A Murderer at Mary Robinson’s The Haunted Beach

The Haunted Beach is one of Mary Robinson’s most successful pieces of literature. Not only that, but its smooth-sounding rhythm caught the attention of Samuel Coleridge. As we know, in The Haunted Beach we are given the image of a mysterious beach, accompanied by a fisherman, and later two individuals who discover the body of a dead man. In class, we talked about how the fisherman was sad and guilty, and we theorized the possibility that the shipwrecked man is actually the fisherman, and the dead body is the one of the real fisherman. This to me seemed almost impossible, but had me thinking of the idea that what if the shipwrecked man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and came across a fisherman who killed him specifically for what he possessed in his pockets. Therefore, a more sinister image is being portrayed in this poem. The fisherman is in fact a murderer, who murdered the shipwrecked man, and murdered the two individuals accompanying him as clearly shown by descriptions of the characters’ backstories.29906170001_5613113868001_5613086299001-vs.jpg

To understand the eery imaging being portrayed in this poem, we first need to understand the first two stanzas:

 

Upon a lonely desert beach,
Where the white foam was scatter’d,
A little shed uprear’d its head,
Though lofty barks were shatter’d.
The sea-weeds gathering near the door,
A sombre path display’d;
And, all around, the deafening roar
Re-echoed on the chalky shore,
By the green billows made.

Above a jutting cliff was seen
Where sea-birds hover’d craving;
And all around the craggs were bound
With weeds–for ever waving.
And here and there, a cavern wide
lts shadowy jaws display’d;
And near the sands, at ebb of tide,
A shiver’d mast was seen to ride
Where the green billows stray’d.

(lines 1-18)

In the beginning of the poem, Robinson presented us with an eerie description of the beach in Europe by using gothic/moody language. We learned in class and through presentations that gothic language is language that presents a dark picture, meaning moody tones, phrases, even the supernatural. In the first two stanzas of the poem, we are already being set up for this murder mystery scene. Mary Robinson does this by setting up the reader’s impression of this beach such as by saying “upon a lonely desert beach” (line 1), “a sombre path displayed” (line 6), “the deafening roar/ re-echoed on the chalky shore” (line 8-9), “its shadowy jaws display’d” (line 15) and a “a shiver’d mast was seen to ride” (line 17). These are just few phrases used by Robinson that provoke an eerie images of the beach before we meet the fisherman. A lonely desert beach portrays the image of a beach with nobody on it, and the phrase “its shadowy jaws” when referring to the cavern provoke the reader into thinking something dark and twisted is about to happen because of that word “jaws”. Most people have the connotation of “jaws” referring to sharp teeth or danger because of the movie Jaws. Below I have two pictures displaying what image I think she is trying to display and why it is important for us to understand the scenery before we get into the action.

1.jpg
This is what I image the beach looking like because Robinson says it is “a lonely desert beach”. Nobody is on the beach, and the image being black and white adds to the mystery of the beach. (Image courtesy of Roberto Caucino at Shutterstock)
masts-of-the-wreck-of-the-ss-richard-montgomery-lying-1-mile-north-JCE109.jpg
In the last stanza before we meet the fisherman, Robinson says how “a shiver’d mast was seen to ride”. This translates to a broken mast (of a ship) was riding in the water, because shiver’d is a synonym for broken, and a mast if the pole of the ship. Obviously the boat she is talking about most likely does not have ammunition on it, but I felt this picture captures the broken mast of the ship in the water. (Image courtesy of James Bell at Alamy)

Now that we have touched briefly on the mood of the poem and the language Robinson presents, let’s get into why we are really here and talk about the fisherman. The fisherman is a murderer because he has ghosts following him on the beach.

“The fisherman beheld a band/ Of spectres gliding hand in hand–/  Where the green billows play’d/ And pale their faces were as snow,” (lines 25-26).

Something sinister is clearly happening here because of these individuals accompanying the fisherman. The phrase “pale their faces were as snow”. gives hint to that. This phrase is referring to the specters, or ghosts. The definition of a specter is a ghost, according to the Cambridge Dictionary. This stanza translates to “the fisherman sees a group of ghosts hand in hand where the green tides were, their faces pale as snow” because of how beheld refers to seeing, and a band is a group (Cambridge Dictionary). There is a reason why these specters are following the fisherman, and that is because he is haunting them for murdering him. The fisherman has a guilty conscience as shown further down, and part of this is because of his murderous ways. I interpret the above quote as being a hint that the fisherman has committed murder in the past, because why else would he have a group of ghosts following him hand-in-hand?

The fisherman is also a murderer because he murdered the shipwrecked man found in the hut. The murdered man in the hut is the shipwrecked man who had “Spanish gold” in his pocket. We know that the moment he reached the land, he was murdered because of the lines “And mark’d the sailor reach the land,/ And mark’d his murderer wash his hand/ Where the green billows play’d.” (lines 61-62). This can be interpreted as the sailor was murdered as soon as he washed ashore, because of the phrases “marked the sailor reach the land” and “marked his murderer wash his hand”. These two phrases play off of each other, and show parallels except for “the sailor” and “the murderer”, showing that the sailor washed up on the same shores that he was murdered at. We also know that it was murder because of the overkill, specifically because he has “ten wide gashes in his head”. 10 gashes in someone’s had is a little overkill if it is anything but an accident. Some murderers look back on the places where they dump their victim’s bodies, so it wouldn’t shock me if this is what the fisherman is doing when he walks there with his band of specters.

In the beginning of the second-to-last stanza, we are told that murderer, I mean, the fisherman, is feeling guilty about something as mentioned prior. Specifically we are told “And since that hour the fisherman/ Has toil’d and told in vain;” (lines 63-64). This is followed after being told about the murderer washing his hands in the same water that the shipwrecked man ended up. If the fisherman did nothing wrong, and did not kill this man, then why is he feeling guilty about something? Let’s look now at the very last stanza:

Full thirty years his task has been,
Day after day more weary;
For Heaven design’d his guilty mind 

Should dwell on prospects dreary.
Bound by a strong and mystic chain,
He has not power to stray;
But destined misery to sustain,
He wastes, in solitude and pain,
A loathsome life away. (lines 82-90)

(For a better understanding, in modern language this means:

For thirty years his job has been,/ Day after day more hard;/ For Heaven made his guilty mind/ in a way that he must think about things that make him sad. Attached by a chain, he cannot leave; but only stay in mystery, he wastes away his life in misery, he wastes his lonely life away”.)

This is important to look at because of the fact that it says he is basically chained by his guilty mind because of the fact that he feels guilty for the murders he has committed. Why is he guilty? How could someone feel guilty if they did not do something awful? Shelley AJ Jones, a scholar from the University of South Carolina- Colombia, actually discusses this as well in her dissertation: Revising for Genre: Mary Robinson’s Poetry from Newspaper Verse to Lyrical Tales. She agrees saying, “This poem, unique among the tragic tales, centers its tale on an anti-hero, the Fisherman whose murder and resultant guilt bind him eternally to the place of his crime (Jones, 150). However, she touches on how fisherman has the motive of the Spanish gold for being the reason of the murder, and that he is stuck there on the beach because of his guilty mind. I agree with her for the most part, but I am still unconvinced that he murdered the shipwrecked man just for the purpose that he has gold. This is because there are other ghostly figures on the beach, and I have the interpretation that the fisherman also killed those people as well though the poem does not have any definite proof alluding to that.

Clearly, there is so much more going on with this poem beneath the surface. Originally, I thought that this poem was about a serial killer, and that the fisherman murdered the two people he saw hand-in-hand. Once I began researching this poem, and looking up almost every word, I have a new understanding. I know now that the fisherman was being accompanied by ghosts rather than people that he was going to kill because of how “spectres” are ghosts. And I am more certain on my stance that the fisherman is in fact a serial killer, and viciously murdered the shipwrecked man in addition to his ghostly pals. I am curious what other people thought about this poem, so leave a comment below with your interpretation.

 

Work Cited:

Cambridge University Press. “Cambridge online dictionary,” Cambridge Dictionary online.

Robinson, Mary. “The Haunted Beach”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Gen. ed Julia Reidhead. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 83-84. Print.

Jones, S. Revising for Genre: Mary Robinson’s Poetry om Newspaper Verse to Lyrical Tales. (Doctoral dissertation). 2014. Retrieved from hp://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/3008

McClellan, Ann. “The Romantic Period” Rethinking Modern British Lit. Spring 2018. Plymouth State University. In-class discussion.

 

Photos:

Bell, James. Masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery lying 1 mile north of the Sheerness in the Thames Estuary. http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-masts-of-the-wreck-of-the-ss-richard-montgomery-lying-1-mile-north-145366937.html

Caucino, Robert. Dyrholary, a black volcanic beach on the south coast of Iceland, Europe. https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-5343395-stock-footage-dyrholaey-a-black-volcanic-beach-on-the-south-coast-of-iceland-europe.html

USA Today, A hurricane in Ireland? They may become more common. No date available. https://www.usatoday.com/videos/weather/2017/10/16/-hurricane-ireland-they-may-become-more-common/106712022/

 

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