York Boat On Lake Winnipeg, 1930 by W.J. Philips

Bodies of water — lakes, streams, oceans — are frequently connected, in literature and experience, with moodiness or meditation. Characters near the sea, or near rivers, are found to be lost in reveries, daydreaming, thinking up poetry, or otherwise listening to their muses. The water is connected in some way with a lifting-up of our attentions away from the visible.

What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
Moby Dick, Chapter I: Loomings

Attached here are examples of this peculiar connection.

The first chapter of Moby Dick is one of the clearest examples of waters’s effect on us:

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

Size of the water: Ratty in Wind in the Willows presents a very clear illustration of Water the Transcendent Lens in varying strengths. All his life he has lived by the River, (a relatively small body of water) and whenever he describes his lifestyle on its shores, it revolves around recurring themes of meditation, “aimless” puttering, and simple dreamy pleasures. The River is Ratty’s muse, and when she speaks he has no attention to spare for anything commonplace.

The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else.

In a small body of water the muse is perhaps harmless; in a larger one the effect is often more sinister. When the traveling Water Rat regales him with tales of the Sea, Ratty, who never before wanted to hear a word about the Wide World, is utterly entranced and taken out of himself as though answering a call:

“Where are you off to, Ratty?” asked Mole in great surprise, grasping him by the arm.

“Going south with the rest of them,” murmured the Rat in a dreamy monotone, never looking at him. “Seawards first, and then on shipboard, and so to the shores that are calling me!”

…Poor Ratty did his best, by degrees, to explain things; but how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another’s benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce the magic of the Seafarer’s hundred reminisces?

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

The “call of the Sea” – the utterly fixating draw of the oceans to certain kinds of people – is a special case of its own. It seems to be the extreme end of the effect we are talking about here: darker, larger and more fearsome, in proportion to the size of the body of water. This tallies well with the effects of the sea decribed in Moby Dick above, and in other stories. At its best, it is pictured in the call of the seagulls to Legolas in Lord of the Rings; at its worst, it is exemplified in the myth of the sirens and some mermaids, who call to sailors, captivate them, and drown them. In all instances the effect is powerful and heavy-handed, though usually limited to a select small group of people. Indeed, the Call of the Sea is hardly ever depicted without also drawing the contrast between those who are fatally attracted to it and those upon whom it has no effect whatsoever.

Joel Dueck (Author) ·