Analysis, Central Idea and Theme of The Wreck of the Titanic
Critical Analysis of The Wreck of the Titanic:
“The Wreck of the Titanic” is a narrative poem. In this poem, the poet tells us a story that he believes is worth telling – that of the RMS Titanic. As he’s describing the events leading from the start of its voyage to the moment at which it sinks, we can see it all happening before our eyes. Every word in the poem is devoted to expressing the magnificence of the ship itself, and the valiant behavior of its crew, led by the now famous Captain Edward John Smith. In fact, the poem is so detailed that we can see in it the precursor to James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. Both are epic in their scale and dramatic in their presentation. Keith captures the shock and helplessness experienced by the passengers of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg very well. By showing how the passengers were filled with optimism at the start of the voyage, he creates an effective contrast between that and their later despair. The fact that they vehemently trusted that the Titanic would never sink makes us sympathize with them that much more at the time of its sinking. However, Keith focuses much more on the crew than on the passengers of the Titanic. His description makes it clear that he had great respect for the brave-hearts who tried their utmost to save as many passengers as they could. They had no fear for their own lives but rather devoted themselves to helping others. They were so organized that they had an entire plan for evacuation ready as soon as the ship struck the iceberg. They were sympathetic to the weaker among the passengers, allowing women and children to escape first.
Keith also captures the despair of the Captain very poignantly. He knew he had let down everyone who had depended on him, and so he could not forgive himself. This guilt, coupled with his love for the Titanic itself, made sure that he did not even attempt to move out of the bridge from which he had been issuing commands. The most enduring picture given by Keith is off the band, who continued to play as the ship was going down. These extraordinary men knew there was no chance of them being saved, and so they gave their last moments to singing a hymn to God, for it was by His will that they would live and die.
Stanza-wise Annotation of The Wreck of the Titanic:
Please note: N= noun, V=verb, Adj=Adjective, Adv=Adverb, P=Preposition
Southampton: The largest city in the ceremonial county of Hampshire on the south coast of England, situated 121 km south-west of London, a major port, and also the starting point of the Titanic’s maiden voyage
Swung (V): Past tense of the word “swing”, that is, to move or cause to move in a smooth, curving line
On Board: On or in a ship, aircraft, or other vehicles
Haven (N): A place of safety or refuge
Nevermore (Adv): At no future time; never again
Voyage (N): A long journey involving travel by sea or in space
Loomed (V): Past tense of the word “loom”, that is, to appear as a vague form, especially one that is large or threatening
Ominous (Adj): Giving the worrying impression that something bad is going to happen; threateningly inauspicious
’Twas: Short form of the phrase “it was”
Stem (N): The main upright timber or metal piece at the bow of a ship, to which the ship’s sides are joined at the front end
Stern (N): The rearmost part of a ship or boat
Captain Smith: Edward John Smith, captain of RMS Titanic
Commander (N): A person in authority, especially over a body of troops or a military operation
Valor (N): Variant (American) spelling of the word “valour”, that is, great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle
Ne’er (Adv): Short form of the word “never”
Eternity (N): Infinite or unending time
The Titanic: RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean early on the morning of 15th April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK to New York City, US.
‘Neath (Adv): Short form of the word “beneath”
Nearer my God to Thee: 19th-century Christian hymn by Sarah Flower Adams, based loosely on Genesis 28:11–19, the story of Jacob’s dream, and also the alleged last song the band on RMS Titanic played before the ship sank
Glory (N): High renown or honor won by notable achievements
Charge (N): A headlong rush forward, typically in attack
Brigade (N): A subdivision of an army, typically consisting of a small number of infantry battalions and/or other units and forming part of a division
Prairie (N): A large open area of grassland, especially in North America
Belle (N): A beautiful girl or woman, especially the most beautiful at a particular event
Corridors (N): Plural form of the word “corridor”, that is, a long passage in a building from which doors lead into rooms
Sublime (Adj): (Of a person’s attitude or behavior) extreme or unparalleled
Noble (Adj): Having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles
Poetic Devices in The Wreck of the Titanic:
Each of the ten stanzas in “The Wreck of the Titanic” follows the same simple rhyme scheme – AABB. The sing-song quality that this rhyme scheme lends to the poem belies its sombre subject matter.
This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this poem, the poet uses the device of personification with respect to the Titanic. This is most apparent when he refers to the ship with the singular personal pronoun “she”.
This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this poem, the poet uses the device of metaphor in line 2 when he compares the ship called the Titanic with a poem composed of iron and steel and also compares it with a dream.
Poets often change the sequence of words in their lines in order to maintain the rhyme scheme chosen by them for that particular poem. In this poem, the poet uses the device of a transposed sentence in many instances. For example, in line 4, he writes “… the thousand on board, did security feel” instead of writing “… the thousand on board felt security”, the latter being the more grammatically correct of the two. Similarly, in line 17, he writes “… Captain Smith, her commander brave” instead of writing “Captain Smith, her brave commander”.
This rhetorical device is used to ask questions to which no reply is expected since the answers are absolutely obvious. In this poem, the poet uses the device of a rhetorical question in line 29 when he asks whether there was any scene as grand as that of the sinking Titanic, with its in-house band playing on. It is obvious that the poet thinks that no scene could be as grand or any grander.
Central Idea of The Wreck of the Titanic:
The Titanic was among the grandest ships ever built. All its passengers felt very safe on board. However, disaster struck when it was hit by an iceberg. However, the courage of its captain and crew were remarkable. It is because of them that the story of the Titanic is one of the great chapters of human history.
Themes of The Wreck of the Titanic:
The courage of the British:
In this poem, the crew is commanded to “be British” by Captain Smith as the Titanic is sinking. Being British is equated with being brave, both by the captain and by Keith himself as well. This may puzzle us because Keith is American. However, we must consider that America is a land of immigrants, and most of its inhabitants were descended from the British. It is very likely that Keith was descended from British ancestors as well. That is why he does not hesitate to glorify the British. Another thing worth noting is that American history is also not ignored by Keith here. He does compare the crew of the Titanic to British war heroes, but he also compares them with the brave men at the Alamo.
Dramatic use of music:
It is said that the band of the Titanic kept playing while the ship was sinking. However, we can safely assume that there is no sure shot way to confirm this. So the poet uses the description of the band playing a hymn that could not be any more appropriate to the situation at hand for dramatic purposes in this poem. This description heightens both our excitement and our respect for the men aboard the Titanic on the fatal day of its sinking.
The Tone of The Wreck of the Titanic:
The tone of this poem is not sombre or pessimistic in any way, as we would expect it to be since it deals with such a sad event. On the other hand, the tone is one of mounting excitement. More importantly, the tone is such that readers cannot help but respect Captain Smith and his crew.
“The Wreck of the Titanic” appeals to readers on two counts – for its visual imagery, and for its ability to stir up our nobler emotions. For these reasons, it is still read and enjoyed by people of all ages.