Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Boreham on Waiting for the Tide


Sauntering through the Melbourne Art Gallery—a favourite haunt of mine—on Friday afternoon, I was captivated by a picture that I had never seen before. I need scarcely say, therefore, that it was not hanging on the wall. The people who visit the galleries are always worth watching. On Friday my wayward eyes were arrested by a young couple—she in brown and he in navy-blue—sitting in earnest conversation in front of one of the paintings. Whether they were a honeymoon couple or merely sweethearts, I cannot say: her left hand was provokingly gloved: but it does not matter, the question is of moment to nobody but themselves. She was leaning forward—face in hands, and elbows on knees—absorbed in the study of a picture. He was eyeing it less intently, yet with genuine interest, moved thereto partly by the skill of the artist and partly by the infection of her enthusiasm.

The picture was Mr. Arthur Boyd's Waiting for the Tide. It represents a sheltered and tranquil cove in which a couple of boats are lying. The boat in the foreground is occupied by two men. They are doing nothing, for there is nothing to be done. The boat leans heavily over, showing that it is hard and fast upon the muddy bed of the little inlet. Until the tide comes swelling in, lifting and liberating it, its occupants are helpless. But their presence in the boat sufficiently indicates their determination to ply their oars and leave the bay the moment that the waters rise. Till then they are waiting—idly waiting—eagerly waiting—watchfully waiting—waiting, just waiting for the tide!

`It reminds one,' I heard the young fellow in navy-blue remark, as I slowly passed behind them, `it reminds one of Mr. Micawber waiting for something to turn up!'

I did not catch her reply: I should dearly like to have done so. I hope that, being the wise little woman that she looked, she gently reproved his lack of penetration and discernment. The observation was as shallow as the water in the picture. For between the men sitting in their stranded boat, waiting for the flowing of the tide, and Mr. Micawber pusillanimously waiting for something propitious to happen, there is all the difference in the world. Having had a good look at the picture, let us submit Mr. Micawber to a similar scrutiny.

It is in the eleventh chapter of David Copperfield that we are introduced to Mr. Micawber. He is, as ever, on the brink of ruin; and, as ever, he alternates with lightning rapidity, between the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. 'It was nothing unusual for him to begin a conversation by sobbing violently and to finish it by bursting into song. I have known him,' says David Copperfield, `I have known him come home to supper with a flood of tears and a declaration that nothing was now left but a gaol; and go to bed making a calculation of the expense of fitting the house with bow-windows, in case anything turned up. This,' David adds, 'was his favourite expression.'

Three pages further on, Mr. Micawber is contemplating his release from prison under the Insolvent Debtors' Act. 'And then,' he exclaims, `I shall, please Heaven, begin to live in an entirely new manner if—if—if, in short, if anything turns up!'

I turn three more pages and find Mr. Micawber, out of the bitterness of his own experience, pouring sage counsel into the ears of David. `My dear young friend,' he says, `I am older than you; a man of some experience in life, and—and of some experience in difficulties, generally speaking. At present, and until something turns up (which I am, I may say, hourly expecting) I have nothing to bestow but advice.'

And so on. In the daytime Mr. Micawber mingles with the throng upon the city streets, hoping for something to turn up among the faces that he meets there. In the evening he throws himself into his chair, adjusts his spectacles, and settles down to the newspaper, 'just to see whether anything turns up among the advertisements.'

There, then, is Mr. Micawber! Anything more unlike the boatmen in Mr. Boyd's painting it would be very difficult to imagine. Something may or may not turn up to gratify the baseless optimism of Mr. Micawber: as a rule nothing of the kind eventuates, and Mr. Micawber is left lamenting. But the tide! The tide is bound to turn! And not only so but it is bound to turn at a certain time. My morning paper tells me that it will be high water today at 8.57 a.m. and 7.51 p.m. Mr. Micawber's newspaper—the paper in which he expected something to turn up among the advertisements—never once mentioned the hour at which that nebulous and mysterious happening would take place! The men in the picture, on the contrary, know the exact moment at which the waters may be expected to come surging in; and they have everything in readiness.

That, in their case, is the beauty of it! And that, in Mr. Micawber's case, is the wretchedness and the pathos of it. Yes, the pathos of it! I think of W. J. Wills, the young astronomer and explorer, the most gallant figure among all our Australian pathfinders. The Burke and Wills expedition—the expedition in which, although only twenty-six, he was second in command—was the first to cross the continent. Leaving Melbourne on August 20, 1860, they reached the northern coast early in the following year. But disaster overwhelmed them on the return journey. Their supply of provisions gave out, and they were left to perish miserably in the hot and barren desert. Gray was the first to die. Burke, feeling that his end was near, attempted to stagger to Cooper's Creek, knowing that there his body would be discovered and taken to Melbourne for burial. Unwilling to see his leader go to a solitary death, King—the junior member of the party—decided to accompany him. Leaving Wills alone, the two set out into the wilderness. They had not gone far when Burke fell upon the sands, and King hurried back to Wills. But, during the absence of his comrades, Wills, too, had passed away. And there, lying near the body, was his journal, kept as was Burke's, to the very last:
'Here I am,' says the final entry, `here I am, waiting, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up!'

There lay the pathos of it! Waiting, like Mr. Micawber! In that brave young heart of his, Wills knew that, as in Mr. Micawber's case, nothing was likely to turn up; but he made up his mind to keep smiling to the last. Waiting like Mr. Micawber! There is an infinity of difference between that and Waiting for the Tide!
The something for which Mr. Micawber and our gallant young explorer are waiting—is a spectral contingency, a remote possibility, a shadowy chance, a forlorn hope. The tide—for which these boatmen are waiting—is the natural representative of those stable and reliable forces that dominate life at every turn. The tide stands for the stately dependabilities by which we are encompassed and surrounded. The masterly mechanism of the universe—the rising and the setting of the sun; the persistence in their orbits of the stars; the paths of the planets; the phases of the moon; the revolution of the earth; the cycle of the seasons; the round of the year—all this, like the ebbing and the flowing of the tide, is wonderfully reliable. The astronomers tell us that a comet that was last seen shortly after midnight on March 3, 1603, will again make its appearance at 9.30 p.m. on September 17, 1962; and we know for certain that, on September 17, 1962, the dazzling phenomenon will again adorn the evening sky. The astronomers tell us that, in a few years' time, there will be a total eclipse of the moon, visible in such-and-such a latitude and at such-and-such an hour ; and we know that, to the very minute, the earth will be darkened and the silver moon obscured.

Obviously, there is about all this nothing that savours of Mr. Micawber. We are not the children of chance. Life is controlled by a superb combination of certainties. They may, with the most implicit confidence, be waited for; and they will always prove themselves to be worth the waiting. The thoughtless observation of the young fellow in the navy-blue suit was hopelessly wide of the mark. I sincerely hope that his fair companion, with characteristic charm and sweetness and delicacy, demonstrated to him his egregarious blunder and tactfully set him right. The tide represents our best friends –the friends in whom we can always trust: the friends who never fail—and since she is likely to be the truest, dearest, most constant friend that be will ever know, there is a sense in which the tide represents her! And it would be painful to think of hurt as leaving the Art Gallery without a clear perception of the essential difference between her fond fidelity and the phantom-like fickleness of the will-o'-the-wisp after which Mr. Micawber was perpetually dancing.

I find it singularly pleasant today to think of those young people—she in brown and he in navy-blue—sitting in front of Mr. Boyd's picture. I hope they remained there long after I myself left the gallery—long enough, at least, to become impressed by the subtle significance that lurks in the lovely canvas. If they did, they will make time, through all the happy years to come, for just such quiet and restful hours as they were enjoying together today. For the tide—the tide for which the men in the picture were waiting—is the emblem of all the leisurely things in life. The tide cannot be hurried; there is nothing for it but to do as the men in the picture are doing; you must wait for it.

We have accelerated the pace of almost everything. The wheels of life revolve a hundred times as swiftly as they used to do. We dash through the years at a break-neck pace. And we have every reason to be proud of our achievements. But one cannot check a flush of pleasure at the thought that there are a few things—and those are the best things—that still jog along at the same old pace. An oak takes just as long to grow in my garden as it took in the Garden of Eden. The tide ebbs and flows today exactly as it ebbed and flowed in the days of the Pharaohs. It soothes the brain and steadies the nerves and sweetens the soul to fasten one's eyes for awhile on these leisurely and unhurriable things. They breathe a benediction of peace on all beholders.

If these young people—she in brown and he in navy-blue—are as wise as I suppose them, they will take the hint. In the years ahead of them they will be tempted to smile disdainfully upon the days when they loitered in Art Galleries and wasted time in doing nothing. To be forewarned is to forearmed; and therefore I forewarn them. Let them, as they sit in front of Mr. Boyd's, eloquent picture, pay good heed to the lesson that the tide is trying to teach them. The men in the boat may be in a perfect agony of impatience; it makes no difference; they must wait. The tide takes its time; it waits for no man: it compels all men to wait for it.

If these young people learn the lesson of the tide, I shall meet them again in the Gallery. It may be in ten years' time; it may be in twenty: I cannot tell. But, however pressing the claims of business and society may become, they will always contrive to set aside a few delicious hours in which they can sit at their ease, and sit together, luxuriating in the beauty of the world. If the hour appointed proves wet or cold or windy, they will come to the Gallery and enjoy the beauties of Art. If, on the other hand, the chosen day proves sunny, they will stroll in the fields, or ramble in the woods, or sit in the park and enjoy the beauties of Nature. The tide declines to be infected by tile fever of the folk who wait for it; let the girl in brown and her lover in navy-blue take that hint.

Let no man misinterpret! The doctrine of the tide is not a doctrine of Indolence: it is a doctrine of Activity. In point of fact, the tide is never still. Although it does its work in a restful and leisurely way, it does it. And it does it well. It is ever so; the world's best work is done by those who never know the fret and fever of haste. In their impatience the boatmen may feel that the tide is slow; but they know that it is sure. And they know that, before so very long, the tide will bring them their priceless opportunity.

For the tide—the tide for which they are waiting—does not intend these men to spend their lives waiting with folded hands in the seclusion of a narrow bay. The tide, for which they have waited so impatiently, comes at last! And then, if they have the will for it, and the strength for it, they can leave the tiny inlet in which they have been enclosed, and court a more adventurous experience on the broad waters beyond the bay. And then, as they do business in deep waters, they will feel that the tide, which seemed so long in coming, was worth the ordeal of waiting, after all!

I wonder if those young people—she in brown and he in navy-blue—heard the picture whispering that secret to their hearts! The tide—so faithful and so sure—offers every man, sooner or later, the chance of escaping from the tiny cove of the Here to the broad bosom of the Everywhere, from the little bay of Self, to the infinite sea of Service; and they are life's most enviable voyagers who, when the sublime opportunity presents itself, are all alive and all alert, waiting, with oars in rollocks, to make the most of it. It is the hour of destiny. The kingdom of heaven pours its wealth into the heart of the man, who is ready when that hour strikes. He was waiting: but only waiting for the tide!

F W Boreham, ‘Waiting for the Tide’, The Nest of Spears (London: The Epworth Press, 1927), 48-57.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Waiting for the Tide.