She Contained a Portion of the Sea: The Cockle Shell and the Sea

Why Not Waves? And Why Not Tide?

The Cockle Shell and the Sea
Anon
The Gentleman's Magazine, XXXIII (July, 1813), p. 63

A Cockle Shell, whose slender cup
Had by a wave been lifted up,
And gently lodg'd, secure and sound,
A little way upon the ground,
Yet not so far, but ev'ry day,
She drank the falling of the spray,
Grew vain at length to think that she
Contained a portion of the sea.
"And why not more? (at length she cried)
And why not waves, and why not tide?
Perhaps, though men account me small,
I might on proof contain it all;
'Tis worth the trial; how should I
Be sure I can't, unless I try?"
Fir'd by the grandeur of the thought,
To quit her safe retreat she sought;
And, victim of her idiot pride,
Plung'd downward in the swelling tide:
But now no fav'ring wave was there;
Ambition fled, arose Despair;
When a rude billow, that receiv'd
The wanton fool, now undeceiv'd,
Recoiling, for a moment bore
The buoyant trifle from the shore,
And murmur'd: "Idiot! learn too late
The misery of presumptuous fate.
Of holding seas no longer think:
The waste spray thou no more shall drink.
Know, vain pretender, to thy cost,
Thy small capacity is lost."
Then, flowing with impetuous shock
Against the angle of a rock
The Shell, at one tremendous stroke,
Into an hundred atoms broke. (via Romantic Circles)


The above poem is part of the British War Poetry of 1813, although British War Poetry spans from 1793 to 1815. The poetry itself comes at a time of political turmoil with war between Britain and France, up till the end of Napoleon’s reign at Waterloo in July of 1815. The poems were published primarily in magazines and newspapers and were widely circulated, although not originally collected and anthologized; major Romantic writers such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Shelley had written on the subject matter, but many were not published initially and only after the war period.

As I perused the 350 poems of the digital collection via Romantic Circles, the above poem caught my attention for the symbolic emphasis of the theme. Not only is the poem beautiful and contextualized in terms of war, but it resembles a different form of war poetry that is not explicitly talking about war or the results thereof. Rather, we are face to face with the story of a cockle shell and her demise.

The cockle shell is feminized, referred to with the feminine pronoun her. Knowing the specified identity of the shell, or rather knowing the shell is not considered masculine, speaks to the purpose of this poem. Why does she meet her demise? We can understand her purpose is the following lines:

She drank the falling of the spray,
Grew vain at length to think that she
Contained a portion of the sea.
"And why not more? (at length she cried)
And why not waves, and why not tide?
Perhaps, though men account me small,
I might on proof contain it all;
'Tis worth the trial; how should I
Be sure I can't, unless I try?"

Her pursuit of something else, something greater than what she was originally complacent with is evident in her contemplation of containing more than “a portion of the sea.” Upon her attempt, she is forced into a negative context with words such as victim, idiot pride, and wanton fool. This verbiage is provided through the personification of Despair, who deems her aspirations and ambition as vain:

Ambition fled, arose Despair;
When a rude billow, that receiv'd
The wanton fool, now undeceiv'd,
Recoiling, for a moment bore
The buoyant trifle from the shore,
And murmur'd: "Idiot! learn too late
The misery of presumptuous fate.
Of holding seas no longer think:
The waste spray thou no more shall drink.
Know, vain pretender, to thy cost,
Thy small capacity is lost."

In the context of risking all for something more, the cockle shell is condemned to “the misery of presumptuous fate” and has the one thing she had taken from her: “the waste spray thou no more shall drink.” Her capacity to at once be able to “drink” the ocean spray and participate in that beautiful context reaches a point of contention between her prescribed “vanity” to pursue more than what was initially allotted her and “fate”:

Then, flowing with impetuous shock
Against the angle of a rock
The Shell, at one tremendous stroke,
Into an hundred atoms broke.

She is broken into “an hundred atoms,” no longer able to hold the ocean within her cup. She is no longer a cockle shell.

So what does this mean? In what context can the story of a cockle shell be perceived in terms of war? Within the symbolism represented by the piece we may read the poem the same way we would read a poem about a widow, or as a tale of warning to pursue war. If we were to read it in context of it being a widow poem, the cockle shell is representative of that widow and thus destroyed upon the death of her husband. The poem very easily may be read in terms of women politically. Regardless, it is a tale of warning.

Poetry of Women Politics

  Marie Antoinette, en grand habit de cour  (by Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty, 1775)

Marie Antoinette, en grand habit de cour (by Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty, 1775)

In 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine and would be the last Queen of France after being convicted for high treason. Her influence was paramount to the government and change in the foundation and order of the old regime. Sexual allegations stirred, romantic assumptions, and questioning of the royal morality surfaced. Her popularity crumbled, and led to negativity by both the political and societal spheres. One of the major factors that contributed to the negativity was the financial situation of France, heavily impacted by war and the royal family taken care of by the state, and then some. She was also vilified upon France’s declaration of war against Austria; she vocally spoke about Austrian “claim” to French land on one hand but gave information to Austria during the war and was even accused of sending millions of treasury money to them. Her trial led to a conviction based on accusations of aiding Austria, incest, planning the murder of the National Guards in 1792, declaring her son king of France, and more.

Although perhaps not explicitly referring to her, as the time period between Marie Antoinette’s execution and the above poem (1793 and 1813 respectfully), it is worth looking at the significance of a female cockle shell being represented in vanity and pursuing something more and the former Queen of France. Marie Antoinette was associated with promiscuity and affiliating with France’s enemies with sympathies; the shell is also denoted in terms of vanity and pursing something outside the walls of her small confine. It may also be argued that the “small capacity” of the shell could be inhabited by Marie Antoinette as her political position and influence that was seen as detrimental to France’s financial stability.

As mentioned, the speculation of this poem specifically regarding Marie Antoinette is stretched across twenty years. However, it is important to note how politically the poem works in terms of the turmoil during those years. Maybe not specifically about Marie Antoinette, her story is replicated throughout a historical context and may be perceived through a political upheaval and the wavering of a government that flew too close to the sun.