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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Charles Goodrich Whiting (1842–1922)

[From The Saunterer. 1886.]

AND still it does not always satisfy. In those weary heats wherein the grasshopper and everything else becomes a burden, this mountain wind, with all its careering freedom and bounteous perfume of field and forest, is but a makeshift. The true elixir in midsummer faintness is the salt tonic of ocean, the essence of the world-embracing seas. Some cannot feel its full power unless free of the land, dandled by the waves and uncertain as to their horizons; but perhaps they get little on a voyage that is more valuable than what they might have on shore—besides sea-sickness. It is a matter of temperament, however, and to some it is delight to battle with the clashing elements, to “revel in their stormy faculties,” to sport with ocean and
  • “——on her breast to be
  • Borne like a bubble onward.”
  • The sea needs longer knowing than the hills, which to one who has the password of Nature offer at once their unstaled intimacy. The sea gives nothing to the stranger at the first, unless he find it in one of its grand moods, and it is not in such moods that friendship is formed. Summers and winters for a life are not too much to gain and satisfy that deep charm which the waves enfold. It is a mightier spell than that of the hills, for among them there abides no challenging personality, but the encompassing spirit of Nature; while the sea is itself personal, and the spirit that rides upon its waters is the spirit of God.

    The sea at calm of receding tide, beneath a burning sky and a still air, presents a curious aspect of sleeping power,—but only to one who has looked upon that power’s manifestation. To see it thus at first is not to cry, with Xenophon’s Greeks, “Thalatta! Thalatta!” but to echo the disappointed exclamation of Gebir,—

  • “Is this the mighty ocean? Is this all?”
  • Yet after knowing the ways of the waves, the sea is never more impressive than in this feline beauty of quiet, when the ripples make their purring murmur on the beach, and the sun lines the horizon with a band of blinding white.

    A better first meeting is as the surf rolls in strong at flood-tide, either on sand or shingle, or against the cliffs of some stern coast. Except when on shipboard in mid-ocean, the ship itself an inconsequent speck on a limitless expanse, man can hardly feel more insignificant than in facing a surf, urged by tide and beaten by winds up the beach. Each wave that curls and crests itself seems dashing down upon his head; and it is hard to realize the illusion, and that the rolling water will in a few moments fling its highest foam beneath his feet. Often the illusion extends farther, so that the whole ocean from the sky-line seems majestic rapids, irresistibly pouring to the land.

    The rocks reveal new phases. High on some cliff one looks upon broken masses of its constituent rock hurled in shapeless confusion around its base, and curiously observes where at some future instant the part on which one sits shall yield to the endless onset and join these age-old fragments. At each side the pounding waves have worn long galleries through softer strata, or beneath have carved “the coastwise mountain into caves.” They dash and sprinkle spray far up the crag, then drop and wash around its base, among the stones they have for ages been rounding and polishing, and retreat and gather for new assaults. With untiring interest and question one watches these blows,—so ponderous, so gracefully foam-fringed,—so notably alike, so continually varied,—so individual and irregular, so harmonious and rhythmic. These aspects of the sea, in which the white sails gleam on its wide fields, and it seems the welcoming or subject friend of man, are but its superficial character. Into its darker depths we who seek midsummer rest will not now pry; it may chance a word shall utter thence unsought. For it is on the shore that the ocean wreaks its power in expression; there, not on its bosom, that its voice is clearly heard; thence that its magic sends, and thither that it draws them “that go down unto the great deep.”…

    The sea-shore is full of wonder, yet full of rest. Nowhere can man be more potently awake, nowhere more happily asleep. The lull of the waves on the beach is better than any other croon of babyhood or echo of life. And when the storm rises, and the rush of the waters up the sands or their dash upon the rocks is heard, and the foamy spray tops the crag and booms and dashes far a-land, the whole sense wakes, and the pulse quickens to delight in elemental strife. The god of the storms knows well how the life of his creatures stirs under the assault of his minions of wind and rain and lightning. In the dawn that follows a night of storm, when everything smiles as if no force of Nature had been wrenched to its limit, what a surprise the day is! Has there ever before been a dawn like this?