“Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea.”
—’Exiled,’ Edna St Vincent Millay
Odysseus. Hero. Don Juan. Katie Morag. Literature – as comprehensive a collective document of humanity as you’re likely to come across – is filled with people drawn, almost magnetically, to the sea. Particularly prevalent among these representations are associations between the sea and longing; a yearning mimetic of the lunar pull of the tides; a magnetism of the soul, if you will. Matthew Arnold perhaps put this the best, although he has now been cursed, like all the truly accurate, with the wearied ring of cliché. On Dover Beach considers the duality of the sea, or at least of our relation to it, the simultaneous sorrow and solace of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” that can both separate us from home and remind us of it, strike fear and offer solace. Arnold links the sound of the sea with tragedy (“Sophocles long ago/ heard it on the Aegean”) and its attraction is partially a melancholic one. Subtle as salty shingle invading a shoe, this pervasive sea-fever appears in the most unlikely of places.
Even within This House, James Graham’s acclaimed new play set firmly within Westminster between 1974 and 1979 (currently playing at the National Theatre) there is room for a startling meditation on the effect the sea has on us. As a hapless, tweed-suited MP attempts to demonstrate his encroaching madness, he soliloquises about the similarity between the sound of waves and the sound of human breath: the reason we feel disconsolate observing the water is its reminder of our mortality. This isn’t a symptom of madness but as good a starting point as any in an exploration of why the sea fascinates us so: it is familiar enough to speak to us of ourselves and alien enough for us to crave more knowledge of it, as Edna St Vincent Millay observes, “wanting the sea.”
In some ways, in some moods, we long for it because we associate water with purity, and this applies not just to the sea but all manifestations of water: we refer to ‘bodies of water’ and our immersion in them affects our physical selves as much as our mental ones, our ‘bodies of flesh.’ Last year I spent a month in Japan, and what surprised me the most about this supposedly completely alien culture was not the green Kit-Kats and Harajuku girls that I had been advised would do so (my poor, brown Kit-Kat conditioned mind!) but the elevated place the everyday use of water has in Japanese society. Purification is taken incredibly seriously in Japan, largely because of the influences of the Shinto religion. There are water basins outside temples and shrines that are used by visitors to cleanse their mouths and hands and the simple process of washing yourself is almost akin to this religious usage in its meditated importance. Onsen, which are communal baths usually based around hot springs, populate every town and in most youth hostels are the only means of washing.
Before even entering the baths it is obligatory to rinse in the showers situated at the entrance, followed by a submersion in a hot bath and then an almost freezing cold one, sometimes outdoors, all the while surrounded by others silently absorbed in their own cleansing process. After the initial shy-making unfamiliarity of nudity it almost immediately ceases to be noticeable that you are all naked, even to a Western prude, and the multiple stages of the process invite a contemplation of the submersion in water that is not achieved by jumping in the shower every morning. This ritualisation – for it is a ritual, both in the sense of a repeated ceremony and of a psychological rite- of something we tend toapproach mechanically restores it with a sense of the important and the strange: we are submerging ourselves in another element, and it is cleansing us. When we wash we return our tired skin to a purer state, forging an association between water and purity that resonated in less corporeal ways: almost a reverse fetishisation.
Broadly speaking, we don’t often have that: we jump in and out of glass shower cubicles and chlorinated indoor pools and keep the rain off with nylon umbrellas and never concentrate on the feeling of water on our bare skin. Perhaps, then, we long for stranger water than the stuff we interact with every day, water that retains its otherness; our minds are fixed, like Florizel and Perdita’s in The Winter’s Tale, on ‘unpath’d waters, undream’d shores.’ Shakespeare betrays a minor fascination with water’s potential for extremity, most obviously in the repeated appearance of tempests and shipwrecks: water can consume us, but in this fearful enormity there is the potential for a blissful escape. We are increasingly pressed on every side by other people, or the trappings of them, and this is wearisome. Edna St Vincent Millay uses water as an escape route, equating her happiness with a time where she “Shook the sand from my shoes at night/ that now am caught beneath big buildings / Stricken with noise, confused with light.” Millay, a woman who was vocal about her enjoyment of a thoroughly metropolitan lifestyle in the 1920’s and 1930’s, articulates her particular yearning as a symptom of sophistication. ‘Sophistication,’ which derives from Sophistry, has long-held etymological associations with moral scepticism and fallacious reasoning. Now, in legal lexicon, it means a specious argument employed with the intention to deceive, and this new meaning has echoes of Millay’s verse, “stricken” and “confused”: Millay is giving voice to an almost Romantic belief that the closer a life is to the natural world – in this case the most extreme example of the natural ‘other’ there is, the sea – the less deceived it is, too.
This notion of honesty can be seen particularly in the passionate devotion experienced by ‘wild swimmers’: those who talk of swimming in the outdoors with a near-fanaticism that is as urgent as the sharpness of freezing, brackish spring water against a warm human chest. This is by no means a new phenomenon – I always imagine it’s a prerequisite for poets to have either a difficult relationship with their parents or a vocal enjoyment of spring water on their most private of parts – but in the last few years outdoor swimming has appropriated the status of a minor movement.
Arguably, Roger Deakin’s 1999 book Waterlog, cataloguing his attempt to swim Britain via its seas, lakes, rivers and even canals, can be seen as the starting point of a new wave (ho ho) of interest in a literal immersion in the outdoors and it politicises as well as romanticises this interaction between warm fleshly bodies and bodies of water. Deakin is a marvellously wholesome rebel, ignoring private fishing notices, jumping fences and vocally defending his natural right to swim, querying arbitrary Health and Safety rules but also revealing a quiet desperation to cry out against the deadening effect of too many screens, of too little exploration. The language he uses to describe water is borrowed straight from the semantic field of religion – he declares in Waterlog that “natural water has always held the magical power to cure” – and this is continued in the group of writers who have emerged in his wake, with Alice Oswald, Kate Rew and Robert Macfarlane springing immediately to mind as writers reinterpreting the tradition of nature writing and giving wild swimming precedence as a physicalised response to a desire for more than an increasingly virtual reality.
We long for water and we fear it; we fetishise it and we give it as little thought as breathing: ultimately, like the mirrored surface of a calm sea, it reflects what we need it to. And we do need it, or we feel that we do. This is often accompanied by a compulsion to write about that need, to crystalise a longing as multi-faceted as the waters it reaches for: it is, after all, no coincidence that ‘protean’ is a term explicitly associated with the multiplicities of the sea. Sometimes, you just wake up with a desire to gain perspective or to indulge your storm-tossed romantic pretensions, or switch the exegetic for the elemental, just for a while: “I am too long away from water; / I have a need of water near.”