By Paths Coincident


Those of us who take an interest in the way language works are sometimes in danger of neglecting what it can do. In an attempt to redress any such imbalance, this post examines the way in which one of the masters of English exploits its possibilities.A sinister mate

Until my old school-friend Roy Blackman brought it to my notice, I hadn’t been aware of Thomas Hardy’s poem on the ‘Titanic’ (text below). Roy has created a series of paintings inspired by the poem, and, with his permission, I am pleased to be able show a few of these evocative works here.

Hardy’s poem is so intricately made that it would take a longer post to bring out all its subtleties. I’ll mention just a few. For a start, the title, in combining the Latin ‘convergence’ with the Germanic ‘twain’, foreshadows the bringing together of the two contrasts which are the subjec of the poem: the work of nature in the iceberg and the work of man in the ship.

IMG_0005The poem’s unusual form complements  the exceptional nature of the ‘Titanic’ disaster. In each stanza,  the first two lines have three feet, and the third six feet. Each stanza has one terminal masculine rhyme, repeated only once, where the rhymes meant, opulent and indifferent in the third stanza are echoed by bent, coincident and event in the tenth. Given those threes and sixes, we might have expected a poem of twelve stanzas, but, in giving it eleven, Hardy seems to depict a gap between our expectations and reality that reflects a similar gap on the part of the passengers and crew of the ‘Titanic’.

By paths coincident(1)Verbal clashes, such as that in the title, are apparent throughout the poem. In the last line of the first stanza the mundane ‘that planned her’ contrasts with the dislocated word order and rarefied vocabulary of ‘stilly couches she’. Similar contrasts follow in the next stanza: ‘steel chambers’ and ‘pyres’, ‘salamandrine’ and ‘fires’, ‘cold currents’ and ‘thrid’, ‘tidal’ and ‘lyres’.  ‘Thrid’ is a variant spelling of ‘thread’, having the extended meaning, in the OED’s definition, of ‘to pass through, make a hole through, penetrate, pierce’.

In the third stanza, Hardy contrasts the former opulence of the ‘Titanic’ with its present state on the sea bed. Its mirrors, which once reflected the images of the rich are now covered in sea-worms. The jewels that once embellished its fashionable passengers are now alliteratively ‘bleared and black and blind’.

IMG_0004Alliteration occurs again in the fifth stanza, where the fish ‘gaze at the gilded gear’, wondering what place all ‘this vaingloriousness’ has in the depths of the ocean. Hardy attempts an explanation in the following stanza, attributing everything to ‘the Immanent Will’ which,  whatever it is, has prepared ‘a sinister mate’. The word ‘mate’ is well chosen, describing, as it does, an assistant officer on a ship, but also denoting ‘shipmates’ (colleagues on a ship) and a sexual partner. The seventh stanza ends with the words ‘for the time far and dissociate’. The iceberg and the ship were made in places and ways that could hardly have been more different. ‘Alien they seemed to be’, but Hardy borrows the word ‘welding’ from the shipbuilding process to describe ‘their later history’.

IMG_0007Roy has called his collection ‘By Paths Coincident’, the second line of the tenth stanza. Once again, the juxtapostion of the Germanic and ordinary ‘paths’ and the unusual and Latinate ‘coincident’ reminds the reader of the cataclysmic union of two opposites. There is an added layer of meaning in the way in which the combination  ‘by’ and paths’ suggests ‘bypaths’, which formerly had a sinister overtone (for example, By what by-paths, and indirect crookt waies, I met this crowne’,  Henry IV, Pt. 2)). Finally, ‘coincident’ suggests ‘coincidence’, made ironically effective here because a coincidence is often either trivial or a ‘happy’ coincidence. Hardy also used coincidence to great effect in his novels.

IMG_0002In the final stanza, ‘the Spinner of the Years’ utters ‘Now!’ as if playing some hideous game. ”The Spinner of the Years’ seems to be that same ‘President of the Immortals’ who, at the end of ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ ‘had ended his sport with Tess.’ As an earlier poet had one of his characers say:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

That was a recurrent theme in Hardy’swork, and one which he skilfully handles here. Roy’s paintings are a fitting accompaniment.


The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)


In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …


Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.


And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,


Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,


Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.




Filed under Literature

2 responses to “By Paths Coincident

  1. My senior research project was called Convergence of the Twain: Thomas Hardy Victorian or Modern? I recited this poem (from memory) for my presentation. Thank you for bringing back fond memories.


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