After the “unsinkable” steamship Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage from London to New York in 1912, Thomas Hardy wrote “The Convergence of the Twain” to be printed in the program of a charity performance given at the Royal Opera House to aid the victims. Exactly how comforting the bereaved found this ironic eleven-section work has not been recorded. For Hardy, the disaster was an occasion for reflecting on the relationships among humans, nature, and an impersonal supernatural force controlling or at least foreseeing events.
The poem is written in eleven three-line stanzas; the three lines of each stanza rhyme. The first two lines of each stanza have six to eight syllables, and the last line of each has twelve or thirteen syllables. The stanzas fall into two groups: The first five stanzas describe the sunken ship, and the last six trace the events leading up to the sinking.
The omniscient speaker of the poem first sees the sunken ship and the changes in its situation. The first stanza emphasizes how the shipwreck is now wholly separated from the “human vanity” and “Pride of Life” that led to its building. Thus, from the very beginning, the speaker disparages the possibility of creating an unsinkable craft. The speaker then turns his attention to the ironic changes in some of the more striking parts of the ship. The enormous fire-boxes, intended to burn coal to create power for the engines, almost magical with their “salamandrine fires,” are now cold. The costly mirrors and jewelry, meant for the wealthy passengers and “in joy designed,” are now lying in the dark with only sea worms and fish to see them. These creatures ask, at the end of stanza 5, what the “vaingloriousness” of the ship is doing in their submarine world.
In the second part of the poem, the speaker answers the question, ironically tracing the circumstances leading to the disaster. He points out that just as the ship took time to build, so the iceberg that hit it was growing. Although “no mortal eye” foresaw what would happen to bring ship and iceberg together, some supernatural force, the “Immanent Will” or “Spinner of the Years,” could see that they would be “twin halves of one august event.” Finally, in stanza 11, each object—ship and iceberg—hears the supernatural “Now!” and what had seemed unconnected suddenly comes together with enough force to “jar two hemispheres,” referring to the impact of the disaster in both England and the United States.
Hardy uses an omniscient speaker and elevated, abstract diction to place the events of the poem in a cosmic context. Instead of identifying with any of the participants in the action, the speaker views them all from a detached, lofty viewpoint that reinforces the sense that no one close to the events genuinely understands them. The structure of the poem, beginning with the result and moving back in time to describe everyone’s ignorance of the impending doom, further reinforces this sense of lofty detachment.
The omniscient speaker in “The Convergence of the Twain,” as in many of Hardy’s poems, uses irony as the dominant approach to understanding life. On the verbal level, this irony appears in the contrasts between the Titanic before the sinking and after the sinking in stanzas 1-5: “Solitude of the sea” is as different from “human vanity” in stanza 1 as the “fires” from the “cold currents” in stanza 2 or the “grotesque” worm from the “opulent” mirror-gazers in stanza 3. In stanzas 6 through 11, verbal irony contrasts the “smart ship,” with its “cleaving wing,” planned and built...
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by humans, with the iceberg, a “sinister mate” growing without human knowledge in “shadowy silent distance.” All these ironic contrasts heighten the sense that what actually happened to the ship was the opposite of what was expected to happen.
On the narrative level, the irony appears most strongly in the second part of the poem, as Hardy tells two stories at once. The story of the ship seems triumphant, a human technological success; yet at the same time, Hardy tells of another object growing—the iceberg—which is the opposite of technology and human planning. Whereas the ship is “smart,” the iceberg is only a “Shape,” taking form in “shadowy silent distance” from the observable “stature, grace, and hue” of the ocean liner. Yet, despite human plans and powers, the dumb iceberg will conquer the “smart” ship.
On the structural and situational levels, the irony emphasizes the narrowness of human knowledge. The people building the ship are unaware of the parallel growth of the iceberg; only the “Immanent Will” or “Spinner of the Years” knows in advance the fate of the ship. Thus, the humans are shown as plunging ahead with their project, taking insufficient account of nonhuman forces in the world.