scorecardresearch Skip to main content

What Thomas Hardy knew about the unknowable

We may never know what went wrong with the Titan submersible. A 111-year old poem about the Titanic can help us come to terms with that.

“The Convergence of the Twain” leans into not knowing.adobe images/globe staff photo illustration

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

These are the opening lines of the English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain,” which he wrote for a London benefit commemorating the victims of the Titanic on May 14, 1912, exactly one month after the ship’s fateful collision with an iceberg. The poem could also have been written in 2023 in the wake of the Titan disaster.

As a scholar of both literature and science, I’ve written about the communication technology aboard the Titanic, and I find the parallels between the Titanic and the Titan striking. Both vessels had experienced corner-cutting in terms of safety. Both claimed the lives of the rich. Both have drawn criticism for who got attention and who didn’t. Both held the world in suspense when communication with them was lost.

It will take a while to deduce what happened “deep from human vanity,” where the Titan collapsed. We may never find out. And we’ll certainly never know what thoughts and words passed among the five men aboard in their final moments, just as we can’t know what was expressed among passengers after the Titanic’s wireless telegrams went silent.

The Titanic disaster produced an unprecedented groundswell of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic from literati and laypeople alike. Everyone from folk-blues singer Lead Belly to Katherine Lee Bates of “America the Beautiful” fame contributed, and the disaster was treated as a microcosm of the new century’s socioeconomic, racial, and political problems. Editors at The New York Times had to implore readers — twice — to stop sending their verse. Like the transatlantic hurricane of Titanic poems, Titan tweets are everywhere, memorializing the passengers, expressing disbelief and despair, and extending consolation to the victims’ families and friends.

Hardy’s poem doesn’t do that.

“The Convergence of the Twain” leans into not knowing, the breakdown of the ship’s wireless communications, our inability to understand what really happened. “Dim, moon-eyed fishes” wonder what the wreck means; a “dumb, indifferent” sea-worm creeps over the “blind” fragments; “No mortal eye could see” not just the “paths coincident” of the iceberg and ship but the point of collision.

In times of tragedy, the poem suggests, our greatest task is not the assigning of meaning but the reestablishment of communication. As E.M. Forster put it in the same era, “Only connect.”

Generations have revisited Hardy’s poem, puzzled over it, and even rewritten it. In the wake of 9/11, British poet laureate Simon Armitage wrote his own version, homing in on the paradox of communication surrounding that disaster: countless “cameras framed / moments of grace / before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused,” and yet “All land lines are down. / Reports of mobile phones / are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.” Such frustrating ignorance amid wall-to-wall coverage is a peculiar predicament of our time.

That’s where poetry comes in. Like a ritual, we return to, recite, repeat, remember poems, not in hopes of understanding more but of communing over life’s essential unknowability. A poem cannot be paraphrased; neither can a tragedy. Today as much as a century ago, “The Convergence of the Twain” reaffirms that dwelling in this truth, too, is sacred.

Justin C. Tackett is Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in English and comparative literary studies at the University of Warwick in England.