, leads — God knows where."
Ernest Hemingway describes Cuban fishermen in The Old Man and the Sea
debating whether it is "la mar" or "el mar." The younger men tend to regard the sea as a male adversary. "But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours."
A woman might view matters differently, of course, even if she has never been to the coast. Emily Dickinson
travels only in her mind in a verse that begins: "I started Early — Took my Dog — / And visited the Sea —" She arrives to a fairy tale scene of mermaids and frigates. But when she imagines the rising tide, it is personified as a physical assault:
But no Man moved Me — till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe —
And past my Apron — and my Belt
And past my Boddice — too —
With the tide or the man at her heels, she flees up to "the Solid Town" where "bowing — with a Mighty look — / At me — The Sea withdrew —"
Around the British Isles, the tides generally rise further and run faster than they do in Norway or Cuba or Massachusetts. So it is not surprising to find that they often convey greater peril. In an echo of a gruesome Viking custom, the rising tide has been employed in both history and fiction as an instrument of slow death. The typical procedure involves lashing the victim to a post that lies above the low tide mark but below the high tide. By leaving a pitiless nature to finish the job, man washes his hands of the execution. Meanwhile, the inevitable wait for the tide to rise offers a tantalizing interval for rescue. Such scenarios are played out in various ways in Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea
, in Ethyl Smyth’s Cornish opera, The Wreckers
, and in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
, where Captain Hook abandons Tiger Lily to be swallowed by the tide on Skull Rock.
With life at stake, the tireless workings of the tide offer themselves up as powerful metaphor. Pick your own moment in the endless cycle. The flood is a disaster — or a bounty. The ebb is a melancholic loss. The tide’s constant motion is fickleness. Its guaranteed return is certainty.
There are many cycles of the tide in George Crabbe’s epic poem of town life, The Borough
, which is loosely based on Aldeburgh in Suffolk where he was briefly a curate. In one scene, entitled "Amusements," a boatload of trippers row out to a shingle bank offshore. They land and are enjoying the thrill of being surrounded by the sea — "a prospect wild and new" — when they discover that their boat has drifted off and the tide is rising around them: "Now rose the water through the lessening sand, / And they seem’d sinking while they yet could stand." Miraculously, some seamen spy their drifting vessel and rescue them. Duly chastened by their experience, they step ashore resolved to turn to God.
In Matthew Arnold
’s "Dover Beach," on the other hand, the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the ebb is a symbol for the loss of faith. In Arnold’s gloomy vision, it seems terminal; this tide will not return.
However, greater attention paid to truth to nature reveals a somewhat different picture. For the tide also rises. Longfellow
acknowledges this in his poem "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," whose three verses each end with those lines, placing the human dramas described before in their cosmic context. And in this more accurate portrayal, Maya Angelou
identifies a cause for optimism:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of many books, including Anatomies
, Periodic Tales
, and The Most Beautiful Molecule
, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize. He lives in Norfolk, England. The Tide: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth
is his most recent book.