by Dr. Jeffrey LantAuthor’s program note. You know Titanic. She is the most famous ship that ever sailed… and the most famous ship that foundered, listed, and sank. It is this ship I ask you to board with me now, having cleared your mind of everything you know, every thought and impression you have ever had about this great ship, and so recapture the state of mind you would have had when you boarded her at Southampton, England 10 April, 1912. For you are weighing anchor towards destiny… but do not know it, no one does.
The Ritz afloat.
The White Star Line was an enterprise that dreamed dreams of magnitude, dreams of floating palaces, of luxury that made you catch your breath and hurry back to record what you saw in your diary, which your grandchildren would savor, a treasured heirloom forever. They brought the very idea of awe to their work… and it was nothing but the very truth, a source of pride to an empire that existed solely because of its command of the seas.
Born in Belfast.
The idea for Titanic and her sister ships RMS Olympic and RMS Britannic commenced in mid-1907 when White Star Line’s chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, met with American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, the man who controlled White Star Line’s parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. These men had everything… and so, of course, they wanted more. And they had the means to get it.
They insisted, they were adamant, Titanic must be the ultimate in every single element, every feature, every component, the dernier cri, the ship for which even the word acme was not good enough.
Thus they hired the renowned firm of Harland and Wolff, giving them carte blanche, with but a single command: the result must be the best, unrivalled, unexampled; colossus in the age of colossi, the incontrovertible symbol of this greatest age of man and his wondrous works.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was stinted for Titanic, and if six men were killed constructing her, with 246 injuries overall, 28 of them “severe” (meaning loss of limb), why, what did that signify… great enterprises have great costs.
Launched 31 May, 1911.
Of the many proud days in Belfast, this was amongst the proudest for this was a day when the intricate skills of the men of this turbulent city were on best display. Project supervisor Lord Pirrie, J. Pierpont Morgan and J. Bruce Ismay were joined by over 100,000 jubilant, God-fearing people who cheered to the very echo the ship, its sublime grace, the officials who dreamed, the designers who imagined, and the small army of workers who constructed this masterpiece.
So you who read of these happenings longed to be part of Titanic and her gilded future… rather impulsively buying two tickets, a present (rather expensive to be sure) for your wife, for an event you would never forget, of that you were sure.
Thus you found yourself in Southampton… head high, walking up the gangway… where you heard the unmistakable sound of a fashionable waltz, “Songe d’Automne”… it was exquisite… if a trifle sad for such a glad occasion. Yes, haunting, beautiful… mentally noting you would ask the band to play it en route when you wanted just the right sound for a perfect evening…
Thus did the great ship sail on… with no one imagining that she would soon become renowned not for every aspect of nautical expertise, but for hubris, arrogance, ineptitude and for an end that would rival the very essence of Hell itself.
11:40 pm 14 April, 1912. The end begins.
At 11:39 pm of its final night afloat, the magnificent Titanic was a glorious vision, lighting heaven itself, steaming to a ceremonial entrance in New York City, the happy berth of 2,223 people, including the creme de la creme of European and American Society, names you knew, admired, envied.
Just one minute later, suffering a glancing blow from an iceberg whilst maneuvering to avoid it, Titanic began its transformation into a metaphor, not for man’s greatness and technical abilities but for his littleness in the face of unkind and unrelenting Nature, becoming a matter of myth, not merely history.
“No, ‘t is not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ‘t is enough, ‘t will serve.” (“Romeo and Juliet”).
And so it did… a mere gash in the pristine hull an invitation for the gelid waters of the ice-flecked Atlantic to rush in, mocking the high works of man, drowning them without any effort at all, their merest motion enough for the gravest consequences.
In such times, the very best and the very worst of man’s behaviors are evidenced… how one demands that half-filled life boats be lowered into the calm sea, the only chance to live, while another, unbidden, gives up a place of safety in that very boat, to ensure the life of a total stranger. The remaining moments on doomed Titanic evince all, telling evidence of who we are and what we may do at anytime, to anyone, for good or ill.
Then came the moment you had to decide…a single moment that shows who you are… and determines what you must do. The moment is charged with importance; it is a life or death decision… and you must make it now, decisively, without regret or recrimination, and absolutely no opportunity to alter it, even if you could.
“Darling, get in the life boat.”
And so you, like every other passenger traveling with a loved one, must act. Must do the right thing, although that thing may cost you your life. And this action must be prompt, for the great thing that was once astonishing Titanic is sinking faster now, its frightful end apparent, and with it your fate.
Thus, you look into your beloved’s eyes and realize that your lives are now separating forever… and the pain is more than you can bear. Then, as her life boat is lowered, you remember a token, sacred now, in your pocket. A locket… with pictures of you both and the single line, “Remember, 14 April, 1912”, the happy day you meant, a lifetime ago, to memorialize… Giving this is the last time you touch her hand… a fact she will never forget and will cherish forever.
Now trapped on the sloping deck, you search your soul for whatever comfort you can derive… and resolve not to die here, passive, but to jump to your fate. As you do, you hear the band still playing; the song you first heard upon boarding, the “Songe d’Automne”, now not merely a waltz… but a hymn for a ship, an era… and now… for you.
Author’s note: Of all the people who sailed on Titanic’s only voyage, just 710 survived. The remainder heard the valiant band play on, until it reached its final arrangement. There is good reason to suppose that was the “Songe d’Automne”. It was composed by Archibald Joyce, the “English Waltz King”. We shall never know for sure, because the entire band went down with the ship.
Click here to listen and think on its pathetic history and its final performance on the fateful ship Titanic.