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The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad

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significance, and its lesson. It comes to us from a worthy
ancestor. We do not know whether he lived long enough for a chance
of that promotion whose way was so arduous. He belongs to the
great array of the unknown--who are great, indeed, by the sum total
of the devoted effort put out, and the colossal scale of success
attained by their insatiable and steadfast ambition. We do not
know his name; we only know of him what is material for us to know-
-that he was never backward on occasions of desperate service. We
have this on the authority of a distinguished seaman of Nelson's
time. Departing this life as Admiral of the Fleet on the eve of
the Crimean War, Sir Thomas Byam Martin has recorded for us amongst
his all too short autobiographical notes these few characteristic
words uttered by one young man of the many who must have felt that
particular inconvenience of a heroic age.

The distinguished Admiral had lived through it himself, and was a
good judge of what was expected in those days from men and ships.
A brilliant frigate captain, a man of sound judgment, of dashing
bravery and of serene mind, scrupulously concerned for the welfare
and honour of the navy, he missed a larger fame only by the chances
of the service. We may well quote on this day the words written of
Nelson, in the decline of a well-spent life, by Sir T. B. Martin,
who died just fifty years ago on the very anniversary of Trafalgar.

"Nelson's nobleness of mind was a prominent and beautiful part of
his character. His foibles--faults if you like--will never be
dwelt upon in any memorandum of mine," he declares, and goes on--
"he whose splendid and matchless achievements will be remembered
with admiration while there is gratitude in the hearts of Britons,
or while a ship floats upon the ocean; he whose example on the
breaking out of the war gave so chivalrous an impulse to the
younger men of the service that all rushed into rivalry of daring
which disdained every warning of prudence, and led to acts of
heroic enterprise which tended greatly to exalt the glory of our

These are his words, and they are true. The dashing young frigate
captain, the man who in middle age was nothing loth to give chase
single-handed in his seventy-four to a whole fleet, the man of
enterprise and consummate judgment, the old Admiral of the Fleet,
the good and trusted servant of his country under two kings and a
queen, had felt correctly Nelson's influence, and expressed himself
with precision out of the fulness of his seaman's heart.

"Exalted," he wrote, not "augmented." And therein his feeling and
his pen captured the very truth. Other men there were ready and
able to add to the treasure of victories the British navy has given
to the nation. It was the lot of Lord Nelson to exalt all this
glory. Exalt! the word seems to be created for the man.


The British navy may well have ceased to count its victories. It
is rich beyond the wildest dreams of success and fame. It may
well, rather, on a culminating day of its history, cast about for
the memory of some reverses to appease the jealous fates which
attend the prosperity and triumphs of a nation. It holds, indeed,
the heaviest inheritance that has ever been entrusted to the
courage and fidelity of armed men.

It is too great for mere pride. It should make the seamen of to-
day humble in the secret of their hearts, and indomitable in their
unspoken resolution. In all the records of history there has never
been a time when a victorious fortune has been so faithful to men
making war upon the sea. And it must be confessed that on their
part they knew how to be faithful to their victorious fortune.
They were exalted. They were always watching for her smile; night
or day, fair weather or foul, they waited for her slightest sign
with the offering of their stout hearts in their hands. And for
the inspiration of this high constancy they were indebted to Lord
Nelson alone. Whatever earthly affection he abandoned or grasped,
the great Admiral was always, before all, beyond all, a lover of
Fame. He loved her jealously, with an inextinguishable ardour and
an insatiable desire--he loved her with a masterful devotion and an
infinite trustfulness. In the plenitude of his passion he was an
exacting lover. And she never betrayed the greatness of his trust!
She attended him to the end of his life, and he died pressing her
last gift (nineteen prizes) to his heart. "Anchor, Hardy--anchor!"
was as much the cry of an ardent lover as of a consummate seaman.
Thus he would hug to his breast the last gift of Fame.

It was this ardour which made him great. He was a flaming example
to the wooers of glorious fortune. There have been great officers
before--Lord Hood, for instance, whom he himself regarded as the
greatest sea officer England ever had. A long succession of great
commanders opened the sea to the vast range of Nelson's genius.
His time had come; and, after the great sea officers, the great
naval tradition passed into the keeping of a great man. Not the
least glory of the navy is that it understood Nelson. Lord Hood
trusted him. Admiral Keith told him: "We can't spare you either
as Captain or Admiral." Earl St. Vincent put into his hands,
untrammelled by orders, a division of his fleet, and Sir Hyde
Parker gave him two more ships at Copenhagen than he had asked for.
So much for the chiefs; the rest of the navy surrendered to him
their devoted affection, trust, and admiration. In return he gave
them no less than his own exalted soul. He breathed into them his
own ardour and his own ambition. In a few short years he
revolutionized, not the strategy or tactics of sea-warfare, but the
very conception of victory itself. And this is genius. In that
alone, through the fidelity of his fortune and the power of his
inspiration, he stands unique amongst the leaders of fleets and
sailors. He brought heroism into the line of duty. Verily he is a
terrible ancestor.

And the men of his day loved him. They loved him not only as
victorious armies have loved great commanders; they loved him with
a more intimate feeling as one of themselves. In the words of a
contemporary, he had "a most happy way of gaining the affectionate
respect of all who had the felicity to serve under his command."

To be so great and to remain so accessible to the affection of
one's fellow-men is the mark of exceptional humanity. Lord
Nelson's greatness was very human. It had a moral basis; it needed
to feel itself surrounded by the warm devotion of a band of
brothers. He was vain and tender. The love and admiration which
the navy gave him so unreservedly soothed the restlessness of his
professional pride. He trusted them as much as they trusted him.
He was a seaman of seamen. Sir T. B. Martin states that he never
conversed with any officer who had served under Nelson "without
hearing the heartiest expressions of attachment to his person and
admiration of his frank and conciliatory manner to his
subordinates." And Sir Robert Stopford, who commanded one of the
ships with which Nelson chased to the West Indies a fleet nearly
double in number, says in a letter: "We are half-starved and
otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our
reward is that we are with Nelson."

This heroic spirit of daring and endurance, in which all public and
private differences were sunk throughout the whole fleet, is Lord
Nelson's great legacy, triply sealed by the victorious impress of
the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar. This is a legacy whose value
the changes of time cannot affect. The men and the ships he knew
how to lead lovingly to the work of courage and the reward of glory
have passed away, but Nelson's uplifting touch remains in the
standard of achievement he has set for all time. The principles of
strategy may be immutable. It is certain they have been, and shall
be again, disregarded from timidity, from blindness, through
infirmity of purpose. The tactics of great captains on land and
sea can be infinitely discussed. The first object of tactics is to
close with the adversary on terms of the greatest possible
advantage; yet no hard-and-fast rules can be drawn from experience,
for this capital reason, amongst others--that the quality of the
adversary is a variable element in the problem. The tactics of
Lord Nelson have been amply discussed, with much pride and some
profit. And yet, truly, they are already of but archaic interest.
A very few years more and the hazardous difficulties of handling a
fleet under canvas shall have passed beyond the conception of
seamen who hold in trust for their country Lord Nelson's legacy of
heroic spirit. The change in the character of the ships is too
great and too radical. It is good and proper to study the acts of
great men with thoughtful reverence, but already the precise
intention of Lord Nelson's famous memorandum seems to lie under
that veil which Time throws over the clearest conceptions of every
great art. It must not be forgotten that this was the first time
when Nelson, commanding in chief, had his opponents under way--the
first time and the last. Had he lived, had there been other fleets
left to oppose him, we would, perhaps, have learned something more
of his greatness as a sea officer. Nothing could have been added
to his greatness as a leader. All that can be affirmed is, that on
no other day of his short and glorious career was Lord Nelson more
splendidly true to his genius and to his country's fortune.


And yet the fact remains that, had the wind failed and the fleet
lost steerage way, or, worse still, had it been taken aback from
the eastward, with its leaders within short range of the enemy's
guns, nothing, it seems, could have saved the headmost ships from
capture or destruction. No skill of a great sea officer would have
availed in such a contingency. Lord Nelson was more than that, and
his genius would have remained undiminished by defeat. But
obviously tactics, which are so much at the mercy of irremediable
accident, must seem to a modern seaman a poor matter of study. The
Commander-in-Chief in the great fleet action that will take its
place next to the Battle of Trafalgar in the history of the British
navy will have no such anxiety, and will feel the weight of no such
dependence. For a hundred years now no British fleet has engaged
the enemy in line of battle. A hundred years is a long time, but
the difference of modern conditions is enormous. The gulf is
great. Had the last great fight of the English navy been that of
the First of June, for instance, had there been no Nelson's
victories, it would have been wellnigh impassable. The great
Admiral's slight and passion-worn figure stands at the parting of
the ways. He had the audacity of genius, and a prophetic

The modern naval man must feel that the time has come for the
tactical practice of the great sea officers of the past to be laid
by in the temple of august memories. The fleet tactics of the
sailing days have been governed by two points: the deadly nature
of a raking fire, and the dread, natural to a commander dependent
upon the winds, to find at some crucial moment part of his fleet
thrown hopelessly to leeward. These two points were of the very
essence of sailing tactics, and these two points have been
eliminated from the modern tactical problem by the changes of
propulsion and armament. Lord Nelson was the first to disregard
them with conviction and audacity sustained by an unbounded trust
in the men he led. This conviction, this audacity and this trust
stand out from amongst the lines of the celebrated memorandum,
which is but a declaration of his faith in a crushing superiority
of fire as the only means of victory and the only aim of sound
tactics. Under the difficulties of the then existing conditions he
strove for that, and for that alone, putting his faith into
practice against every risk. And in that exclusive faith Lord
Nelson appears to us as the first of the moderns.

Against every risk, I have said; and the men of to-day, born and
bred to the use of steam, can hardly realize how much of that risk
was in the weather. Except at the Nile, where the conditions were
ideal for engaging a fleet moored in shallow water, Lord Nelson was
not lucky in his weather. Practically it was nothing but a quite
unusual failure of the wind which cost him his arm during the
Teneriffe expedition. On Trafalgar Day the weather was not so much
unfavourable as extremely dangerous.

It was one of these covered days of fitful sunshine, of light,
unsteady winds, with a swell from the westward, and hazy in
general, but with the land about the Cape at times distinctly
visible. It has been my lot to look with reverence upon the very
spot more than once, and for many hours together. All but thirty
years ago, certain exceptional circumstances made me very familiar
for a time with that bight in the Spanish coast which would be
enclosed within a straight line drawn from Faro to Spartel. My
well-remembered experience has convinced me that, in that corner of
the ocean, once the wind has got to the northward of west (as it
did on the 20th, taking the British fleet aback), appearances of
westerly weather go for nothing, and that it is infinitely more
likely to veer right round to the east than to shift back again.
It was in those conditions that, at seven on the morning of the
21st, the signal for the fleet to bear up and steer east was made.
Holding a clear recollection of these languid easterly sighs
rippling unexpectedly against the run of the smooth swell, with no
other warning than a ten-minutes' calm and a queer darkening of the
coast-line, I cannot think, without a gasp of professional awe, of
that fateful moment. Perhaps personal experience, at a time of
life when responsibility had a special freshness and importance,
has induced me to exaggerate to myself the danger of the weather.
The great Admiral and good seaman could read aright the signs of
sea and sky, as his order to prepare to anchor at the end of the
day sufficiently proves; but, all the same, the mere idea of these
baffling easterly airs, coming on at any time within half an hour
or so, after the firing of the first shot, is enough to take one's
breath away, with the image of the rearmost ships of both divisions
falling off, unmanageable, broadside on to the westerly swell, and
of two British Admirals in desperate jeopardy. To this day I
cannot free myself from the impression that, for some forty
minutes, the fate of the great battle hung upon a breath of wind
such as I have felt stealing from behind, as it were, upon my cheek
while engaged in looking to the westward for the signs of the true

Never more shall British seamen going into action have to trust the
success of their valour to a breath of wind. The God of gales and
battles favouring her arms to the last, has let the sun of
England's sailing-fleet and of its greatest master set in unclouded
glory. And now the old ships and their men are gone; the new ships
and the new men, many of them bearing the old, auspicious names,
have taken up their watch on the stern and impartial sea, which
offers no opportunities but to those who know how to grasp them
with a ready hand and an undaunted heart.


This the navy of the Twenty Years' War knew well how to do, and
never better than when Lord Nelson had breathed into its soul his
own passion of honour and fame. It was a fortunate navy. Its
victories were no mere smashing of helpless ships and massacres of
cowed men. It was spared that cruel favour, for which no brave
heart had ever prayed. It was fortunate in its adversaries. I say
adversaries, for on recalling such proud memories we should avoid
the word "enemies," whose hostile sound perpetuates the antagonisms
and strife of nations, so irremediable perhaps, so fateful--and
also so vain. War is one of the gifts of life; but, alas! no war
appears so very necessary when time has laid its soothing hand upon
the passionate misunderstandings and the passionate desires of
great peoples. "Le temps," as a distinguished Frenchman has said,
"est un galant homme." He fosters the spirit of concord and
justice, in whose work there is as much glory to be reaped as in
the deeds of arms.

One of them disorganized by revolutionary changes, the other rusted
in the neglect of a decayed monarchy, the two fleets opposed to us
entered the contest with odds against them from the first. By the
merit of our daring and our faithfulness, and the genius of a great
leader, we have in the course of the war augmented our advantage
and kept it to the last. But in the exulting illusion of
irresistible might a long series of military successes brings to a
nation the less obvious aspect of such a fortune may perchance be
lost to view. The old navy in its last days earned a fame that no
belittling malevolence dare cavil at. And this supreme favour they
owe to their adversaries alone.

Deprived by an ill-starred fortune of that self-confidence which
strengthens the hands of an armed host, impaired in skill but not
in courage, it may safely be said that our adversaries managed yet
to make a better fight of it in 1797 than they did in 1793. Later
still, the resistance offered at the Nile was all, and more than
all, that could be demanded from seamen, who, unless blind or
without understanding, must have seen their doom sealed from the
moment that the Goliath, bearing up under the bows of the Guerrier,
took up an inshore berth. The combined fleets of 1805, just come
out of port, and attended by nothing but the disturbing memories of
reverses, presented to our approach a determined front, on which
Captain Blackwood, in a knightly spirit, congratulated his Admiral.
By the exertions of their valour our adversaries have but added a
greater lustre to our arms. No friend could have done more, for
even in war, which severs for a time all the sentiments of human
fellowship, this subtle bond of association remains between brave
men--that the final testimony to the value of victory must be
received at the hands of the vanquished.

Those who from the heat of that battle sank together to their
repose in the cool depths of the ocean would not understand the
watchwords of our day, would gaze with amazed eyes at the engines
of our strife. All passes, all changes: the animosity of peoples,
the handling of fleets, the forms of ships; and even the sea itself
seems to wear a different and diminished aspect from the sea of
Lord Nelson's day. In this ceaseless rush of shadows and shades,
that, like the fantastic forms of clouds cast darkly upon the
waters on a windy day, fly past us to fall headlong below the hard
edge of an implacable horizon, we must turn to the national spirit,
which, superior in its force and continuity to good and evil
fortune, can alone give us the feeling of an enduring existence and
of an invincible power against the fates.

Like a subtle and mysterious elixir poured into the perishable clay
of successive generations, it grows in truth, splendour, and
potency with the march of ages. In its incorruptible flow all
round the globe of the earth it preserves from the decay and
forgetfulness of death the greatness of our great men, and amongst
them the passionate and gentle greatness of Nelson, the nature of
whose genius was, on the faith of a brave seaman and distinguished
Admiral, such as to "Exalt the glory of our nation."

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