This poem by Derek Mahon is about Bruce Ismay’s troubled life after he survived the sinking of the Titanic. The poem shows that Bruce Ismay may have survived in a physical sense. But he became mentally and emotionally unwell and died a broken man as a result.
The inquiry that followed the sinking of the Titanic led to gossip that he had acted in a cowardly manner. From the poem it seems Ismay was criticised for not drowning with the crew. They and many male passengers were called heroes for going down with the wreck. Ismay seems to reject the criticism that he ‘got away’. He didn’t in an emotional sense. Later in the poem he shows guilt for what happened to the third class passengers. He went on to live a tormented life, with his good name destroyed and his conscience bothering him severely. Derek Mahon shows sympathy for Ismay. In this poem Mahon imagines what Ismay would have said about his painful and isolated existence after his disgrace.
Ismay hated the rumours that he made a cowardly escape:
‘They said I got away in a boat and humbled me at the inquiry’. Ismay’s use of the word ‘humbled’ suggests that he feels he was treated unfairly. The words ‘got away’ show that there was a bias against Ismay. In the eyes of the investigators or press he should have drowned so as to ensure his reputation. Because he owned the ship he claims he suffered as much pain that night as any drowned crewmember: ‘I tell you I sank as far that night as any hero’.
The use of the word ‘hero’ is very sarcastic. He is mocking the way the enquiry and the press use language. The officials praise the drowned for drowning and condemn the survivors for surviving. Perhaps he misses the point that he may not have been as selfless as some of those heroes who put others first. He is trying to portray himself as a victim also. He portrays his ‘shivering on the dark water’. In addition to that physical trauma, he endured further misery. He felt the horror of hearing his life investment...
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