RMS Titanic: The Poetic Response

Sunday, April 15, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. For those of us who recall the tremendous outpouring of poetry written in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, it is no surprise that in the days and weeks following the wreck, thousands of American and British citizens turned their hands to poetry as a way to come to terms with the tragedy.

New York Times editorial on poetry about the Titanic, page 1

First paragraphs of "The New York Times" editorial on poetry about the Titanic

Many newspaper editors, finding their desks flooded with amateur poetry about the Titanic, observed superciliously that the quality of poems received was, to use a charitable term, lacking. Indeed, the editors of The New York Times felt the situation dire enough to remind its readers in an April 30, 1912, editorial, “Only Poets Should Write Verse,” that “to write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.”

The editors of Current Literature, while acknowledging the  “crudeness” of much of the verse to cross its desk, more charitably noted that the poems nevertheless possessed “the redeeming quality of sincerity, of deep feeling.”

An example of the “deep feeling” communicated in much Titanic verse is Mary Moffat Cunningham’s “The Band that Played Till the Ship Went Down,” published in the May 14, 1912, issue of The Logan Republican (Utah). The introduction to the poem notes that it was performed the previous day as a memorial to the Titanic band, and that the recitation “brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience.” Here are the concluding lines of the poem, spoken by the bandleader, Wallace Hartley:

God of the dark, God of the sea,
Through night to light we come to Thee!
Well, boys! We’ve played our best,
Now leave to God the rest.
We die like men when the ship goes down!

In addition to publishing original poetry submissions, U.S. newspapers reprinted some of the best-known poems on the tragedy published in Britain, such as Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain—Lines on the Loss of the Titanic” [source], and articles included frequent references to meetings, programs, and events at which poems about the Titanic were recited.

Inscription by Edwin Drew to President Taft; front page of "The Chief Incidents of the 'Titanic' Wreck Treated in Verse"

Inscription by Edwin Drew to President Taft; front page of "The Chief Incidents of the 'Titanic' Wreck Treated in Verse"

The earliest book-length collection of poetry about the Titanic in the Library’s collections was written by the English elocutionist Edwin Drew. The Library’s copy of this May 1912 collection, titled The Chief Incidents of the “Titanic” Wreck Treated in Verse; Together with the Lessons of the Disaster, was originally sent by Drew to the White House, and bears an inscription to President Taft dated September 12, 1912.  The book—which it is unclear if Taft received or read—was transferred to the Library in March 1913.

Although Drew notes in his introduction that he claims “no poetic power in these verses,” he believes that clear, comprehensible poetry such as his is “generally more treasured by ‘the masses’ than sonnets that may be immortal, but are for ‘the few.’”

The 27 poems in the collection capture the entire arc of the Titanic’s voyage and aftermath, from “The ‘Titanic’s’ Departure,” which notes the “vast admiring” that took place upon the ship’s completion and departure on her maiden voyage, to “A Wedding” involving one of the ship’s survivors, described as a “sequel for a smile / . . . after endless lists of death.”

The collection also includes several poems honoring the heroic efforts of individuals, such as “John Phillips, The Wireless Operator, on Duty to the Last”:

Photograph and poem about John Phillips, pp. 16-17 of "The Chief Incidents of the 'Titanic' Wreck Treated in Verse"

Photograph and poem about John Phillips, pp. 16-17 of "The Chief Incidents of the 'Titanic' Wreck Treated in Verse"

While Drew’s poetry will not echo in the halls of the literary pantheon, his heartfelt efforts, along with those of thousands of others who penned verses about the wreck, demonstrate the important role of poetry in capturing and sharing the emotions, opinions, and thoughts of the public in times of trouble.

For those of you interested in reading more poetry written in the immediate aftermath of the Titanic’s sinking, Titanica: The Disaster of the Century in Poetry, Song, and Prose (W. W. Norton & Co, 1998) includes more than a dozen examples. Other notable poems published in 1912 are cited in Eugene L. Rasor’s The Titanic: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 2001), pp. 113-116. The Library’s copy of one of the best-known poems about the Titanic, Horace Greeley’s The Wreck of the Titanic; A Poem (1913), can be read online through the Internet Archive.

Finally, From the Catbird Seat is only one of several Library blogs with a post highlighting the centennial of the Titanic disaster, and I encourage you to look at them all. At the time of this posting, the Library of Congress Blog discusses a number of online Library resources related to the Titanic; In The Muse discusses Titanic-related sheet music in our collections; Picture This features a photograph and tale of two initially unidentified French children who survived the shipwreck; In Custodia Legis examines the regulations and requirements that applied to the safety equipment on board the ship; and Teaching with the Library of Congress explores how primary sources about the Titanic can be used to help students analyze the tragedy.

UPDATE: Inside Adams, the Library’s blog about science, business, and technology, has been updated with a post about the night sky during the Titanic’s voyage.

One Comment

  1. C Zehfus
    April 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    These images and feelings around the Titanic are colorful and interesting and can fill in between the gaps of the experience. Thank you for this site.

    The human error causing the sinking of the Titanic, and the whole image of the catastrophic results, are sometimes used as a metaphor or similar in modern poems, such as “Like the Titanic” at First Do No Harm Blog.

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