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A Letter To A Sea Captain
by [?]

(To D.W.B.)


You are the most modest of men, but even at the risk of arousing your displeasure we have it on our mind to say something about you. We shall try not to be offensively personal, for indeed we are thinking not merely of yourself but also of the many others of your seafaring art who have always been such steadfast servants of the public, the greatness of whose service has not always been well enough understood. But perhaps it is only fair that the sea captain, so unquestionable an autocrat in his own world, should be called upon to submit to that purging and erratic discipline which is so notable a feature of our American life–publicity!

It is not enough understood, we repeat, how valuable and charming the sea captain is as an agent and private ambassador of international friendship. Perhaps we do not know you until we have seen you at sea (may the opportunity serve anon!). We have only known you with your majesty laid aside, your severity relaxed. But who else so completely and humorously understands both sides of the water, and in his regular movements from side to side acts so shrewd a commentator on Anglo-American affairs? Who takes more keen delight in our American ways, in the beauty of this New York of which we are so proud, who has done so much to endear each nation to the other? Yours, true to your blood (for you are Scot Scotorum), is the humorist’s way: how many passengers you have warmed and tickled with your genial chaff, hiding constant kindness under a jocose word, perhaps teasing us Americans on our curious conduct of knives and forks, or (for a change) taking the cisatlantic side of the jape, esteeming no less highly a sound poke at British foibles.

All this is your personal gift: it is no necessary part of the master’s equipment to be so gracefully conversable. Of the graver side of the sea captain’s life, though you say little, we see it unconsciously written in your bearing. Some of us, who know just a little about it, can guess something of its burdens, its vigils, and its courages. There is something significant in the obscure instinct that some of your friends have to seize what opportunity they can of seeing you in your own quarters when you are in port. For though a ship in dock is a ship fettered and broken of much of her life and meaning, yet in the captain’s cabin the landsman feels something of that fine, faithful, and rigorous way of life. It is a hard life, he knows; a life of stringent seriousness, of heavy responsibilities: and yet it is a life for which we are fool enough to speak the fool’s word of envy. It is a life spared the million frittering interruptions and cheerful distractions that devil the journalist; it is a life cut down to the essentials of discipline, simplicity, and service; a life where you must, at necessity, be not merely navigator but magistrate, employer, and priest. Birth, death, and all the troubles that lie between, fall under your sway, and must find you unperturbed. But, when you go out of that snug cabin for your turn of duty, at any rate you have the dark happiness of knowing that you go to a struggle worthy your powers, the struggle with that old, immortal, unconquerable, and yet daily conquered enemy, the Sea.

And so you go and come, you go and come, and we learn to count on your regular appearance every four weeks as we would on any stated gesture of the zodiac. You come eager to pick up the threads of what has been happening in this our town, what books people are talking about, what is the latest jape, and what (your tastes being so catholic!) “Percy and Ferdie” are up to. And you, in turn, bring news of what they are saying in Sauchiehall Street or Fleet Street, and what books are making a stir on the other side. You take copies of American books that catch your fancy and pass them on to British reviewers, always at your quixotic task of trying to make each side appreciate the other’s humours. For, though we promised not to give you away too personally, you are not only the sea captain but the man of letters, too, eminent in that field in your own right.

There must be some valid reason why so many good writers, and several who have some claim on the word “great,” have been bred of the sea. Great writing comes from great stress of mind–which even a journalist may suffer–but it also requires strictness of seclusion and isolation. Surely, on the small and decently regimented island of a ship a man’s mind must turn inward. Surrounded by all that barren beauty of sky and sea, so lovely, and yet so meaningless to the mind, the doomed business of humanity must seem all the more precious and deserving of tenderness. Perhaps that is what old George Herbert meant when he said, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.