A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

John Gregory Brown

Literature is the grand repository of our dreams and desires and fears, of our longing for meaning and justice and redemption, of our yearning for intimacy and community and solitude, of our unquenchable pursuit of beauty. The great aim of literature is to render in words the nobility and majesty of life.

That images of water should play such a prominent and recurrent role as a metaphor in literature is hardly surprising, given the essential place of water in life itself. Water is, of course, mutable and sublime, sustaining and destructive, and throughout literature water serves as a representation not only of birth but of death, not merely of placidity but of violence. Water transports the hero to his great adventures and carries him home. Water holds the promise both of freedom and of enslavement, its shimmering surface inviting, its depths mysterious and daunting.

And it is water in the form of the sea that has most captured the imagination of authors. The sea "keeps eternal whisperings around / Desolate shores," the poet John Keats observed, and those "eternal whisperings" have been deciphered by writers for centuries, from Homer and Daniel Defoe to Walt Whitman and Edgar Alan Poe and Joseph Conrad, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" to Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and John Barth's The Tidewater Tales.

"The sea's moods and uses sex it," the British novelist John Fowles has written. "It is the great creatrix, feeder, womb and vagina, place of pleasure; the gentlest thing on earth, the most maternal; the most seductive whore, and handsomely the most faithless. It has the attributes of all women, and men too. It can be both subtle and noble, brave and energetic; and far crueller than the meanest, most sadistic human king who ever ruled...In its rages we admire the total lack of reason and justice, the blindness to all but the laws of its own nature."

"Surely the sea / is the most beautiful face in our universe," the poet Mary Oliver declares. "The sea is History," writes Derek Walcott. In literature, the sea is whatever we dream and desire and fear. Like water itself, literature's depictions of the sea are mutable and sublime, offering a metaphor through which we again and again attempt to better understand our own lives.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College