Hardy’s poem begins with the image of the Titanic “in a solitude of the sea / Deep from human vanity.” It is a ruin. Frigid waters flow through the “steel chambers” of the engine room, which once “late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires.” Beasts of the sea—“grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent”—crawl “Over the mirrors meant / To glass the opulent.” The ornamentation of the cruise liner is dimmed, “bleared and black and blind.” Where human beings once walked, “Dim moon-eyed” fish swim instead. Hardy anthropomorphizes them, has the fish ask, “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” What caused the wreckage?
Hardy’s answer is “The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything.” As the engineers, mechanics, and builders fashioned the Titanic in Belfast Harbor, they had no awareness of that “Immanent Will,” which unbeknownst to them “prepared a sinister mate / For her—so gaily great— / A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.” The ship and her nemesis were intimately connected: “And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.” In retrospect the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the christening of theTitanic was pitiable. The iceberg was always out there. It was always waiting.
Watching the strange mix of clumsiness and insouciance with which Barack Obama and John Kerry approach the world, the abstract and aloof manner in which they comment and posture on foreign affairs, it is hard not to recall Hardy’s metaphor of growing dangers distant from the center of civilization. The recent news of a possible terrorist plot against airliners flying to the United States, and of a threat against the U.S. embassy in Uganda, remind us of the durability of the ideology and menace of Islamic terrorism. The ability of non-monarchical Arab governments to control their populations has collapsed, creating an arc of stateless space that begins in Libya and Egypt, is briefly interrupted by the tiny, embattled, belittled, and bullied Jewish State, and extends through Lebanon into Syria and western Iraq.
This is our iceberg.