Last week, we took a diversion from the chaos of the city to be beside the seaside – a typical summery pursuit if there ever was one – and it seems only right to stop over for a prolonged trip before the remaining traces of summer are washed away by the tide (as well as increasing amounts of rainfall). As Matthew Arnold demonstrated, setting out to shore doesn’t always offer unspoilt escapism from the grind of city life or provide peace to the perturbed recesses of the mind; certainly, if calm is what you crave at this moment in time it may be advisable to head anywhere else, as families, friends and everyone and their aunt puts up their deckchairs/puts down their beach towels and packs out the place in search of a failsafe-for-all, straightforward summer outing.
It’s the case with most things that what is by night is irrevocably altered when day comes and so, the picture on the sands and shore is altogether different depending on the time you venture upon it. In the later (or earlier) hours the glow of the moonlight bathes lovers on midnight strolls or wraps up a lone wanderer in their meditations; an ideal time for quiet consideration and musing. By day, the emphasis is not so much on musing as amusing, as activities take on a very different tone – whether it’s about building (or knocking down) a row of sandcastles, scrambling for seashells or splashing about in the sea (quite brave if you’re on home, rather than exotic coasts), the scene is animated by action. It’s hard to envisage another place that changes quite so dramatically and consistently, in the space of a few hours. Of course, the change in seaside pursuits perhaps has as much to do with time marching on in years as well as just hours.
So to contrast with Arnold and his night-time scene at Dover Beach, full of grown-up concerns and contemplations, Hart Crane presents the other side of the coin in this poem-extract; a group of children frolicking on the beach at day, an image that surely could have been taken from each of our minds and painted as a vivid reminder of summers passed by and idyllic days spent at the seaside. Indeed, the first stanza seems a lot like a perfect picture-postcard; the joyful presentation of its ‘bright striped urchins’ at play accompanied by some fantastic language and striking sound patterns (so much alliteration in the space of just two lines). However, the second stanza changes things completely – although there are signs of savagery in the children’s play – like a lightning bolt, the poem is split in two and the element of danger becomes apparent. The closing stanza gives clarity to the foreboding, with the warning to ‘not cross nor ever trust beyond’ some visible (or, more worryingly, invisible) line, somewhat tainting the Famous Five-esque scene put forward at its beginning , with the stark simplicity of the final line quite chilling indeed. Perhaps not a poem for overprotective parents who have much to fret over during the summer months, but, even for the fearful amongst us, there is a lot to admire in the way Crane so easily and masterfully plays with several contradictions – of safety and danger, sunshine and thunder, innocence and aggression – and ambiguity; not to mention the wonderful selection of words. Be sure not to cross that line, and just stay curious instead.
Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
Gaily digging and scattering.
And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder on the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them:
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
Hart Crane (1899-1932)