“But I beneath a rougher sea”

In a small island nation, the sea is never distant. Ships of war, trade and discovery shaped the history of the countries that became the United Kingdom of England and Scotland in 1707. The sea found its way even into the imagination of a reclusive poet who lived most of his adult life in rural Buckinghamshire, far from any coast. William Cowper had attempted suicide as a young man, had been a patient in an asylum and suffered lifelong severe depression. In 1799, the final year of his life, he wrote his last poem, The Castaway, inspired by a fragment of narrative in the voyage round the world of Commodore George Anson, published half a century earlier, in Cowper’s childhood, to great popular success.

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The Storm — JMW Turner © National Museum of Wales

In March 1741 Anson’s ships were sailing the strait of Le Maire, towards Cape Horn at the southern extremity of the continent of south America. They had never seen such stormy seas and were in continual terror. On the 23rd March they had a most violent storm of wind, hail and rain with a very great sea; the main-sail of his ship, Centurion, split instantly to rags and was mostly blown overboard. Less than a day later they were attacked by another storm still more furious than the former, a perfect hurricane, in which they dared not unfurl their sails. Instead, they sent men up into the rigging of the foremast, but in doing so:

“one of our ablest seaman was canted over-board; and notwithstanding the prodigious agitation of the waves, we perceived that he swam very strong, and it was with the utmost concern that we found ourselves incapable of assisting him; and we were the more grieved at his unhappy fate since we lost sight of him struggling with the waves, and conceived from the manner in which he swam, that he might continue sensible for a considerable time longer, of the horror attending his irretrievable situation.”

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William Cowper — The Castaway (1799) © The Poetry Foundation

Cowper turned Anson’s spare naval prose into a miniature epic of a poem, as vivid as a painting or a film sequence, from its glimpse of the crowd cheering the ship leaving England with its brave commander, to the sailor washed headlong from on board in the depths of night and drowned in the Atlantic billows, the wind driving the ship forward, and his shipmates helplessly hearing his cries until they could catch the sound of them no more.

The Castaway is a poem about overwhelming, both in its literal meaning of drowning beneath a wave and its emotional meaning. The language is suffused with moisture, both of tears and of the sea. “No poet wept him” but the page of narrative prose which records the facts is “wet with Anson’s tear”. If this were a contemporary film it would surely be made by Almodovar, a master of the portrayal of men in emotional and physical frailty, of men weeping, and of vivid, colour-saturated scenes that switch from present to past and back. Eighteenth-century naval captains were not as brutal and unfeeling as posterity sometimes regards them, and tears or not, Anson’s words show that he did fully grasp “the horror attending [the sailor’s] irretrievable situation” — that the man’s own strength prolonged his knowledge of the hopelessness of his fate.

Cowper hints at a comparison with himself at the very beginning of the poem, when he mentions “such a destin’d wretch as I” but he only really makes his presence felt towards the end of it. From looking over Anson’s shoulder at the tears falling on the page of the captain’s log, he turns emphatically from the drowned sailor to himself, announcing -

But misery still delights to trace

Its semblance in another case –

And then the final verse of the poem reads as if the film sequence or painting had somehow become reality, with billowing waves breaking its frame into splinters and literally overwhelming the poet -

No voice divine the storm allay’d,

No light propitious shone;

When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,

We perish’d, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

It’s a jarring ending. What could possibly connect a frail and elderly reclusive gentleman at home in England with a young working man so strong that he could swim in a mountainous cold sea at the end of the known world? Only the word “whelm”, linking both the literal drowning and the figurative despair. Cowper felt himself to have been abandoned by God, and in a children’s poem he had written about ten years earlier in support of the abolition of the slave trade, he had imagined wild tornadoes and shipwrecks as the voice of God condemning its evil work. Yet for all the extremity of his comparison of himself with the drowning man, the poet does not offend the memory of the sailor, but enshrines his lost life in the poem itself.

Delight in tracing the semblance of misery “in another case” is a persistent habit of writers, of poetry and of prose, particularly in those who write of their own experiences. Recently, India Knight, a journalist and author of several books, wrote an article in the Sunday Times (£), in which she described her experience of loss and anxiety on discovering that her Belgian nationality meant that she, like millions of other EU nationals, would no longer have the right of residence in the UK after departure from the European Union, unless she registered for settled status or became a UK citizen. There is no doubt, from her and other accounts, that the past three years have been very unsettling for EU nationals uncertain of their future rights in the UK, and there are many stories of specific mistakes made in the process and of the difficulties some people have found in providing the documentation required to prove their residence here. India Knight began her article by asserting the “boiling rage” she had felt since hearing former Prime Minister Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech at her party conference in October 2016. I thought it was an ominous phrase too — too close to the “rootless cosmopolitan” phrase sometimes used to describe Jews and their alleged lack of loyalty to the countries they live in, for comfort. But what was jarring in India Knight’s article, the more so because in the print edition it was highlighted as a “pull quote” were the words:

But in late June I was granted settled status, aka indefinite leave to remain. I now have a letter from the Home Office that I carry about on my phone, in case I need to show it to someone, like a Jew in late 1930s Berlin.

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Extract from article by India Knight published in the Sunday Times 8 September 2019

No, not like a Jew in late 1930s Berlin. By the late 1930s Jews in Berlin had been subject to incremental loss of participation in ordinary life under the laws of the Reich, including loss of citizenship and expropriation of their businesses. In November 1938, on “Kristallnacht”, synagogues, homes, shops and offices of Jews were ransacked and set on fire, and the works of Jewish writers burned. In November 2018, Jewish writer Elisha Avital wrote on social media of her discovery of her grandfather’s photograph album of Kristallnacht “When I open it, I feel like it might burn a hole in my hands” she wrote, and posted pictures she found in it — shocking images even to someone who thought they knew the history and had seen many pictures.

India Knight probably did not have any specific Jew in late 1930s Berlin in mind. But she could have read many accounts, such as that of eyewitness Gertrude van Tijn, who was at the station in Berlin when the first train left carrying children to Holland -

“The scenes were heartbreaking. With their husbands in concentration camps and their children leaving, the mothers tried hard to appear cheerful, but many broke down as the train pulled out. Many of the children cried too.”

The narrator continues -

“The letters to their children in Britain of parents stranded in Germany and Austria in 1938–9 are poignant, sometimes almost unbearably moving documents. Many were preserved by their recipients as the last, sometimes the only physical reminders of their families.”[1]

Similarly, Julia Boyd’s outstanding book Travellers in the Third Reich published in 2017, opens with the true story of a British couple spending their honeymoon in Germany in the summer of 1936, approached by a Jewish-looking woman “radiating anxiety”, a “desperate mother” who begs the couple to take their teenage daughter to England.

For India Knight to have made the comparison she did is not an acceptable tracing of the semblance of misery in another case. It is incommensurable with her situation. It trivialises and softly obliterates the true sufferings of the victims of the Third Reich. I have seen and read so much in the same vein recently. And one of the most distressing features of it is that it is mostly written by intelligent, highly educated people who no doubt regard themselves as liberal and progressive in their outlook. A QC who practises human rights law and contributes to Prospect magazine wrote a parody of Martin Niemöller’s famous reflection, “First they came for …”

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The parody read

First, they came for (Strasbourg) human rights law.

Then, they came for EU law.

Finally, they decided they didn’t much like our own law either.

Our law, strained though it may be at a time of political chaos, is intact, and individuals enjoy many rights and protections under it. It did not occur to this writer that there might be something reductive, insulting even, in removing the murdered Jews, six million of them, for whom Niemöller and others did not speak out, and replacing them with “our law”. If we do not speak out now against this kind of solipsistic silencing of truth and memory, it will become even more commonplace and widely accepted, questioned neither by authors nor by readers nor by publishers. For Holocaust education and memorials to have achieved nothing more in the minds, even of published writers, than a vague sense that it was a misery of which they might trace the semblance in their own case would be a dismal failure.

Some people, perhaps those who had not read India Knight’s article, and its immediate, direct comparison of herself, an EU national with settled status in the UK, with a Jew in late 1930s Berlin, have tried to defend it as expressing genuine fear of the “slow creep of fascism” and that “it starts with people being forced to identify themselves as different”. These vague sentiments are no answer to the specific comparison India Knight made. Her identification of herself as “different” has led to her acquiring a legal status which gives her the same rights as citizens of the UK to live and work and travel to and from the UK, and to public healthcare, education, welfare benefits and state pensions— the very opposite of the limitations imposed by the laws of the Third Reich.

India Knight ended her article by airily saying that she thinks she will “pass” on applying for naturalisation as a UK citizen in a year’s time when she is eligible to do so. She has become “exceptionally fond” of her burgundy EU passport. These words underline the triviality of her comparison, for she is heedless of the fact that those Jews in late 1930s Berlin with whom she compared herself were stateless. Those who survived and came to the UK and eventually became citizens did so with deep gratitude. There are many pages of central European surnames in the lists of naturalised citizens in the London Gazette of the 1940s and 1950s. About a year ago, in the National Archives at Kew, I read the documents in two manila folders, one with my own maternal grandfather’s name on it, and one with my mother’s, for the first time. My grandfather had somehow come to England from Prague shortly before the Second World War broke out. In October 1939 his wife, alone, like the mothers in Berlin in the same year, parted from their only child, my mother, then 15, at a railway station in Prague, from where she went with a group of young Jews to Denmark to escape from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Neither of them ever saw my maternal grandmother again, the deaths of her and her sister, murdered by the Nazis in 1942, recorded on the memorial wall of names at the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. The manila folder contains the letters my grandfather wrote to the Home Office in 1946, seeking permission for his daughter, then 21 and the only surviving member of his family, to come to England and join him, together with the Home Office memoranda and the forms and declarations they required. It was a tortuous official process, and one of uncertain outcome, but eventually permission was given, and my mother, then working as a nurse in Sweden, no longer a castaway, embarked on a ship that brought her to England in the late spring of 1946. Both she and her father were later naturalised as citizens and spent the rest of their lives in the UK.

The memory of those millions of Jews who lived, as they had done, in Europe in the late 1930s, should never be invoked to indulge the self-pity of a person like India Knight, a woman who has led a comfortable and privileged life in this country since early childhood, yet who disdains its citizenship because it has not “loved her back” enough.

[1] Quoted in “On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” by Bernard Wasserstein — Profile Books, 2013

Edited 11 September 2019 to clarify the rights attributable to settled status in the UK

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English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

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