Imagining Little Ocean’s Future

Thomas Moran, “Sunset at Sea”


I’m currently visiting Buford, Georgia to help out my daughter-in-law, who has just given birth to her first boy after three girls. I’m here to cover her film history classes until she returns to the classroom in two weeks.

With each of my grandchildren, I’ve written a post about his or her name. Alban (Darien’s one and only child) was easy given the importance of Albion in William Blake’s cosmology, and Esmé conjured up Salinger’s fabulous short story “To Esmé with Love and Squalor.” (I wrote about the two of them here.)

Etta was more of a challenge but I took advantage of the fact that she shares a birthday with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and cited a wonderful motherhood passage from Aurora Leigh. Eden was easy as I turned to Milton’s luscious descriptions of the garden before the fall and then, for extra effect, cited one of Lucille Clifton’s Garden of Eden poems:

into the unborn world
chaos fell away
before her like a cloud
and everywhere seemed light

seemed glorious
seemed very eden

Ocean Hugh Wilson-Bates offers a special challenge because ocean imagery is found everywhere, with wildly varying associations. At first, I thought the task would be easy because I assumed that my English PhD son Tobias, named after 18th author Tobias Smollett (my dissertation subject) and Uncle Toby Shandy (from Laurence Sterne’s novel), was naming his child either Oisin or Ossian, who is a great poet and warrior in Irish folklore. The 18th century’s James MacPherson claimed to have discovered poems by a medieval Oisin (he actually adapted Irish ballads and added his own material), and William Butler Yeats wrote a poetic epic entitled The Wanderings of Oison. But “Oison” is not pronounced “Ocean,” which is what Tobias and Candice wanted, so they opted for the conventional spelling.

Could Ocean be linked with Byron’s “Roll on thou deep and dark blue ocean roll, ten thousand ships sweep over thee in vain”? He would be an inexorable force if that were the case. Or will he be Coleridgean quiet, “as idle as a painted ship/upon a painted ocean”? Will he fit the mold of Freud’s “oceanic feelings,” which are a sense of a mystical connectedness with the universe? Or will he experience the longing of Whitman’s restless sea:

O madly the sea pushes, pushes upon the land
With love–with love.

You see what I mean about the wide range of possibilities.

I think I’ll go with John Mansfield’s visceral longing in “Sea Fever“—”I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”—which has the advantage of capturing some of the reasoning behind the name. Candice is originally from Trinidad and sometimes longs for her island home. Adding her father’s name provides a pun—ocean hue—which brings to mind Trinidad’s greatest poet.

Nobel Prize-winning Derek Walcott wrote constantly about the ocean’s changing appearances. For instance, he says of Odysseus, that

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam…

Flying away from the island he loves, meanwhile, leads him to see the ocean as follows:

I watched the island narrowing the fine
writing of foam around the precipices then
the roads as small and casual as twine
thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane
turned to the final north and turned above
The open channel with the grey sea between
The fishermen’s islets until all that I love
Folded in cloud; I watched the shallow green
That broke in places where there would be reef,
The silver glinting on the fuselage, each mile
Dividing us and all fidelity strained
Till space would snap it. Then, after a while
I thought of nothing; nothing, I prayed, would change;
When we set down at Seawell, it had rained.

If, as Tristram Shandy’s father believed, names are destiny, maybe little Ocean will grow up to be a dreamer and a seeker. Maybe he will have depths upon depths, rejecting (as Robinson Crusoe does) the safe “middle way” in search of some grander destiny. Maybe his life will be marked by exploration and we will indeed speak of  the wanderings of Oison. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” Zora Neale Hurston writes to open Their Eyes Were Watching God.

We can’t know little Ocean’s future, of course. But it’s fun to imagine what lies beyond the horizon.

This entry was posted in Browning (Elizabeth Barrett), Byron (Lord Gordon), Clifton (Lucille), MacPherson (James), Masefield (John), Sterne (Lawrence), Walcott (Derek), Whitman (Walt), Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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