"There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to its ways. True enough
from time to time there were events - catastrophes - like the Johnstown Flood, the
San Francisco Earthquake, or floods in China - which stirred the sleeping
world, but not enough to keep it from resuming its slumber. It seems to me
that the disaster about to occur was the event, which not only made the world
rub its eyes and awaken, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a
rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction
and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 5, 1912." (John B.
Thayer, one of the surviving passengers of the Titanic; in Wyn Craig
Wade, The Titanic: End of a Dream, 1979)
Events - catastrophes of which they learned and those others of which they
did not want to know. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a flood in 1889 took 2,300
lives; 700 persons perished in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Yet they
did not notice the earthquake at Messina in Sicily (1908), around 84,000
victims, or the Russian-Japanese War. There is no reason to wonder, as even
passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway a few years after 1905 did not think
of thousands and thousands of the killed rolling in the muddy currents of the
river Amur, or of the ships that were sinking at Tsushima amid the loud cries
of sailors swarming in the backwash of a wave. What remained was only the
waltz "On the Hills of Manchuria" played by throaty gramophones with a big
Bigger and bigger, more and more rapid, more and more perfect.
Till they built the biggest ship since the beginning of the world.
Her Power, 50,000 horse
(Imagination suggests a gigantic team:
50,000 horses pull a chariot-pyramid).
And she went on her first voyage,
Announced with fat print on the front pages of newspapers,
Unsinkable, a floating palace.
Hundreds of servants ready at your beck and call,
Kitchens, elevators, barbershops,
Halls lit by electricity of daylight brightness,
For gentlemen and ladies in evening dresses
A band playing ragtime.
The ship carries 1,320 passengers, together with servants and the crew, 2,235 people.
Around one o'clock after midnight a feeble rasp, like grazing against glass,
But no shock. The machines were stoppped. Silence.
The night freezing cold and clear, the stars ablaze.
The surface of the sea smooth, like a lake of oil.
After this meeting with a medium-sized iceberg
The deck begins to lean forward.
Many of those who were already asleep had no time to dress.
And those who set out in the lifeboats
See a long shape with rows of brightly lit cabins
Going down gradually; a swarming of tiny figures,
Hear music - that is the band, in tuxedos,
Standing by the rail and playing a hymn
To the God of mercy, peace, and everlasting love.
Then, aceleration. The first of the four funnels
Disappears underwater, the stern heaves up
Covered with people, the rudder, like a cathedral
Emerging from the depths of the sea, hangs in the air,
A column of black smoke bursts from inside the ship
And everything sinks, softly swallowed
With an underwater groan or thunder.
Then the echo of a scream above water,
A thousand-voiced call for help. It sounded from far off,
Says a witness, like an orchestra of crickets in summer,
Loud at first, then more and more hushed.
Till, after an hour, it subsided. They did not drown, they froze to death.
Swimming in their lifebelts. The number of victims
Was 1,522. Some would be found later
In the ship lanes. For instance a corpse of a woman, moving quickly
Under its sail - a nighgown blown by the wind.
Here are the words of the hymn played by the Titanic band:
God of mercy and compassion,
Look with pity on my pain;
Hear a mournful broken spirit
Prostrate at Thy feet complain . . .
Hold me up in might waters,
Keep my eyes on things above -
Righteousness, divine atonement,
Peace, and everlasting love.
Sarcastic Joseph Conrad was not for "a music to get drownded by." He
wrote: "It would be finer if the band of the Titanic had been quietly
saved, instead of being drowned while playing - whatever tune they were
playing, the poor devils. . . There is nothing more heroic in being drowned
very much against your will, off a holed, helpless, big tank in which you
bough your passage, than in quietly dying of colic caused by the imperfect
salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer."
Of what were they afraid? Why that ah ah ah in newspapers, commissions,
inquiries, street ballads, pamphlets, and an ominous-sentimental legend? The
Titanic, the end of an era? Is it because there is no more feeling
of security? That nothing protects them, neither money nor changing for
dinner every evening, nor the aroma of cigars, nor Progress? Neither mores,
nor polite and faithful servants, nor Greek and Latin in school, nor law, nor
churches, nor science, nothing. And has there ever been anything that offered
protection? Fatality, nameless and pitiless, could it be averted? O
civilized humanity! O spells, O amulets!