A new novella
by the poet Michael Oliver
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The Course Made Good
At dawn a breeze blew gently from the south. By afternoon the weather was flat calm. The sea was glassy and the sun was hazy. Strange conditions for October 3rd along the North Shore of Prince Edward Island. Running freely, fully squared away, the proud and pretty brigantine Bright Hope was outward bound with cargo for Québec, the final trip of 1851, but when the wind died and her sails fell back, she went about and wandered off the course.
The supervisor, John Cornelius, the owner’s son, a man of 35, surveyed the scene and felt his heart beat faster, though he did not understand the cause. He stood beside the captain at the wheel, apparently his customary place. A telescope lay level on his forearm, as if he were posing for a portrait. Yet he was unusually dressed. No hat at all atop his short brown hair. A white silk shirt, a simple dark green waistcoat. Black wool trousers, polished leather shoes . His face was shaved, with neither beard nor moustache, and his eyes appeared to be judicious – but there was a sadness in his gaze.
Quite suddenly a fiddle broke the silence. John’s attention shifted to the bows. He stepped to port to see around the foremast. What was this? – a slender red-haired maiden dancing lightly to the St. Ann’s Reel. Her feet were bare, her hands down by her hips, in Irish fashion, though she sometimes raised them, smiling sweetly – John thought right at him! He could not help but see her dress was threadbare, yet it did not seem that she was poor. He knew, of course, she was a passenger, although he could not say where she had boarded. Was it Boston? Was it Halifax? He thought for certain he had never seen her with the others strolling on the deck these last ten days – he would have noticed her. In fact, he felt a sense of recognition that transcended any explanation as he watched her moving with such ease. Her fine white face and long loose flaming hair intrigued him and aroused his interest. Her eyes were green and held him with a glance. This puzzled John, and troubled him a little. Who was she – this 15-year-old girl – at least she looked the same age as Miranda – that he should remember seeing her?
John knew, however, he would soon forget the sudden visit of this strange young woman to his so far uneventful life. For many years he had been voyaging, but he had never reached his destination. John was fond of Aristotle saying that there was a telos for all things. But had the master made a great mistake? If there were nothing – if it were a force – could that not cancel any final cause? And would his travels ever have an end? John liked to judge his soul by fine allusions, and a recent favourite seemed apt. Like Dante in the middle of life’s journey, he had faltered and had lost his way. And making matters even sadder still, the figurative now was literal. The good swift ship that he was sailing in was at the moment thoroughly becalmed, so he, the maid, the captain, and the crew were going nowhere, hardly even drifting. Nonetheless, John felt a brave elation. He was trembling, he was almost shaking. Surely something was about to happen. Slowly, strangely – unbelievably – he sensed that time was staring to flow backward to a dream that had been long forgotten, to a vision of God’s pure Creation, to a chance of living there forever.
John looked out across the placid water. Little ripples with a trace of cat’s paws. Not the slightest wavelet anywhere. The sky seemed thicker, though, as moments passed, and he could feel a speck or two of rain. To leeward – if there had been any wind – the sandy shoreline of Prince Edward Island loomed and shimmered on the flat horizon. Low red cliffs without a single hilltop. John put up his telescope and focused. Many schooners from America were catching mackerel in toward the beaches. Island men were mostly tenant farmers who did not exploit the fishery. A bad mistake, an economic blunder, as John’s father constantly observed. The men from Gloucester and the men from Maine were busy fishing, even in the lull. The farmers no doubt watched them from the shore with feelings of superiority. John noticed that the bold New Englanders had not attempted to stand out to sea. It seemed that they did not expect foul weather.
John knew someone who most surely did. Already dressed in oilskins and sou’wester, even though the air was warm and close, the captain of the brigantine Bright Hope stood at the wheel in watchful contemplation. Always quiet, very often silent, Captain Scott was still an awesome presence, for he weighed at least three hundred pounds. His eyes were squinty and his beard was bushy, spattered here and there with bits of baccy. Suddenly he said, “The glass is falling.” John was sure the ship’s barometer was reading 29.95, not low enough for any great concern. He wondered if the captain would start whistling. After all, a seaman was a seaman. How else would he try to raise the wind? A northeast gale might drive them on the shore; a lighter blow would take them into port. John whistled first, a tune from Mendelssohn, imagining a gentle summer breeze. The sullen captain looked at him and scowled.
John looked away to where the eastern sky was darkening beyond them in the Gulf. He did not doubt the wind would pick up soon, and yet he thought they might make Malpeque Bay – just crowd on sails and drive before the gale, then put in somewhere till the storm had passed, at Richmond Harbour, even Rustico – although the wind might back around too far. John suddenly recalled the troubling fact that it was he who had insisted fiercely on the course that Captain Scott had plotted after passing through the Canso Gut. Instead of heading west to Charlottetown, to call at home before continuing, he had convinced the captain to head north, although he had not offered any reason, more than saying that was what he wanted. How could he have been so autocratic? Now it seemed – and this was sickening – that he had only placed the ship in peril. Did he really want to die at midnight? Unlike Keats, a poet whom he liked, he was not half in love with easeful death. So how could he account for his decision? That was simple, though it did sound foolish. Aristotle would tell Captain Scott each choice we make, each action we perform, serves as a means toward a perfect end – in this case, John believed, his happy fate.
The sky began to fill with many birds, apparently blown off the rocky islands where they dwelt in distant isolation. Gannets mostly, grand and white and flapping, plus a host of gulls and murres and petrels, all intent on fleeing what was out there. By the hundreds, maybe by the thousands, all those driven flying fugitives rushed on and did not call or cry or scream, or waste a single syllable of sound, although their wing-beats made a moving tumult that grew louder with each passing moment. Suddenly the fiddle ceased to play, and John supposed the red-haired girl stopped dancing. Passengers at sea were troublesome. It would be wise to send them all below until the ship had weathered what was coming. Captain Scott would certainly do that, for he disliked them even more than John did.
All too soon the light began to fade, a chilling thought inviting dreams of dread. The sun would set and leave the ship in darkness, still becalmed, still waiting for the tempest. Rain was falling in fine streaks and fits. The captain would decide to give the order to heave-to the instant that the wind began to back and blow northeasterly. The strategy was tried and true and simple: Face the gale and ride it out all night. John disagreed, but had to hold his tongue. At times like this the captain’s word was law. It had to be, and John agreed with that. But still he thought the captain’s plan was wrong. John would have liked to catch a rising wind and seek a haven up along the shore, but once the ship hove-to and lay at anchor, and the sails had all been reefed and trimmed, the only thing that anyone could do was stand there firmly and defy disaster. While the crew attended to their orders – stowing gear and sheeting in the headsails, hauling lines and climbing in the rigging, furling sails and bracing in the yardarms – John observed the low northwestern sky take on new colours, mostly brilliant yellows, glowing with a bright uncanny lustre. Almost all the birds had disappeared, and silence was returning to the ocean.
Once again John felt that time had stopped. The peaceful sunset, golden as a painting – by a master like devout Giotto – seemed to be a grand majestic mural, shining on an atmospheric wall, constructed to hold off the coming night. Or would it crumble, letting in the darkness? Would the wind blow, blasting all before it? Would the rain pour, drowning all in sorrow? And was nothing out there rushing in – the utter absence of all form and reason? John could not believe existence was a grossly mindless Heraklitian flux. No, there was something even in the gale that might redeem the failure of his life. He did not fear the wrath of God approaching. Death by shipwreck – Aristotle argues – is disdainful, so a brave man takes it. John was not a miserable sinner, but he felt his soul was unfulfilled and did not want to die in ignorance.
Afraid the sunset soon would fade away, John turned aside to go below and wait. As he stepped down the tight companionway, he heard the yowling of the captain’s cat, a ginger tom named Master of the Rats, who bolted up and bounded on the deck. John smelt the aromatic pot-au-feu Pierre had cooked to serve that night for dinner. Eating well is part of being wealthy. With that theme John had convinced his father, years before, to let him have a chef aboard the Bright Hope on all voyages. Pierre had claimed to be Parisien. John doubted that, and yet this slight old man with slicked-down hair spoke French audaciously. More pot bouille than à l’amiral, the meals Pierre created in the galley still surpassed the usual ship’s fare among the North Atlantic merchantmen. John knew the captain did not care at all about cuisine but always ate three portions. He was not a gourmet but a glutton. Nonetheless, they took their meals together, disagreeing only on one matter. John refused to let the cat eat with them, even if he were kept off the table.
John unlocked the door to his compartment. Keeping money in there for the business made a key a sensible precaution, but he would have used one anyway, for he believed in total privacy. He lit a lamp suspended from a beam, then gently closed the narrow door behind him. From a rack inside a cabinet he took a bottle of Château-Ausone. With careful fingers he removed the cork, then poured himself a glass three-quarters full. This red Bordeaux had much more character than any claret he had ever tasted, and it was so rich and generous that he enjoyed it with complete approval. Nodding briefly to the coming gale, he raised the glass and smelt the fine bouquet, then took a drink and felt the glow begin.
He drank again, and with each taste he took, he felt the world was not about to end. In fact, he knew that it was just beginning. “None too soon,” John heard his voice declare. He sat down slowly on the corner bench. The writing surface of his walnut desk was folded up in proper shipshape style. He let it down – a place to rest the bottle. Then he poured himself another glass, deciding he would sit right where he was and wait for life to happen as it should. The wine was suave – the wine was très coulant. Sensation drifted, he forgot the weather, and his mind reverted to the past.
John often thought the story of his life would be much more appropriately thought of as a series of related poems: little moments of intense duration, incidents particular to place, and images of feelings and ideas. But this loose and lyrical device was still, alas, not satisfactory. His life, in total, added up to nothing, as he had suspected that it would since he was only 9 or 10 years old. John saw himself in Charlottetown again, that summer day when he was just a lad, and he looked out across the busy harbour from the rooftop of his father’s warehouse, past tall vessels with their sails all flying, to the offing and the deep blue ocean, where he longed to seek a great adventure. It was then he heard the Devil whisper, You will never find what you desire.
John, however, as he turned 13, did not take comfort in the thought of Satan. If pure evil really did exist, it was a force against the law of reason, and that might account for his great fear that he would never realize his dream of landing on the shore of Paradise. Unfortunately, John once heard a seaman raving wildly on his father’s wharf that there is Nothing in the world beyond, that it is coming like a tidal wave, and when it strikes all hopes will be destroyed. And yet – O hear – The Living God propels it. Praise His name that is unspeakable! – the Name of Naught throughout the universe, before Creation, after Judgment Day, the absolute, unending Holy Will. The implications of this cruel doctrine haunted John and would not let him rest, for he could hear the Devil’s laughter in it: Nothing is the absence of all form – sublime perhaps, but never beautiful. Was nature simply accidental substance? People, only propagative bodies? Metaphysics, merely empty words?
And then at church – at St. Paul’s Anglican, a neat white structure with a square bell tower, situated primly on Queen Square – John sat in silence as the priest intoned his solemn sermon to the congregation. John had learned the language of the Bible, but he wanted God to speak it to him. Only then could he admit the world was what the cleric Paley said it was: an excellent and wonderful abode created by design for human life. John needed knowledge so he could believe, but proof came only from experience – at least according to empiricists. The trouble was, to hear the voice of God he first would have to close his mind to reason, and he would not choose to let that happen. Had he not already heard the Devil? John deplored the monstrous pride of madmen – William Blake, for instance, whose wild poems tell us nature is an empty dream, and we must wake up through imagination to be human by becoming God – a positive negation of right thinking. Still, Aquinas, who was not eccentric, said that faith provides all proper knowledge.
John drank off his second glass of wine and smiled to think how earnest all this seemed. On looking back, John knew he had been lucky. In his childhood, in the 1820s, Charlottetown was still a pastoral. It had existed on a map for years, with streets and names all laid out on the land, before there had been many houses built. It looked much like a town inside a forest, or perhaps a town upon a farm. The streets were red and dusty in the summer; in the winter they were white with snow. And there were the horses – sometimes there were riders – stalwart horses of all breeds and colours, pulling wagons, pulling carriages, and from December all the way to April, pulling sleighs along the frozen streets. And there were also cows and pigs and sheep, penned up, barred in, but always getting loose. And there were foxes, always chased away, and bears that sometimes chased the chasers back. There must have been at least ten thousand crows, and probably a hundred thousand gulls. And there were many interesting people. Ladies, farmers, preachers, and tide-waiters. Indians and Regimental Redcoats. Tavern keepers, wayward waifs and vagrants. Wealthy merchants wearing silk top hats. And what a green world all of that had been! – the town as garden and as civil grove, with fields of daisies, rambling apple orchards, rustic roses, wild blue irises.
The slender sloping bottle of Bordeaux had all too little red elixir left. John poured it out until it filled his glass with beaded bubbles winking at the brim. The more John drank, the calmer he became. He did not even notice that the ship was lifting slightly on the throbbing sea. The person John remembered most from childhood was his father, James Cornelius, a man who had been extraordinary in his kindness to his only child. When John was 5, his mother died of fever, and he missed her with a bitter anguish. But in time he ceased to weep for her, because his father helped him to be strong. At least he did not have to share his grief with siblings, cousins, and companion peers. He liked to read in quiet solitude. He liked to talk and play chess with his father. In the summer they both liked to sail.
John thought again of all the many days his father took him to the large new warehouse on the waterfront in Charlottetown or to the shipyard up along North River, near the mansion where they dwelt in comfort. John recalled his father’s massive head – the granite face with craggy, shaggy brows – and most of all, his quiet intellect. John thought about the morning that his father pointed to the sign above his office, waving with his walking stick and smiling, saying, “Read it . . . ‘J. CORNELIUS’. That’s ‘J’ for ‘James’ but also ‘J’ for ‘John’.” The truth was like a sudden bolt of lightning. John was shocked – this all belonged to him! The long broad wharf, the ship unloading there. The risks and profits of the company. And best of all, his father’s big gold watch. It was a great responsibility, and from that moment he accepted it.
The role of heir apparent suited John. But there was more – he always liked to read. And here again his father showed the way he had to go to realize his dreams. John had to study, so his father taught him, for he too had been a scholar once, before he turned his hand to building ships and using them to trade around the world. The family was proudly Loyalist, John’s father’s father having come from Salem just before the Revolution started. In his youth John read six hundred books – he counted them – and then he sailed away to Boston to enroll in Harvard College with his father’s blessing and his money, and these words of great paternal wisdom: Always carry sovereigns in your pocket.
Seventeen brief years had passed since then, that August day in 1834. John tipped his glass up, pausing to remember. Where, now, would he say that he had gone? To Boston first and then to Italy. And what had he accomplished through his travels? He had stopped in many foreign cities – London, Paris, Göttingen, and Rome – and he had sailed amid the Isles of Greece, where bright blue seas and dim blue mountains met, then climbed on horseback to the Parthenon, ascending through the filthy stony rubbish that obstructed all the streets of Athens ever since the War of Independence. As a student John had listened to the ringing voice of Edward Everett, the noble scholar and great Philhellene, extolling Greece as ruined Paradise, and that was where John first began to write his book of verse In Praise of Artemis, completed later in flamboyant Paris, and then published back in sober London.
John had haunted book stalls near the Thames, where he found a work called Christian Ethicks, written by a chaplain named Traherne, unknown to him – in fact, to anyone. He sent the book to Dr. William Channing back in Boston, and was sad to hear the great man thought it “too enthusiastic” for his conscience and his congregation. John was glad to have the book returned, and he spent many hours reading it and musing on Traherne’s belief that time consists of actions that persist forever. Later when John found a book of verse that must have been the lyrics of Traherne, he did not mention it to anyone, but kept it as a treasure for himself.
And John had met strange people on his tour, especially Gervase de St. Denys, a former friar, still a mendicant, a tattered scarecrow in a patchy robe, who often spoke in Latin sentences, but one day shocked John when he said in English, with an accent that was much too French, “A woman’s beauty lives above desire, for it pleases our intellect the instant that we see her splendid form. Saint Thomas taught me that, but I forgot and fell in love and tried to have and hold, and now I am an outcast in the shadows.” John remembered going on his way and looking up toward the azure zenith, seeing high above the calm blue water, from a slowly gliding gondola, a golden view: the verticals of Venice – stairways, statues, walls, and marble columns – in the sky the tower of St. Mark’s. But still what was the purpose of it all? – what Aristotle would have called his nisus, or the fate that drove his spirit on to seek what would fulfil his character: the perfect place of nature and of art, his long-lost, half-forgotten destination. He had never found it anywhere.
And yet John thought his travels had improved him. He had built a villa with a garden on the waterfront in Charlottetown, constructed mostly out of smooth red bricks. Some plants, of course, would not grow on the Island – oleander, lemon trees, and palms, and, very sadly, Laurus nobilis. The winters simply were not warm enough. The garden did have fragrant linden trees, blue irises and delicate green ferns, forget-me-nots and hyacinths and pinks. The house front also had a portico, through which the view was focused to reveal a pure white statue of Diana bathing in a fountain issuing a rill that ran down to the lower red stone wall, where Boston ivy climbed and crept and clung. Beyond the wall the masts and sails of vessels filled the harbour with a spectacle that John believed a Roman Emperor would recognize as noble and portentous. Still, John’s eyes kept turning to the goddess, whose appearance he found captivating – unlike prospects of commercial ventures.
Just the same, John felt contented working for his father overseeing cargo, mostly on the brigantine Bright Hope. He now recalled the fact that she was launched in Charlottetown in 1827 on a calm and sunny afternoon – believed to be auspicious in itself. It was important to eliminate the constant threat of dark unspoken forces showing up to curse the maiden vessel at the moment she slid in the water. Still a boy, John watched the great event aboard a dinghy rowed by Murdoch James, the carver of the ship’s fine figurehead, a man the boy admired very much. That lunatic is what most people called him. Tall and bald and crippled when he walked, his big blue eyes turned bigger by his glasses, Murdoch James made women out of wood. The dinghy lurched and staggered through the water. Murdoch rowed the same way that he walked. John’s duty was to fling out gobs of chum and scatter them across the rising tide. It worked like magic – gulls appeared from nowhere, diving and ingesting all the fish guts, screaming in a feathered jubilee, and scaring off unwanted evil spirits. John observed the Bright Hope slide down rollers till she reached the water with a splash. The people cheered, for she was sitting pretty in the sunshine and the sou’west wind. Her hull was green, the paint still glistening. Two masts to step, then rigging to be rove, and with her sails on, she would surely fly. John felt embarrassed by the figurehead, and Murdoch must have known what he was thinking, for he mumbled, “Aye, lad, she looks lovely,” and John knew he did not mean the ship.
The wine was gone, the gale had not arrived – at least John had not heard the rising wind. But memory had circled in his mind. He faced again his father’s one complaint. He had not married and produced an heir to someday govern J. CORNELIUS. The truth was, John had never met a woman who inspired him to marry her. His father’s wealth had made him popular, a fact that he found most regrettable. John often criticized society, yet at the same time he could not deny he liked the spirit of civility at dinner parties and in drawing rooms. If only women would not flirt with him, or stand around him waiting to be rescued. Artificial in their purple dresses, and insipid in their pouty chatter, many of the women John encountered smiled at him, or poised their oval faces, while their ringlets clustered on their shoulders, but he always felt a firm resistance to the charms that they were advertising, through concealment and a cloying coyness. What they promised was not peace of mind. In fact, they were not beautiful at all. They did not please upon mere apprehension. Happiness, as Aristotle taught, is using reason as a wise theoros – speculating on eternal truths. But all the women John had ever met displayed their fashions as utility. A piercing pain struck John between the eyes. He had forgotten Phyllida Glendenning! Just the fact that she was waiting for him, with a string of pearls upon her bosom, made him dread arriving in Québec, although he could not wait to step inside the ancient house of J. CORNELIUS on rue d’Autueil out near the Citadel – a fieldstone mansion with a sloping roof, beside a row of tall Lombardy poplars.
Suddenly the ship rose on a swell. The empty bottle toppled off the desk. A little drunk, John stood and grabbed the beam. He heard the wind and felt the vessel pitch. Apparently the captain had hove-to, and now they faced the gale out in the Gulf. The fetch was long and seas would soon pile up. John took his oilskins off a wooden hook, then hurried out, extinguishing the lamp and taking care to lock the door behind him.
Up on deck he saw the sky was black, but there were whitecaps all around the ship. The mainmast creaked, and rain fell steadily. He was surprised how hard the wind was blowing. When it gusted, he was knocked aside. John was not sober, and he needed sea legs. Captain Scott was holding on the wheel, too serious to waste an idle word. John saw the bowsprit slowly rising up and felt the spray assault his staring eyes. The ship looked empty and felt lighter now, the mainsail reefed and sheeted flat amidships, and the foresails taken down and furled. John blinked and saw the red-haired girl emerging underneath a lantern in the rigging. She was gently carrying the cat. John watched her walk toward him with a smile, then stop and place the Master of the Rats in his possession with a simple curtsey. “Thank’ee, Missy,” Captain Scott yelled out. “Now get ye fo’ard and go down below.” John watched her leave and wondered who she was, then opened up the hatch he had just closed and dropped the cat inside the warm dry darkness.
There was little now to do but wait – and ride the waves, until the gale had passed. The night was black and heavy on the heart. The wind blew hard and then blew even harder, roaring first, then howling with each gust. The swells advanced, great undulating masses, spray and spindrift streaming off the crests. The rain was driving with torrential force, and sudden seas washed in across the deck, waist-deep at times and threatening destruction. John, the captain, and the crew held on to stays or shrouds or anything they could, but they were often tumbled on the deck. Each time a wave approached them in the dark the ship rose up, her bows toward the clouds, and hung an instant on the foaming crest, then fell ahead and slid down to the trough. A hundred waves, five hundred more, a thousand. Minutes, hours – time was washed away. The waves swelled larger, and the crests leapt higher, thirty feet sometimes, or thirty-five.
So far the ship refused to turn abeam, but met the seas head-on and stayed hove-to. John knew, however, that their luck could change so suddenly they would not know what hit them, not in any philosophic sense. A wave so monstrous and so overhanging that they could not even see the top might fall on them and dash them all to death. But why? But why? John ached to know the answer. Aristotle said that to be happy is the final cause of being human. John believed that, even if he perished.
In the middle of this endless night the sky and sea seemed interchangeable, and waves began to heap up high and roll. The sky was black – John thought of Milton’s Hell: not light – oh, God! – but darkness visible. The sea was white with flying fields of foam. The wind was screaming with demonic fury, shrill and keen and all-encompassing. John could not see and could not even hear. His senses were almost obliterated. Neither could he stand without collapsing, not unless his hand found something solid to hold onto in the swirling storm. Half-drowned and coughing, he could not be sure that he was not already underwater. But he would not take himself below and leave the captain at the wheel alone.
John now felt certain that the ship would founder. There was not a lighthouse on this shoreline. No Grace Darling would row out to save them, even if she could get through the breakers. What they needed was a miracle. Saint Paul had seen an angel of the Lord aboard the ship that he was sailing in when it was struggling through a mighty tempest, and the angel told him not to worry, for the Lord had work for him in Rome. John did not hope to see a vision now and doubted that he needed to reach land. If he should die, his father would be grieved, but no one else – his destiny was lost. And now his course would never be made good.
John thought the wind could not blow any harder. He was wrong but did not have the time to think about it when a sudden gust upended him against the heavy wheel and sent the captain wallowing abaft. To his surprise John could not move at all. The darkness seemed to push against his chest. He thought about The Book of Common Prayer and tried to utter, Save, Lord, or we perish, but the words were blown to Kingdom Come. The wind was screeching and it hurt his ears, but still he heard the mainsheet when it parted and the boom swung wildly off to starboard. Consequently, as the ship rose up – to ride the wave – she twisted at the crest – then plunged abeam toward the jaws of Hell. The next wave crashed down squarely on the deck, and with a groan the hull was torn asunder.
Then it seemed the captain and the crew, the red-haired girl, the other passengers, Pierre the chef, the Master of the Rats, and countless barrels floated on the darkness, for a moment, like a photograph, and stopped the chaos from becoming worse. Disintegration followed in John’s mind. All sense of being on the ship dissolved. The world was nothing but black wind and water and a shriek of lonely agony.
Not even sure that he was still alive, or where he was amid the heavy seas, above the water or five fathoms down, John thought of Shakespeare saying of true love, it looks on tempests and is never shaken. He was shaken – he had never loved. Was that the reason he was dying now? All afternoon he had felt in his soul the sense that something was about to happen. Was it love? Then where was his beloved? He was drowning – where was Nausikäa? He felt mute, but still he tried to whisper, I have no Penelope at home.
The tumult closed above his head at last. John could not breathe; he could not even move. His lungs were burning, and his skull was bursting. All was black, and he felt very tired. Maybe he could dream himself to death. But dream of what? The life he never lived? He knew desire had not ruled his life, and he was certain of his intellect. He still believed the course that he had set – despite the storm, despite the dire wreckage – should be read as anagogia, but he saw nothing and this was the end. I’m sorry, Father, John said in his mind, to God and then to James Cornelius. And that was all – he was a body now, an object for the waves and tides and currents to compel wherever they were going in the ocean on this awful night. The body turned, the body somersaulted, passing fish disturbed in salty darkness, passing bands of undulating kelp. The body paused, the body rose bolt upright, moving in a slow cascading arc. And then the mind asked, Do I wake or sleep?
John blinked his eyes. The sun was shining now. He moved his fingers and felt sand between them. What had happened? He lay on his back and did not seem to have on any clothes. He heard the surf, and then he saw the sea. It made him shiver, but he was not cold. He knew, however, that he had been sick. His mouth felt briny and his throat was parched. His muscles failed him and he could not think. He saw a gull traverse the bright blue sky – the silent swing, the long contented glide. John did not know why he should feel so happy.
Turning slightly, he could see the dunes, the marram grass above his head and shoulders swaying softly in the sou’west wind. He breathed in deeply, smelling salt and seaweed, stronger than the scents blown off the land. Large waves were falling all along the shore. The booming sound was soothing to his soul. Should he stand up? If he could move his legs . . . but he could not – and what about his arms? He braced his elbows, managed to stretch up . . . then looked toward the breakers on the beach, and what he saw astonished his belief.
The red-haired girl was walking up to him, as if she had just stepped out of the water. She was naked and her hair was loose. She moved with ease, with graceful measured steps. The sun was shining on her slim white body. Was she real? John shook his head and eyes. He looked again, and she looked back at him. Her eyes were green, but he knew that already. Then she smiled and stood right over him. The sunlight showed the freckles on her cheeks. Her lips were pink, but they were salty too. She did not speak – perhaps her throat was parched.
She took his hand and he stood up beside her, finding strength he did not know he had. She led him slowly to the water’s edge and pulled him gently in the tumbling surf. And then they swam, together underwater, in a blissful green and reddish silence. Side by side – above, below each other – darting forward, sliding swiftly after. All the while her hair was billowing, and he could see how beautiful she was. Sometimes they touched each other’s fingertips. She touched his navel, and he touched her toes. At last they floated up toward the sun and broke the surface, smiling first, then laughing. Now her face was glistening with water, and her hair was sleek against her head. The swelling seas swept them toward the surf. She had to help him stagger up the beach. Then he collapsed. I am awake, he thought. And just before he passed out on the sand he heard her footfalls running after help.
David B. Hickey
The Antigonish Review # 175, Autumn 2013
The Final Cause of Love by Michael Oliver (Charlottetown, PEI: Poietikos Editions, 2011, 75 pp., $20.00).
I’m afraid this newly published novella may already be a Canadian artifact. An omniscient narrator with a well-furnished mind just down from Parnassus is, I suspect, going the way of Sony’s Walkman. The book’s author, Michael Oliver, probably didn’t intend this reception, although he was astute enough to recognize that Atlantic Canada in the mid-19th century would be one of few settings where a character’s regular invocation of philosophers and poets — ancient and contemporaneous — might seem normal. This is as close as one could get to Oxbridge transplanted to PEI, via Harvard.
Fittingly, not only does Oliver’s central character, John Cornelius, think like a Matthew Arnold, he’s even had tea with that paragon of erudition — and doesn’t pass-up the chance to bestow his stamp of approval on an early draft of “Dover Beach”! One has to admire an author willing to take these kinds of chances in order to achieve verisimilitude. Lest the smell of pedantry begin to waft from an inadvertent misrepresentation, potential readers of The Final Cause of Love can rest assured that its network of allusions and quotations from poets and philosophers, statesmen and divines is never obtrusive. Michael Oliver’s story moves swiftly along while the allusions seamlessly call up the requisite metaphysical substrates we look for in a serious fiction.
Oliver’s story is all about beauty: a woman’s beauty, love’s beauty, the sea’s beauty, and the beauty of a ship’s rigging well turned-out. And I’ve no doubt betrayed my own landlubber status with this last in the series, but only to call attention to Oliver’s unqualified success employing sailing argot in such a way that is both exciting and helpful for the uninitiated. These, too, are the finer touches that an effective historical setting calls for. And Oliver never nods. As an interesting twist on the folklore-soaked narratives of Canadian fiction, his is nothing if not cosmopolitan. John Cornelius stands atop the spires of Western Civilization. From Longfellow’s lecture room to Berlioz’s drawing room (and a sad little interlude with Lord Byron’s discarded muse), our narrator’s quest for ideal beauty takes him through a gamut of learned cultural touchstones.
Being a story about art and love, it is perhaps inevitable that the myth of Pygmalion would work itself in, however unintentionally. Though its major players are never mentioned, the parallels are obvious. There is first the mad sculptor, Murdoch James, who carves the figureheads for the Cornelius père shipyards and serves later as John’s mentor in his meditations on love and beauty. As well, statues of goddesses abound. And, following Shaw’s twist on the myth, John Cornelius finally uncovers his Galatea in the hubbub of the oldest commercial district in North America, namely, the Breakneck Stairs in Quebec City.
As stated above, Pygmalion is never named. However, the myth is instructive for what Michael Oliver is up to in this mini-Odyssey-minus-Penelope that he’s written. The statue motif prepares us for what, on first encounter, has to be one of the most jarring (maybe even comical) of images. In a summer’s evening reverie that is not quite a dream, John sits looking out onto his garden, watching the snowflakes. Soon he catches sight of Mary Ann, now his aging wife — the beauty after whom he had quested for nearly a decade.
No wind was blowing, but the night felt cold, and Mary Ann was walking from the harbour. She bent down and plucked a single burdock, sticking it upon the green lapel of her wool coat wide open down the front. Apparently her buttons had gone missing, but she did not try to close the gap, and icicles were dripping off her nipples. She had also lost her shoes and stockings and she did not have on any hat.
This can only, sensibly, be a reverse metamorphosis; a Niobe turning to stone, weeping for her and our own cruel fates. Either this or a Kafkaesque slapstick that is meant to undo all the previous philosophizing. Staying with the former, it would seem we are meant to see Mary Ann’s undoing as a tragic consequence of the title’s thesis: if beauty is the final cause of love, then love may only survive as art. It’s a harsh dictum but one to which Aristotle (after John’s, the other dominant voice in Chapter One) would subscribe: “Still perhaps it would appear desirable, and indeed it would seem to be obligatory, especially for a philosopher, to sacrifice even one’s closest personal ties in defense of the truth. Both are dear to us, yet ’tis our duty to prefer the truth” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096a).
Of course, it’s a provocative thesis, but The Final Cause of Love isn’t a philosophy text. It’s a character study. And, if we’re going to sound the depth of it, we’ll need to determine how the portrayal of John Cornelius comes off. I suggest the reader will find John intriguing, maybe even unique. While lonely, middle-aged gentlemen (John is 35 when the story opens) are not a rarity, shipbuilding poets might not be so common. And John, with one volume of poetry already published, and a novella in the works, is that amalgam. Without a tradition of scholarship, it stands to reason that our captains of industry and our sons of the Ivy League would have to be one and the same. It’s this anomalous conjunction of types that made me regret the book wasn’t longer. An examination of the psyches of pre-Confederation scholar-capitalists would reveal facets of our country and its soul about which we probably don’t yet know enough. However flat John Cornelius may or may not be — this is a novella, after all — a sympathetic reader will have no difficulty empathizing with the lonely man’s search after Keatsian gold.
The Final Cause of Love is book-ended by tempests: the famous Yankee Gale of 1851 and the August Gale of 1870, storms of note in Prince Edward Island’s maritime history. Their violence is emblematic of John Cornelius’ restlessness, which, despite the successful resolution of his quest, remains constant. Although he found the woman who embodied his intellectual apprehension of beauty, he, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, cannot find peace. It’s a dialectic that a meditation on Penelope’s loom might well have resolved. But, men are different, aren’t they? Myself, I’d suggest Grandpa Aristotle, who, in ruminating on this difference had, among other things, this to say: “Why are males usually larger than females? … [I]s it because the male takes a long time to attain perfection, the female a short time?” (Problems 891b)
Posted with permission of the author