World Spaces of the Sea: A Childhood of Love on the High Seas

“O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms” (They embrace)
– From Pericles

I don’t quite remember when I fell in love with the idea seafaring, or the trope of ocean-divided loves. Growing up so inundated with stories and poetry, it is hard to point to the bellwether. I was not very romantic as a child, nor have I exhibited any talent for sailing, but since I was a kid I have been intensely affected by stories of seafaring, of lost loves, and of long awaited reunions across the seas. Some people love the story of the hero’s journey, but I loved a different story: the there-and-back-again stories of the high seas. My earliest memory of seafaring is the poem The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, which I mostly remember because of the edition we owned, a beautiful copy illustrated by Jan Brett. My first memories of sailing come from this poem, and the lines:
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose.

The poem used vocabulary I was unfamiliar with, which made it exotic. The illustrations by Jan Brett gave the poem more depth. The Owl and the Pussycat carry around a goldfish and a fruit basket on their voyage on a ship named “Promise.” The intricacies of the illustrations, down to the colonial shutters on the colorful Caribbean buildings, transported me. Not very long after I was introduced to Beatrix Potter, as we owned a collection of her stories read allowed on tape, accompanied by her illustrated volume. Her longest story, The Tale of Little Pig Robbin, published in 1930 – sixty years after Edward Lear wrote his children’s poem – is an explanation of how the pig from The Owl and the Pussycat came to travel to the “land where the Bong-Tree grows” and get the “ring in his nose.” This was probably my first experience with The Great Conversation, and it blew my mind.


Again, the vocabulary that Potter used was way beyond the capabilities of my mind (I was probably three when first introduced to this story), but it was in the gaps of my understanding where I relished the barrenness of it. Little Pig Robbin watched “a shoal of silvery fishes” on seas that were “completely becalmed.” I had no idea what this meant, but I loved it. The story was scary, with kidnappings and high sea adventures. Combined with other picture books such as Holling’s Seabird, the story of a 1850’s whaling ship, and Paddle-to-the-Sea, the story of a tiny carved canoe’s journey to the Atlantic from Canada, I had a great fear and respect for the ocean before I was even old enough to associate it with the physical water that surrounded me, living walking distance from Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn.

I loved the sea and nautical adventure – all when found in literature – but I never associated any of these passions with the real ocean. Growing up I would go to the beach and stick my toes in the water, but I had not the desire to jump in a sailboat. The interest I had in the seafaring was based in the time period or fantasy land where sea travel was the only form of travel, when there was still more to be explored. With airplanes and maps that showed all the details of the earth, there were no “here be monsters.” The mystery was gone, but in literature it was endless. Once I was a little older my parents got a set of the Narnia novels, dramatized by BBC Radio 4. We also had the actual books to read, but at that time the dramatized stories on tape were more magical for me than CS Lewis’ stories. Particularly, of course, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I liked the rest of Narnia well enough, but Treader was by far my favorite. This is mostly due to the excellence of the BBC dramatization, which gave the story an added layer of magic. My favorite part was when the characters take a sailboat through a sea of lilies at the end of the world, and Reepicheep sings:
Where the sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.

Treader is a slow-moving episodic adventure, in the vein of other great seafaring novels like The Odyssey. In Treader I learned more about ships themselves: the cabins, which Lewis described as “bright with painted panels, all birds and beasts and crimson dragons and vines,” how sails and docking works, and what the forecastle, port-side, and starboard are. While on the Treader they encounter dragons, cursed gods, islands of nightmares, and strange little dwarf men. One of the aspects of Treader that interested me was the very hasty romance between Caspian and Ramandu’s daughter, a fallen star and future Queen of Narnia, who is featured in three of Lewis’ books but is never given a name. Lewis writes most of his female characters really beautifully, but he has a clear aversion to portraying adults (especially adult females) in his novel as well-rounded people, evident in his treatment of Susan as she grows older. Even as a kid it struck me as odd that Lucy and Edmund, who had grown to adulthood in Narnia, did not have trouble adjusting back to being helpless children, dependent on the whims of adults. I was already a sucker for a good romance when I was when introduced to Narnia, and I loved how Caspian fell for a star at a dinner party at the literal end of the world, the Utter East. It wasn’t well developed in Lewis’ novel, but the dramatization gave Ramandu’s nameless daughter more depth, and my imagination carried it the rest of the way. Caspian leaves her at the end of the world, but promises to come back for her. In The Silver Chair, we learn that he keeps that promise.

This was my first foray into love, separated by the seas. And from Caspian and his star, right up to today, that has been my favorite plot device in romances – and I will fall for it every time, no matter how it’s executed. We also had E Nesbit’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare on tape, which we listened to long before I would have been able to read the real things. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a feel-good play filled with pirates and prostitutes, and honestly I don’t really remember how the children’s version worked around the brothels. Pericles is another Homeresque episodic sea adventure, taking place in several ports around the Mediterranean Sea. After years of adventure, countless shipwrecks and famine, Pericles settles down. He is traveling home with his pregnant wife when another storm hits. His wife Thaisa dies in childbirth during the storm, and the crew pushes her in a wooden coffin overboard, because they think her body is bringing them bad luck. Pericles, heartbroken, leaves his infant daughter Marina with friends and goes off to continue his adventures. The friends betray him, selling Marina to a brothel. But this is Shakespeare, so Thaisa isn’t really dead –  she washed up ashore in her coffin, and became a priestess of Diana in response to her bereavement of her husband and daughter. The three members of the family are reunited again after Pericles find his daughter alive (awkwardly, in a brothel), and is visited by Diana in a dream, telling him where to find Thaisa. The parents and daughter celebrate their reunion with tears all around.
Flesh of thy flesh, Thaisa;
Thy burden at the sea, and call’d Marina
For she was yielded there.
(Act V Scene III)

Again, I was introduced to this story way before I could have processed Shakespeare’s actual worlds, but the dramatic readings along with a 1997 illustrated edition of E Nesbit’s stories brought the storms and threats of the Mediterranean to life. Pericles and Thaisa were romantic, and their very “adult” story appealed to me. Last spring I was able to see Pericles performed at Theater for New Audiences, and although it is not Shakespeare’s finest or most original work, seeing the story I had loved so much since before I even knew how to read was one of the best moment of the year. Though the next few years, I read Confession of Charlotte Doyle, Carry on Mr Bowditch, The Search for Delicious, The Music of the Dolphins, Swallows and Amazons, Kidnapped, a children’s version of Swiss Family Robinson, Baby Island, and Captains Courageous (which to be fair, I didn’t love). At this time more than just literature was feeding my hunger for the nautical. The PBS show Liberty’s Kids was one of my favorites, which first aired after my eleventh birthday. Set during the Revolution, the characters Sarah and James wrote letters to each other across the Atlantic. They encountered pirates and were captives on British war ships; they spent a good amount of the show generally on boats and/or pining for each other (or at least what I interpreted as pining). I loved nautical history as well as mythology. As a young girl I was fascinated in all forms of art, and looked for the themes I’d come to love wherever I could find it. Some of my favorite paintings at the Met included Lair of the Sea Serpent by Elihu Vedder, and Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. These paintings scared me and excited me, leaving plenty of room for the imagination. Even real places I visited in New England were magical because they has so much of the imagery and architecture I was drawn to.

When I was nine or ten, my mom gave my sister and I a catalog from the publisher Bethlehem Books, which reprinted old historical fiction novels, and she told us to circle any ones we were interested in. My sister and I circled one titled Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker, and I accidentally changed my life. Dencey has been my favorite book ever since – since about 2001. It is the ultimate story of an ocean-sized love, set in Nantucket during the early 1800s, in a whaling community. It’s a Quaker story, a love story, and a sea story. Demure Quaker child Dencey strikes up a friendship with Jetsam, a bastard being raised by a abusive woman. She takes him under her wing, teaches him to read, and brings him into her home. It is a subtle story of love and redemption, set within the warmth of the Quaker community, with the threats of the rest of the world looming over them. Dencey craves adventure – to see Easter Island and sail like her father, but the expectations of her community traps her. In the end, Jetsam leaves for his first sea voyage, leaving Dencey behind, right at the start of what might be their love story.
“Only a moment. Dionis broke away sobbing. She ran down the path toward home. She did not once look around. She had not said ‘yes,’ she had not even said ‘good-bye.’ Yet, as she ran, there came upon her again that sense of belonging to Jetsam– the terrible, intimate responsibility for him. She could not tell whether it was intense sadness or intense sorrow.”

The end left me flabbergasted. I’d never read anything like it – and it has stood the test of time. As an adult, I can still find nuances to the novel that I had not noticed before. The year of my fifteenth birthday, I attended a curriculum fair with my mom. We’d recently found out that a sequel to Dencey existed, but it wasn’t in print. The one printer who had sold it last was at this fair, so we searched stacks of books until we found it. The Beckoning Road. I spent the rest of the day sitting in a corner while she shopped, reading with an overwhelming excitement. The sequel is more mature, since the characters are more mature. Jetsam is assumed dead in a shipwreck. Dencey waits and waits… and then stops waiting. Dencey falls for someone else. I was still too young to understand how someone could be in love with two people in their lifetime, without one canceling out or invalidating the other. It was incredibly stressful, but it did not disappoint. When Jetsam finally arrives home, years later, it reads –
“Thee is alive,” she faltered. (,,,) These two small human creatures had found each other in spite of the world spaces of the sea. The old song was wise that saith:
Over oceans and mountains
Love will find a way.

I was fourteen when I read The Beckoning Road. That same year I also read The Odyssey for the first time, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was released, and Desmond and Penny were reunited on LOST. I probably spent half of that year in tears over lovers divided by oceans. To this day, there is nothing I enjoy more than an emotionally fraught couple who has been separated for a decade. In my freshman year of highschool, my mom had me read a dozen texts from antiquity – short plays, The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, excerpts of The Quran. I enjoyed it all, as schoolwork. But reading The Odyssey was like coming home. The edition I read was Robert Fitzgerald’s 1965 translation, a poetic rather than prosaic translation. I’ve tried other translators, but Fitzgerald will always be my standard. It was beautiful, like nothing I had read before. After having read so many books that mimicked the style or structure of the episodic adventures of The Odyssey, to read the source was wonderful. I’d been familiar with the story most of my life, from studying Greek history, and Fitzgerald’s version felt comfortable and natural to me. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d feared, considering I was only fourteen. The mythological creatures and adventures that beset Odysseus at every turn are just classic. Sirens, Circe, Scylla, Poseidon, it was all familiar lore, which I was finally reading in it’s “original” form. And oh my God, the ending.
“You make my stiff heart know that I am yours.”

There is a maturity to The Odyssey that even The Iliad does not have. It might be one of the first books I ever read about marriage, rather than falling in love. The difference there, the maturity and history needed to make it through ten years of separation and the unknown, is what makes this story one of my favorite classics. For a long time, I’ve considered The Odyssey to be truly one of my favorite books. It’s my “desert island” book, because I could read it a thousand times and never catch everything. I look to Homer and find these eternal stories that are still being retold in fun and interesting ways. It’s just good. There is a reason humanity is still drawn to it. I love this passage from Fitzgerald, after Penelope and Odysseus are reunited.
Few men can keep alive through a big surf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.

During my early teens one of my most formative influences was Pirates of the Caribbean. The nautical visuals of those film, from brine crusted men to a mermaid in a glass coffin, are like nothing else I’ve seen in movies. My first trip to Disney World was when I was twelve and it absolutely blew me away visually. Every piece of seaglass and every barnacle is purposefully placed. It was my dream come true. I’d never found that “here be monsters” magic in the real world, but in Disney World it was everywhere. I was young enough to still play pretend, “headgaming” as I called it, which I continued till fourteen or fifteen. Pirates, and Disney in general, caught me in the balance between childhood and adolescence. It’s not a book, but it needs to be mentioned because the epic love story and tragic separation of Will and Elizabeth haunted me on the tails of The Odyssey and The Beckoning Road. Like Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus or Pericles, Thaisa and Marina, the Turners lose and find each other with the help (and hindrance) of mythological creatures and deities. Like Reepicheep’s “Utter East,” the sea in Pirates had no end. It is such a big world with so much space for the imagination. It had callbacks to classic stories I was already familiar with, set within a world without limits.  The sequels aren’t perfect, but they are pure mythological masterpieces. The mermaids in the fourth film are so carefully crafted that I can’t discredit the film. The sea shanty they sing is infectious.
Come all you pretty fair maids, whoever you may be
Who love a jolly sailor bold that ploughs the raging sea,
While up aloft, in storm or gale, from me his absence mourn,
And firmly pray, arrive the day, he home will safe return.

They’re not movies to me, they’re more than that. It might be embarrassing to admit, but they are formative pieces of my personality. Finally, at sixteen, on the heels of the mania of Pirates, I read the other nautical masterpiece, Moby Dick. It did not effect me the way that Homer did, but I read it aware of it’s place in the literary world. Parts of it gave me that feeling of belonging, like I’d been a whaler’s wife in a past life, but overall, though I respected Ahab and his journey, it did not resonate with me. It was too “man,” not enough “human.” Odysseus’ story is one of man vs nature to an extent, but Melville’s man vs self, cloaked as man vs nature did not quite do it for me. It still has a special place in my heart, but in the moment it was a disappointment. If I reread it now, I might warm to it – I have more patience for “man” stories since my bizarre experience with Hemingway. More than the story, what I loved was the language, the old fashioned, dense narrative of Moby-Dick.
As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.

I’ve been drawn to this imagery in literature, films, art, and music again and again. In Running of the Tide by Esther Forbes, in Game of Thrones, in Brooklyn and Atonement, and of course, with the twenty year separation mid-marriage and episodic seafaring adventure, in Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager. This nautical obsession goes beyond reason. I don’t know why I’m like this. I love that ships have names – The Dawn Treader, The Black Pearl, The Promise, The Artemis. I love the aesthetic of rope knots and glass floats. I love the mythology of the ocean, right down to sea monks. Several years ago I tried to write a reverse-gender retelling of The Odyssey set on a whaling ship, about a girl trying to find her father. I might pick the idea back up again one day. And although my corner of the Atlantic is neither pretty nor mysterious, one of my favorite parts of traveling has been seeing the ocean in a new light. I have a piece of brain coral from Colombia and a striped red rock from Scotland on my dresser. It was easier to recognize the majesty of the sea on the beaches there. I’ve never understood where this part of me came from, other than the early influences I had in the stories my mother exposed me to. I am drawn to Homer’s basic outline in any and all manifestations, right down to The Hobbit and O Brother Where Art Thou. It’s a timeless story, which I saw echoes of all through my childhood, until those echoes brought me to the original source, and back out again, towards a dozen other homages.

I am not a very adventurous person, but I’d like to believe that if I had a map with an Utter East, that I’d be brave enough to go, and that I’d also get home safe. The structure of The Odyssey (and Dawn Treader, Pericles, Pirates of the Caribbean, Downright Dencey, Voyager, and all the others) is one where you can have your cake and eat it too. Ultimate adventure, filled with fear and horror and separation. But then, in the end, home is waiting for you. Family is there. For the reader is it consequenceless adventure, with every low and high a human can hit. In the romance, it starts with the heartbreak and ends with the joy. It’s the saddest story you know, and the most joyous ending you’ve experienced. On the sea, it is a maze of endless possibility and plot twists. It can be two months or twenty years, historical, magical, or modern. It is my favorite story, and always will be.

Sarah V Diehl


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