Peter Batten muses on the age of Romanticism…
“Nothing to be done” says one of the tramps in Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’. Day after day they wait and hope that Godot will appear. (As I type this, my computer underlines Godot in red to tell me that it does not recognise this name. Am I sure this is correct?)
Over 200 years ago European culture entered the age of Romanticism. Despite many developments and changes, I believe it remains in that era. In Literature and Art one of the fundamental themes of Romanticism is the quest for meaning. When will Godot turn up to give meaning to our lives, to explain what our human experience has been about?
In the nineteenth century the expression of this quest often employed the Sea as a metaphor or symbol. The French poet Alfred de Vigny saw a message coming from a bottle floating in the sea. Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ had an experience at sea which left him shattered and bewildered. In the novel ‘Moby Dick’ Captain Ahab puts out to sea to wreak revenge on the White Whale. In other novels or poems the wilderness or the jungle is the place where men hope to find the key to life’s meaning. And, of course, the quest was not just fictional. Explorers from European culture were travelling to every corner of the globe in search of wealth or knowledge or just some meaningful experience. In Joseph Conrad’s great novel ‘The Heart of Darkness’ his narrator finds in the Congo truths about human nature which he would rather not have known. And, like the Ancient Mariner, he is left bewildered.
This long preamble is to lead you to a great English poem. Very few people are unfamiliar, in some form, with the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll. Not nearly as many have read his long poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ or ‘The Jabberwocky’, with which it has links. In the longer poem a crew of comic characters sail to a remote island in search of ‘The Snark’ In describing their adventure Carroll parodies or ridicules both the fictional voyagers of many novels and poems and the real life Dr Livingstones who ventured into unknown regions. He takes every opportunity to raise questions about identity, faith, fear, hope, and many other human dilemmas.
One of the explorers, the Baker, has been warned that the Snark could prove to be a ‘Boojum’. If that is the case, he will be in particular danger. If he confronts the Boojum he will disappear – never to be seen again! And that is exactly what happens at the end of the poem.
Some interpretations of the poem treat it as a quest for happiness. I prefer to see it as one more example of Romanticism’s search for meaning: the hope that Godot will finally turn up.
Whatever you find in the poem, I believe it is one of the masterpieces of our literature. I hope you will read it and enjoy it. There is a small, but very beautiful, edition of the poem with illustrations by Mervyn Peake. It may still be in print. That would be the ideal format in which to sample the poem.