The RMS Titanic has played a prominent role in popular culture since her sinking in 1912, with the loss of over 1,500 of the 2,200 lives on board. The disaster and the Titanic herself have been objects of public fascination for many years. They have inspired numerous books, plays, films, songs, poems, and works of art. The story has been interpreted in many overlapping ways, including as a symbol of technological hubris, as basis for fail-safe improvements, as a classic disaster tale, as an indictment of the class divisions of the time, and as romantic tragedies with personal heroism. It has inspired many moral, social and political metaphors and is regularly invoked as a cautionary tale of the limitations of modernity and ambition.
"The Ship That Will Never Return", a song about the Titanic disaster by F.V. St Clair
The RMS Titanic has been commemorated in a wide variety of ways in the century after she sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. As D. Brian Anderson has put it, the sinking of Titanic has "become a part of our mythology, firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness, and the stories will continue to be retold not because they need to be retold, but because we need to tell them."
The intensity of the public interest in the Titanic disaster in its immediate aftermath can be attributed to the deep psychological impact that it had on the public, particularly in the English-speaking world. Wyn Craig Wade comments that "in America, the profound reaction to the disaster can be compared only to the aftermath of the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy ... the entire English-speaking world was shaken; and for us, at least, the tragedy can be regarded as a watershed between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." John Wilson Foster characterises the sinking as marking "the end of an era of confidence and optimism, of a sense of a new departure." Just two years later, what Eric Hobsbawm referred to as "the long nineteenth century" came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War.
There have been three or four major waves of public interest in Titanic in the later part of the 20th century. The first came immediately after the sinking, but ended abruptly a couple of years later due to the outbreak of World War I, which was a far bigger and much more immediate concern for most people. The second came with the publication of Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember in 1955. The discovery of the wreck of the Titanic by Robert Ballard in 1985 sparked a new wave of interest which has continued to the present day, boosted by the release of James Cameron's film of the same name in 1997. The fourth and final came with the capsizing of the Costa Concordia in 2012, just few months before the centenary of the Titanic disaster.
Even at the time, the high level of public interest in the disaster produced strong dissenting reactions in some quarters. The novelist Joseph Conrad (who was himself a retired sailor) wrote: "I am not consoled by the false, written-up, Drury Lane [theatrical] aspects of that event, which is neither drama, nor melodrama, nor tragedy, but an exposure of arrogant folly." As Foster points out, however, Titanic herself can be seen as a stage, with her rigid segregation between the classes and the ersatz historical architecture of her interiors. The maiden voyage itself had theatrical overtones; the advance publicity highlighted the historic nature of the maiden voyage of the world's largest ship, and a substantial number of passengers were aboard specifically for that occasion. The passengers and crew can be viewed as archetypes of stock roles, which Foster summarises as "Rich Man, Socialite, Unsung Hero, Coward, Martyr, Deserter of Post, Stayer at Post, Poor Emigrant, Manifest Hero, etc."
In such interpretations, the story of the Titanic can be seen as a kind of morality play. An alternative view, according to Foster, sees the Titanic as somewhere between a Greek and an Elizabethan tragedy; the theme of hubris, in the form of wealth and vaingloriousness, meeting an indifferent Fate in a final catastrophe is very much one that is drawn from classical Greek tragedies. The story also matches the template for Elizabethan tragedians with its episodes of heroism, comedy, irony, sentimentality and ultimately tragedy. In short, the fact that the story can so easily be seen as fitting an established dramatic template has made it hard not to interpret it that way.
Describing the disaster as "one of the most fascinating single events in human history," Stephanie Barczewski identifies a number of factors behind the continuing popularity of the Titanic's story. The creation and destruction of the ship are symbols of "what human ingenuity can achieve and how easily that same ingenuity can fail in a brief, random encounter with the forces of nature." The human aspects of the story are also a source of fascination, with different individuals reacting in very different ways to the threat of death – from accepting their fate to fighting for survival. Many of those aboard had to make impossible choices between their relationships: stay aboard with husbands and sons or escape, possibly alone, and survive but face an uncertain future. Above all, Barczewski concludes, the story serves to jolt people out of hubristic complacency: "at its heart [it is] a story that reminds us of our limitations."
The disaster has been called "an event that in its tragic, clockwork-like certainty stopped time and became a haunting metaphor" – not just one metaphor but many, which the cultural historian Steven Biel describes as "conflicting metaphors, each vying to define the disaster's broader social and political significance, to insist that here was the true meaning, the real lesson." The sinking of the Titanic has been interpreted in many ways. Some[who?] viewed it in religious terms as a metaphor for divine judgement over what they saw as the greed, pride and luxury on display in the ship. Others[who?] interpreted it as a display of Christian morality and self-sacrifice among those who stayed aboard so that women and children might escape. It could be seen in social terms as conveying messages about class or gender relations. The "women and children first" protocol seemed[who?] to some to affirm a "natural" state of affairs with women subordinated to chivalrous men, a view that campaigners for women's rights rejected. Some[who?] saw the self-sacrifice of millionaires like John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim as a demonstration of the generosity and moral superiority of the rich and powerful, while the very high level death toll among Third Class passengers and crew members was seen by others[who?] as a sign of the working classes being neglected. Many[who?] believed that the conduct of the mainly Anglo-American passengers and crew demonstrated the superiority of "Anglo-Saxon values" in a crisis. Still others[who?] viewed the disaster as the result of the arrogance and hubris of the ship's owners and the Anglo-American elite, or as a demonstration of the folly of putting one's trust in technology and progress. Such a wide range of interpretations has ensured that the disaster has been the subject of popular debate and fascination for decades.
Charles Hanson Towne's poem "The Harvest of the Sea", published in June 1912
The Titanic disaster led to a flood of verse elegies in such quantities that the American magazine Current Literature commented that its editors "do not remember any other event in our history that has called forth such a rush of song in the columns of the daily press." Poets' corners in newspapers were filled with poems commemorating the disaster, the lessons to be drawn from it and specific incidents that happened during and after the sinking. Other poets published their own collections, as in the case of Edwin Drew, who rushed into print a collection called The Chief Incidents of the 'Titanic' Wreck, Treated in Verse ("may appeal to those who lost friends in this appalling catastrophe") which he sent to President Taft and King George V; the copy now in the Library of Congress is the one that was sent to Taft. Individual passengers were frequently memorialised and in several cases were held up as examples, such as in the example of the millionaire John Jacob Astor who was commended for the ostensibly heroic qualities of his death. Charles Hanson Towne was typical of many in eulogising what Champ Clark called "the chivalric behaviour of the men on the ill-fated ship":
But dream not, mighty Ocean, they are yours!
We have them still, those high and valiant men
Who died that others might reach ports of peace.
Not in your jealous depths their spirits roam,
But through the world to-day, and up to heaven!
The poets' output was of highly variable quality. Current Literature called some of it "unutterably horrible" and none of it "magically inspired", though its editors conceded that some "very creditable" poems had been written. The New York Times was harsher, describing most of the poems it received as "worthless" and "intolerably bad". A key sign of quality was whether it had been written on lined paper; if it had, it was likely to be among the worst category. The newspaper advised its readers "that to write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one." John Sutherland and Stephen Fender nominate Christopher Thomas Nixon's lengthy poem The Passing of the Titanic (Sic transit gloria mundi) as "the worst poem to be inspired by the sinking of the Titanic":
Through deep-sea gates of famed Southampton's bay,
A mammoth liner swings in churning slide
Her regal treat ridged opaline gulfs asway
And gauntlet flings to chance, wind, shoal and tide.
Ark wonderful! Palatial town marine,
Invention's flowe, rose-peak of skill-wrought plan;
The jewelled crown of Art the wizard, seen
Since Noah's trade in Shinar's land began.
Established poets also addressed the disaster with mixed results. Harriet Monroe wrote what Foster calls an "upbeat hackneyed Victorian hymn" to the American dead:
Your fathers, who at Shiloh bled,
Accept your company ...
Daughters of pioneers!
Heroes freeborn, who chose the best,
Not tears for you, but cheers!
Thomas Hardy, the author in 1912 of the Titanic poem "The Convergence of the Twain"
Thomas Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain" (1912), his "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic", was a considerably more substantial work. His poem sets Titanic in a pessimistic post-Darwinian contrast between the achievements and arrogance of man and the humbling power of nature. The building of Titanic in its unprecedented scale is contrasted with the origins of its nemesis, following a familiar nineteenth-century notion of the double or doppelgänger (a theme most famously realised in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde):
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
By the time the "twain" (two) converge, they have become "twin halves of one august event" which sends the Titanic to the bottom while the iceberg floats on. Now the ship lies at the bottom of the North Atlantic, and
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
A number of other works of epic poetry were produced in later years. E. J. Pratt's authorship of The Titanic (1935) reflected the great interest that the disaster had aroused in Canada, where many of the victims had been buried. The poem reflects a theme of tragic hubris, ending with the iceberg as the "master of the latitudes". Pratt blames the ship's fate on the financiers responsible for commissioning it, whom he describes as "Grey-templed Caesars of the World's Exchange." After evoking the iceberg, "stratified ... to the consistency of flint," he gives a vivid view of the disaster in pentameter verse:
Climbing the ladders, gripping shroud and stay,
Storm-rail, ringbolt or fairlead, every place
That might befriend the clutch of hand or brace
Of foot, the fourteen hundred made their way
To the heights of the aft decks, crawling the inches
Around the docking bridges and cargo winches ...
As the ship sinks, Pratt describes the great noise heard by those aboard and in the lifeboats:
The passage of the engines as they tore
From their foundations, taking everything
Clean through the bows from 'midships with a roar
Which drowned all cries upon the deck and shook
The watchers in the boats, the liner took
Her thousand fathoms journey to the grave.
The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger took a post-modernist approach in Der Untergang der Titanic ('The Sinking of the Titanic', 1978), a book-length epic poem. Whereas Pratt reflects the sinking of the Titanic as a definite historical event, Enzensberger simultaneously incorporates documentation – including original news wires from 15 April 1915 – while questioning the degree to which the event has become obscured by the accumulated myth-building of popular memory. As Foster puts it, in the poem "Titanic bears the weight of our belief and our disbelief, our desire for apocalypse and our fear of it, our fatigue, our talkative demise, the unbearable lightness of our being."
The poem takes place within an autobiographical framework in which the poet becomes a character in his own poem and dies before the end, becoming merely one of a multitude of voices and perspectives. The iceberg appears as "an icy fingernail / scratching at the door and stopping short", but there is no real resolution, "no end to the end". Enzensberger targets the commemorations by the Titanic memorabilia industry:
Relics, souvenirs for the disaster freaks,
food for collectors lurking at auctions
and sniffing out attics...
Something always remains –
bottles, planks, deck chairs, crutches,
debris left behind,
a vortex of words,
cantos, lies, relics –
breakage, all of it,
dancing and tumbling on the water.
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