The Other Stars of the Titanic Tragedy

It seems that this painting by Gordon Johnson is not correct in one respect: the haze on the horizon wasn't there.

My wife and daughter and I visited the Titanic exhibition at the National Geographic Society yesterday, and on the way in we were interviewed by a local CBS radio reporter. I’m afraid we didn’t have that much interesting to say. We weren’t aware of any anniversary (at least, not that it was yesterday in particular) and we weren’t there specifically to see the Titanic exhibition (I was more excited about the Samurai one to tell the truth). But I felt bad about giving such a lackluster interview that I think I’ve been struggling to justify the visit after the fact.

Thanks to The Online Photographer, my favorite photography blog, I found an angle that captured my imagination, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Yesterday, editor Mike Johnson published a long excerpt from Lawrence Beesley’s 1918 book (now in the public domain), “The Loss of the S.S. (sic) Titanic”. The chapter excerpted is matter-of-factly called “The Sinking of the Titanic, Seen from a Lifeboat.” Beesley was the one doing the seeing.

I’m only going to post a small chunk of the text, rather the way an iceberg presents only a tiny tip of itself out of water. It actually struck me (sorry) for the finely-recorded details of what a spectacular night it was that the ship learned it wasn’t an unterseeboot. Any amateur astronomer on board would have felt supremely lucky to be rewarded with such a starry night, thus making him or her no doubt doubly bitter upon freezing to death in the icy water a few hours later.

Here’s the very fine bit of writing that captures what an exceptionally clear, dark and still night sky served as the backdrop for all that sad drama:

The night was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen: the sky without a single cloud to mar the perfect brilliance of the stars, clustered so thickly together that in places there seemed almost more dazzling points of light set in the black sky than background of sky itself; and each star seemed, in the keen atmosphere, free from any haze, to have increased its brilliance tenfold and to twinkle and glitter with a staccato flash that made the sky seem nothing but a setting made for them in which to display their wonder. They seemed so near, and their light so much more intense than ever before, that fancy suggested they saw this beautiful ship in dire distress below and all their energies had awakened to flash messages across the black dome of the sky to each other; telling and warning of the calamity happening in the world beneath. Later, when the Titanic had gone down and we lay still on the sea waiting for the day to dawn or a ship to come, I remember looking up at the perfect sky and realizing why Shakespeare wrote the beautiful words he puts in the mouth of Lorenzo:—

Jessica, look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

[It’s sad that most of us don’t find that we understand Shakespeare better in the face of tragedy. Those Edwardians had some uncommon depth. Gads, sorry again. -Ed.]

But it seemed almost as if we could—that night: the stars seemed really to be alive and to talk. The complete absence of haze produced a phenomenon I had never seen before: where the sky met the sea the line was as clear and definite as the edge of a knife, so that the water and the air never merged gradually into each other and blended to a softened rounded horizon, but each element was so exclusively separate that where a star came low down in the sky near the clear-cut edge of the waterline, it still lost none of its brilliance. As the earth revolved and the water edge came up and covered partially the star, as it were, it simply cut the star in two, the upper half continuing to sparkle as long as it was not entirely hidden, and throwing a long beam of light along the sea to us.

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2 thoughts on “The Other Stars of the Titanic Tragedy

  1. Thanks once again for great observations of things celestial that always seem so pertinent to our lives in the here and now. I especially enjoy the intellectual range of motion that your blog reaches for and provides. I would have never had any idea of what the sky looked like when the Titanic went down, not to mention what thoughts went through the minds of survivor / observers- and Gad -Edwardians! Great writing, Doug!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Ray! Apparently one detail that James Cameron did get right was the position of the stars and sky conditions. There are also some interesting analyses of reports of ships on the horizon (which were identified at the the time as the ship California) that suggest it was stars and planets that were mistaken for ship lights. If the night was so unusually clear that would add weight to those explanations…observers would be used to stars being distorted or faint near the horizon, whereas ship lights, observed through much less atmosphere, would appear crisp. So on a superbly clear night the stars and ship lights would be harder to distinguish.

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