“Some people might find it honorary to die on the Titanic.”

Here’s Webster’s: “having or conferring distinction; commemorative; conferred or elected in recognition of achievement or service without the usual prerequisites or obligations; unpaid, voluntary; dependent on honor for fulfillment.”

Obviously an “honorary” death isn’t what he meant.

To have an honorary death on the Titanic would, by most definitions, mean to die on the Titanic without having been a passenger or crew member (or orchestra member) on her, since all of those deaths came as a result of the usual prerequisite for dying on a sinking ship: i.e., having been on the ship in the first place. And while some of the lost actually did make a choice based on honor, many went down simply by chance, or as a consequence of somebody else’s dishonorable act.

Some people—the ship’s orchestra, most of the crew, John Jacob Astor IV and many of his ilk, and so on—did find it honorable to remain on the ship; we might even stretch the first definition and say that dying conferred honor on them. But my student doesn’t seem to be writing about those who did die on the Titanic; he’s talking about an unspecified hypothetical group.

He’s talking about “some” of us, some people now living. At least I believe that’s what he’s talking about. We might think of all those people who died that night (a hundred years ago last night) as honorable.

To die an honorary death on the Titanic, for those “some” people, would mean to be given a certificate, or a plaque, or a medal, and be told “I declare you an honorary victim of the sinking of the Titanic.” Or, maybe more accurately, to have the doctor proclaim, as he draws the sheet over one’s face, “Because you have faced death boldly, I now declare you to have died on the Titanic.”

There’s no way the choice of word really works, although for some reason I think most readers do know what he meant.

As an aside: At least he wrote “the Titanic,” not merely “Titanic.” Does anyone besides me cringe when people refer to “the sinking of  Titanic“? Where did the article go, lately? Listen to any sailor all the way back into time and you’ll hear “Hoist up the John B.‘s sails” “Let the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.” “On the good ship Lollipop.” “The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.” “We came over on the Mayflower.” I certainly would never claim that I had a berth on Queen Elizabeth II“—I don’t think she’d let me climb on board of her! Why the change?

Maybe the nautical “the” ran away with the dance “the.” I went to the Prom, and so did my sisters, and my mother, and my cousin Charley, and any number of other 18-year-olds over time, twirling on the enchanted dance floor and into their adult lives. Now, though, kids go “to Prom,” sounding as if it’s a place rather than an event: last June I went to Paris, and this year I’m going to Prom.

Back from the aside: Let’s have some good writing, for a change. I want to offer everyone a reading of Thomas Hardy’s great poem in memory of those who died on the Titanic a century ago, a world ago. Let honor fall where it may.

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I
            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
II
            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
III
            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
IV
            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
V
            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
VI
            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
VII
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
VIII
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
IX
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
X
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
XI
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““Some people might find it honorary to die on the Titanic.”

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