English Literature and the Meanings of Ocean, 1550 – 1750
Steve Mentz, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of English
Abstract: My current research explores the seaward turn of early modern English and European literary culture. As the transoceanic globe was re-mapped and re-imagined after the voyages of Columbus, da Gama, Magellan, Drake, and others, the ancient literary and cultural meanings of the ocean changed. God-seas and visions of chaos came to share conceptual space with physical bodies of salt water that were being explored, crossed, and, in part, understood. European culture’s slow acquisition of knowledge about the mysterious deeps demonstrates that once-traditional notions of “disenchantment” do not accurately describe the cultural transformations of early modernity. An oceanic perspective suggests that, rather than rejecting ancient and medieval understandings of the sea, early modern culture saw a progressive accumulation of multiple kinds of knowledge. While classical authorities including Plato had wished to shun the “corrupting sea,” the transoceanic turn facilitated the radical expansion of early modern culture. Every new thing early modern Europe desired – colonies, technologies, gold, spices, empire – arrived by sea. As this culture learned to understand itself as maritime, the contrast between happy sailors and shipwrecked swimmers came to define the human experience of the salt-water world.