Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive
Extract (The Shadow Line: A Confession)

When Ships Are Not Boards

in The New York Tribune (New York, NY, USA) (May 17, 1919): (Page imagery not yet available)

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The text reads as follows:

When Ships Are Not Boards. JOSEPH CONRAD is essentially the man of ships. His fine feeling for the sea distinguishes all his work. It is a quite different sea feeling than that displayed by Mr. Stevenson--less spectacular and, in a sense, perhaps, less romantic; but profounder, many have thought. When he is writing of ships Mr. Conrad's touch is deeply affectionate, yet always sturdy. To him ships are not--as upon the lips of Shylock they were made to appear--but "boards," though sailors happily remain mere men. To Conrad the nautical scene is richly furnished with a glow of life, which invests each ship with a vivid, haunting personality.

In his newest book, "The Shadow Line,"this writer registers finely and with bright charm the sense of elation experienced by a young captain newly placed in command of a vessel. He was young and a sailor by instinct as well as training. And he exulted:

"A ship! My ship! She was mine, more absolutely mine for possession and care than anything in the world; an object of responsibility and devotion. She was there waiting for me, spellbound, unable to move, to live, to get out into the world (till I came), like an enchanted princess. Her call had come to me as if from the clouds. I had never suspected her existence. I didn't know how she looked, I had barely heard her name, and yet we were indissolubly united for a certain portion of our future, to sink or swim together!

"A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed through my veins, gave me such a sense of the intensity of existence as I have never felt before or since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was, in heart, in mind, I and, as it were, physically--a man exclusively. of sea and ships; the sea the only world that counted, and the ships, the test of manliness, of temperament, of courage and of love."

HE STOOD on the wharf, charmed. He feasted his eyes on the vigorous sum of her virtues:

"At first glance I saw that she was a high class vessel, a harmonious creature in the lines of her fine body, in the proportioned tallnes of her spars. Whatever her age and her history, she had preserved the stamp of her origin. She was one of those craft that, in virtue of their design and complete finish, will never look old. Among her companions moored to the bank, and all bigger than herself, she looked like a creature of high breed--an Arab steed in a string of cart horses.

"A voice behind me said in a a nasty equivocal tone: 'I hope you are satisfied with her, captain.' I did not even turn my head. It was the master of the steamer, and whatever he meant, whatever he thought of her, I knew that, like some rare women, she was one of those creatures whose mere existence is enough to awaken an unselfish delight. One feels that it is good to be in the world in which she has her being.

"That illusion of life and character which charms one in men's finest handiwork radiated from her. An enormous bulk of teak wood timber swung over her hatchway: lifeless matter, looking heavier and bigger than anything aboard of her. When they started lowering it the surge of the tackle sent a quiver through her from waterline to the trucks up the fine nerves of her rigging as though she had shuddered at the weight. It seemed cruel to load her so. . . .

"Half an hour later, putting my foot on her deck for the first time, I received the feeling of deep physical satisfaction. Nothing could equal the fulnes of that moment, the ideal completeness of that emotional experience which had come to me without the preliminary toil and disenchantments of an obscure career.

"My rapid glance ran over her, enveloped, appropriated the form concreting the abstract sentiment of my comman. A lot of details perceptible to a seaman struck my eye, vividly in that instant. For the rest, I saw her disengaged from the material conditions of her being. The shore to which she was moored was as if it did not exist. What were to me all the countries of the globe? In all the parts of the world washed by navigable waters our relation to each other would be the same--and more intimate than there are words to express in the language."

AND when he went within the ship new delights rewarded him:

"The mahogany table under the skylight shone in the twilight like a dark pool of water. The sideboard, surmounted by a wide looking glass in an ormolu frame, had a marble top. It bore a pair of silver plated lamps and some other pieces--obviously a harbor display. The saloon itself was panelled in two kinds of wood in the excellent simple taste prevailing when the ship was built.

"I sat down in the armchair at the head I of the table--the captain's chair, with a small telltale compass swung above it--a mute reminder of unremitting vigilance.

"A succession of men had sat in that chair. I became aware of that thought suddenly, vividly, as though each had left a little of himself between the four walls of these ornate bulkheads; as if a sort of composite person, the soul of command, had whispered to mine of long days at sea and of anxious moments.

"'You, too!' it seemed to say; 'you, too, shall taste of that peace and that unrest in a searching intimacy with your own self--obscure as we were and as supreme in the face of all the winds and all the seas, in an immensity that receives no impress, preserves no memories and keeps no reckoning of lives.'"