Growing up, I did not have a mind for science or marine biology and I did not live in a part of the country where people’s livelihoods and daily habits intersect with the mercurial and vast entity that is the ocean. Despite my figurative landlocked status, as a young child, I was obsessed by the tragedy of the RMS Titanic and the ensuing discovery of the wreck some seventy-three years after it sank in the North Atlantic on a cold April evening in 1912.
Armed with a copy of Dr. Robert Ballard’s book about discovering the Titanic, I would get my parent’s to take me to the local public library where I would regularly borrow the accompanying National Geographic documentary that chronicled the construction, maiden voyage, sinking, and the long-fruitless search for the wreckage.
Even family vacations were not free of the specter of the Titanic. One visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia included a stop at the maritime museum and a search for the cemetery, where many of the passengers who perished were eventually buried. Another stop in Falls River included time at a museum that had the largest model of the Titanic I’ve ever seen. Located in a darkened room, the ship had all of its lights on and to a Titanic buff, all of six or seven years old, it was out of this world.
I even tried to get in touch with Dr. Ballard. Sometime in 1995 or 1996, a private company was looking to return to the wreckage site and bring items up for a travelling show. I was opposed to it given my belief that the site was, in many ways, a cemetery. My father and I spent one summer day trying to reach Ballard at Woods Hole. For me, the story of Titanic is at its core, a human one. The veteran Captain Smith ending his storied career by taking the Titanic out for her maiden voyage and going down with his ship. The cowardice of J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line chairman who pushed for higher speeds despite ice fields and placed himself in a lifeboat despite calls for “women and children.” The countless families who said their final goodbyes as lifeboats were released despite room for many more passengers. Or the decision of the Carpathia’s captain to answer the Titanic’s SOS, going full steam ahead through the same ice fields, and rescue the survivors. Closing my eyes, I can remember a painting from Ballard’s book that hovers over the bow of the Titanic as it sits on the ocean floor with the rear, off in the distance.
In my freshman year of high school, my English class read a poem that paralleled many of the storylines and human virtues associated with the Titanic. The symmetry between the Titanic and “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley are striking. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it is apt. Like the statue in Ozymandias, Titanic was touted to be the greatest ever, unsinkable due to its water tight compartments. The comfort to Ozymandias was his authoritarian power, to the White Star Line, the owners and builders of the Titanic, it was their unfailing belief in the infallibility of technology to conquer nature.
Some of Shelley’s language is eerily similar to the description of Titanic’s resting place. In the second line, he mentions two vast and trunkless legs, much like how the Titanic split under the pressure of sinking and fell to the sea floor in two major pieces.
Titanic’s resting place is only temporary. Even when it was discovered in 1985, scientists knew it was only a matter of time before the ocean broke down the structure to nothing more than dust. A recent article in the New York Post reports that this eventuality is happening at a faster pace than previously believed. Due to a bug that is eating away at the ship’s iron, Titanic will vanish by 2030. This once great ocean liner, proclaimed unsinkable, will be nothing more than a rust stain on the ocean floor in our life time.
It was this news that brought me back to the connection between Ozymandias and the Titanic. Over the years, my uber-fascination with the ship has waned, but my interest in its story, the people who brought it to life, and its fate has remained. Now as the Titanic, built in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff Yard, begins to slip permanently into history one last time, the final lines of Ozymandias stand as a memorial to the ship’s fate:
Nothing besides remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.