Posted by: Rob Viens | February 14, 2012

L’Amour de la Mer

February 14th – Valentine’s Day at sea. Young Mister Darwin doesn’t appear to have a Valentine – no mention in the diary today, and he did not write any correspondence.  It seems that he did not leave any sweethearts behind (which may have changed his decision to take a 5 year voyage) though it is likely that he had at least met his future wife (she was a cousin). And yes, I checked, Valentines Day was rather popular in Victorian England.

Darwin’s mistress (for now anyway) was the sea, and he was good at describing her more poetically than any Valentine card. Today he wrote:

“The appearance of the sky is in these parts generally striking: the scene after sunset was particularly so. Every class & form of clouds was present, & by their shadows gave to the sea a dead black colour. The sails were flapping against the mast & a long swell quietly rolled the ship. The place where the sun had set was marked by a long red streak on the horizon & higher above it by a clear yellow space, which cast a glare on that part of the ocean. — It is in such moments that one fully recollects the many miles that separates our ship from any land.” (Feb 14)

The imagery works well, and I can almost heat the flapping sails, and see the golden light of the sun. It was an age when scientists could be poetic in their descriptions – something that is not really acceptable today.

Clouds over the Atlantic Ocean. Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (soon to be visited by the Beagle) by Tiago Fioreze (from Wikipedia Commons):

Atlantic Ocean

A couple other examples from earlier entries:

“The deep water differs as much from that near shore, as an inland lake does from a little pool. — It is not only the darkness of the blue, but the brilliancy of its tint when contrasted with the white curling tip that gives such a novel beauty to the scene. — I have seen paintings that give a faithful idea of it.” (Dec 30)

“There was a very long gradual swell on the sea, like what is seen on the Pacific: The ocean lost its flat appearance & looked more like an undulating plain.” (Jan 5)

“There was a glorious sunset this evening & is now followed by an equally fine moonlight night. — I do not think I ever before saw the sun set in a clear horizon. I certainly never remarked the marvellous rapidity with which the disk after having touched the ocean dips behind it.” (Jan 10)

Of course, it was a love-hate relationship – for Darwin continued to struggle with his seasickness. So by February 12th he had been forced to sit for “three days in painful indolence, whilst animals are staring me in the face, without labels & scientific epitaphs.” Alas, no relationship is perfect.

On a side note, I heard a radio ad today for Emirates Airline promising non-stop flights from Seattle to Dubai.  Dubai – as in the other side of the world in less than a day! Even if Darwin had taken a non-stop trip the Dubai from England, it would have easy taken him 1-2 months. I can’t help but think of the value of the “slow boat” – the time to make observations, consider hypotheses, catalog samples and ponder nature.  I doubt I could ever fully recreate Darwin’s entire trip, but I would like to cross the Atlantic someday and have time to get to know the ocean.

Tomorrow – land ho! (Well, at least rocky little islands ho!) (RJV)


  1. Except our relationship, of course! xoxox

  2. Ah, the slow boat. Carl Jung refused to travel across the Atlantic by plane, an option that arrived in his lifetime. He believed the soul became confused by the rapidity of the journey and could be left behind. To the end, he travelled between Europe and the United States only by boat.

    • THanks Leslie – great image and I’m starting to understand why he thought that way!

  3. Yes, our man Chuck knows how to write, something I work on and an asset for all of us. I kept a journal for about twenty years: often daily, at other times now and then. Some of my best writing occurred around water, whether high above Lake Washington watching the pattern of clouds dancing above the steel-gray waters heaving up and down or at the ocean. There is something about looking out at a massive body of water to put things into perspective…Good writing takes discipline: you need to put at least 500 words on a page every day. Perhaps Chuck had it easy being captive on a ship with no video games or iPad, but he still had to sit down, pen in hand, and put thoughts, observations, and feelings on paper…

    But alas, I would be like Chuck and suffer miserably from sea sickness. I am absolutely sure I would have jumped ship at the very first opportunity.


  4. So it turns out Darwin did leave a sweetheart behind – Fanny Owen. Her letters before the voyage gush about how she will miss him. But on January 8th – 11 days into the voyage – Darwin’s sister Catherine wrote to tell him that Fanny had become engaged to another man. 11 days….poor Charley

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