One of the most amazing scientific feats of my lifetime was Robert Ballard’s discovery of the ruins of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The Titanic, as its name suggests, is a pretty large object, but looking for it on the sea floor was like trying to find a contact lens on a hockey rink.
The photos Ballard’s team took of Titanic artifacts impressed me all the more because they seemed to be a case of life imitating art. Imitating, specifically, “The Convergence of the Twain”, Thomas Hardy’s great poem. Objects that Ballard’s expedition found on the ocean’s floor (note: brief slideshow) seemed to echo lines from Hardy’s poem. The “gilded gear” that Hardy imagined in the immense loneliness of the ocean depths came to life in the expedition’s photography.
“The Convergence of the Twain” is a very grand poem, full of unusual words, an attempt to throw all the resources of the English language at one of the most momentous historical events of Hardy’s lifetime. Two of the common elements of Countdown poems are operating in “The Convergence” at full throttle. First, there’s the imagination of something sublime (the “Immanent Will” that brings ship and iceberg together), realized in precise, sharply-etched details.
Second, there’s the strongly heightened, energetic language. The poem, like many we’re studying, has a unique form. Each three-line stanza rhymes AAA, with the first two lines very short and the third very long indeed. The effect is oddly like that of waves, retreating, building, and breaking again – in fact, Hardy imagines “cold currents” at the bottom of the sea, though one supposes that in real life there are no waves there, and not much movement of any kind. The effect, whatever its verisimilitude, is that of ceaseless, inexorable movement.
“The Convergence of the Twain” is an attempt to do justice in art to an event too enormous to contemplate by any other human means – and to imagine the aftermath of a disaster that it took another 75 years of technological progress to uncover.