Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The quiet realization of prolonged expectation
from "Two Years Before the Mast," Richard Henry Dana (1840)

The captain went up to town in the boat with Mr. H-----, and left us to pass another night on board ship, and to come up with the morning's tide under command of the pilot.

So much did we feel ourselves to be already at home, in anticipation, that our plain supper of hard bread and salt beef was barely touched; and many on board, to whom this was the first voyage, could scarcely sleep. As for myself, by one of those anomalous changes of feeling of which we are all the subjects, I found that I was in a state of indifference, for which I could by no means account.

A year before, while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston, made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling, I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.

Something of the same experience was related to me by a sailor whose first voyage was one of five years upon the North-west Coast. He had left home, a lad, and after several years of very hard and trying experience, found himself homeward bound; and such was the excitement of his feelings that, during the whole passage, he could talk and think of nothing else but his arrival, and how and when he should jump from the vessel and take his way directly home.

Yet when the vessel was made fast to the wharf and the crew dismissed, he seemed suddenly to lose all feeling about the matter. He told me that he went below and changed his dress; took some water from the scuttle-butt and washed himself leisurely; overhauled his chest, and put his clothes all in order; took his pipe from its place, filled it, and sitting down upon his chest, smoked it slowly for the last time. Here he looked round upon the forecastle in which he had spent so many years, and being alone and his shipmates scattered, he began to feel actually unhappy.

Home became almost a dream; and it was not until his brother (who had heard of the ship's arrival) came down into the forecastle and told him of things at home, and who were waiting there to see him, that he could realize where he was, and feel interest enough to put him in motion toward that place for which he had longed, and of which he had dreamed, for years.

There is probably so much of excitement in prolonged expectation, that the quiet realizing of it produces a momentary stagnation of feeling as well as of effort. It was a good deal so with me. The activity of preparation, the rapid progress of the ship, the first making land, the coming up the harbor, and old scenes breaking upon the view, produced a mental as well as bodily activity, from which the change to a perfect stillness, when both expectation and the necessity of labor failed, left a calmness, almost of indifference, from which I must be roused by some new excitement.

5 comments:

Uncle Jed said...

What a great excerpt, I had forgotten that one. Such a good book.

I was just listening to NPR and having these sorts of feelings. Interesting analysis that this seemed more a vote for change than for liberalism, not unlike 1992. It will be interesting to see how this iteration is played to avoid repeating 1994...

VT Teacher said...

I feel relief more than apathy but I agree that I'm not having to hold back from tearing down the goal posts...

Someone on NPR actually compared the situation to '92 and said that the congress is much different because it's not the "established" democratic lead. Instead, a good number of them came in along with Obama (either as a senator or, now, as a president) so they will have a stronger allegiance to him.

ronnie said...

I remember when you emailed me this after my CI processor was activated and I had expressed some ... ambivalence or confusion about how I felt. It was perfectly apt then, and it was a comfort to understand why I felt the way I did. It is apt now as well, and just as well-written as then. (I downloaded the book from Gutenberg and read it after reading the excerpt.)

Sherwood Harrington said...

Ronnie, I wish Mike had been around to send it to me right after my first marriage.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Wedding. I meant "right after my first wedding." Although I can see how it might make sense the other way, too.