Music of the Sea in a Shell / ROBERT W. LYND

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Dec 11, 1948

Music of the Sea in a Shell

    As I lay in bed the other night wishing that I were back in Brighton being lulled asleep by the sound of the sea, I suddenly wondered why I had never taken the trouble to possess one of those large tropical shells, shaped like enormous cowries, which, when put to the ear, reverberate the music of the ocean even in the suburb of a great city.

    I remember two such shells in the drawing-room of my grandfather’s farm when I was a child and how pleasant it was to take one of them up and to listen this far inland to the sound of the waves of the Portrush sands.

    Many years afterwards I heard someone explaining that it is not the echo of the sea that you hear from the shell but the noise made by the blood in your own ear. I do not know whether this is a scientific explanation or not; but what the child hears is certainly not the beat of his own ear-drum, but the eternally imprisoned echo of waves, breaking on a shore.

    Whether I should get the same pleasure from listening to a shell now that I am approaching my second childhood I do not know. I have tried to enjoy country sounds on the wireless and on the gramophone, but somehow the nightingale’s song emerges from a machine robbed of nine-tenths of its mystery.

    It may be that the shell, not being a machine, can transmit the sounds of nature without this fatal loss. I must get a shell and see whether, when unable to go to sleep, I cannot listen to the tide at Brighton or in the South Seas with all its mystery and so soothe myself to slumber.

    For I am one of those—the majority, I fancy—upon whom the sea has a soothing effect. I know people who hate the sound of it and who cannot sleep near it; but most of us like such background music.

    Not that I am a sea-lover in the full sense of the term. I like sitting at the point of a Brighton pier better than sitting on the deck of a liner in the mid-Atlantic. I never wanted to run away to sea.

    Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem in which occurs the verse:

    “Would’st thou”—so the helmsman answered—

    “Learn the secret of the sea?

    Only those who brave its dangers

    Comprehend its mystery!”

    If Longfellow is right, I shall never comprehend the mystery of the sea, or I have never yet voluntarily braved its dangers, and I never shall except by proxy in the glorious pages of Mr. Masefield, Conrad and Sir David Bone.

    Sitting beside a coal fire with one of these authors in my hand I can enjoy being manhandled by a record gale as if the sea round Cape Horn were my native element. But, were I offered a free trip round Cape Horn at the peak of a windy season, I should turn down the offer of a job as a matador in a Spanish bull-ring.

    Much as I love the sea, with its monstrous waves and its incalculable storms, I am all for a quiet life. I enjoy a stormy day at sea—no man better—but I enjoy it best from a position within walking distance of an hotel—say about two hundred yards away.

    I have a passion for fresh air but I keep my passion within bounds and have no desire for such an overdose of fresh air as one must get when hurricane is in full blast over the Caribbean Sea.

    The fact is that, though the sea is the most restless thing on the globe, I go to it for rest and, when I am away from it for a long time, ache for its shore as a place of rest. I enjoy going to sleep more within sound of the pulse-beat of the tide.

     Will the shell when I possess it bring the sound of that pulse-beat into a London suburb? Or shall I hear only my own ear-drum? If the latter, I must get back to Brighton as soon as possible.


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