Exhibition review: Folger's 'Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition "Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination" opened June 10, the same day that a team of government-appointed scientists delivered grim new estimates of how much oil had flowed into the ocean from BP's Deepwater Horizon since the offshore platform exploded on April 20.

The Folger exhibition is about navigation, exploration and literary and spiritual encounters with the sea from the age of Shakespeare to the 1750s. But wander through its collection of books, charts and nautical objects, and it is hard not to sense a direct connection between the heroic endeavor of the ocean's colonizers and the present moment. "Lost at Sea" yields, in the end, to the Sea Is Lost.

Although it's not explicitly mentioned in the show, the exhibition is a manifestation of what scholars have begun calling "the new thalassology." Borrowing the Greek word for the sea, thalassa, new thalassologists are turning scholarly attention to large bodies of water in an effort to write a deeper history of that part of the world that isn't land and to escape the terrestrial preoccupations of old-fashioned political, regional, cultural and intellectual history. Much of it is high-end bunkum, but it's hard to quibble with this statement of purpose from Steven Mentz, one of the exhibition's two curators: "We need Shakespeare's ocean now, because late-twentieth-century culture has frayed our connections to the sea."

The Folger exhibition forgoes the pretentious, scared-of-their-shadow involutions of the new thalassology ("perhaps we should avoid the Greek-derived term 'thalassology,' " write two of the discipline's most prominent scholars, because, of course, anything Greek-derived is tainted by the Greek and Roman taste for "imperialist ideology"). The Folger curators have, instead, focused on the details of how the sea was experienced in the centuries during and after Shakespeare's life.

It was a time when English exploration and colonization brought ordinary people into extraordinary intimacy with the sublime, terrifying and exhilarating waters of the wider world. Laid out in broad chapters, the show covers topics from early attempts at scientific navigation, the predations of scurvy, the lives of famous maritime celebrities and the effort to spread English civilization, via the seas, to America and beyond. It ends with a look at Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" and his real-life inspiration, Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who squabbled with his captain and went ashore to live by his wits in 1704.

Beyond paper

The curators struggle to give both a tactile and emotional sense of the sea in early modern times. A sail, anchor, sextant, bosun's whistle, rope and other fittings standard on a sailing ship have been borrowed from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., and from the Sultana, a still-sailing schooner operating out of Chestertown, Md.

But a 1592 "poesy ring," from the Folger collection, has even more resonance. When a loved one was lost at sea, and the body couldn't be returned for burial, a ring such as this provided a memorial of sorts. The ring, made of gold and rock crystal, is inscribed with a poignant scrap of bad poetry, all the more touching because it is doggerel: "The cruel seas, remember, took him in November."

The danger of the sea is a recurring theme, and the exhibition argues that religious ideas were as important as primitive science in helping sailors understand (and accept) their place on the watery map of the world. Providence assured that no matter what happened on the seas, it was all a part of God's plan. The preacher John Flavel, represented by a 1698 volume called "Navigation Spiritualiz'd," captured the perpetually parlous condition of sailors, who were "to be Number'd neither with the Living nor the Dead; their Lives hanging continually in suspense before them."

That line may be an echo of a far more famous expression, supposedly uttered by Sir Humphrey Gilbert just before his boat sank in 1583: "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land." Gilbert was a powerful proponent of English settlement in the New World, and for many his tragic narrative connected small-scale providence (a sailor's life was in the hands of God) with a larger, historic sense of Providence (England's ordained destiny was to spread her influence over the globe).

For an exhibition at the Folger, "Lost at Sea" is more than usually rich with objects that aren't made of paper. The delicate needle of a Venetian compass, made sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century, still points to the north wall of the Folger building. A medal struck to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 reiterates the power of Providence: "Thou God art great and doest wondrous things," reads its inscription in Latin. A model of the Royal Sovereign, a "giant" ship when launched in 1637, gives a good sense of English maritime ambitions.

A different experience

But there are powerful documents as well, including an English admiral's account of the captains under his command, with shorthand evaluations including this one: "Good for nothing." Two contracts for indentured servitude -- the only ticket available to many who sought a new life in America -- record that in 1683 a 21-year-old woman named Alice Leniell and a 23-year-old man named John Birt committed themselves to four years of near-slave labor in exchange for passage to new lives in the Americas.

Today it's not unthinkable for a 16-year-old girl to sail the Indian Ocean alone, in a bid to get in the record books. GPS and the Internet keep her certain of her location, and in contact with land. Meanwhile, oil, the essential fuel that allows us to hop continents and make what was once a several-days journey into a daily commute, flows into the Gulf of Mexico in great underwater plumes, befouling the sea and slaughtering its inhabitants. And yet the ocean's bottom, we're told, is as unknown as outer space, even as we send long tentacles down to deplete its resources.

It's tempting to say that the ocean remains a source of mystery and contradiction, just as it was a place of opportunity and danger in the days of Shakespeare. But clearly something essential has shifted in our experience of it. It lost much of the terrifying and superstitious power it had during the age of Shakespeare, even if its physical dangers were ever-present. The Enlightenment tamed it further, and the airplane allowed most of us to bypass it altogether. Today, thoughts about the sea are all about exhaustion and death. The ocean is being fished out and despoiled, and its essential currents (tentatively mapped by early mariners) may cease to flow if global warming changes water temperatures.

The Folger show can remind you of the old power and mystery of the sea, but those feelings have the bitter taste of hollow nostalgia. We've been riding poor Poseidon for a long time now, and we owe him a lot more respect and at least a little relief from our neglect and greed.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company