Joseph Conrad's overlooked piece The Heroic Age features famous British admiral Horatio Nelson. Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Keith Carabine which addresses Conrad's sense of his Polishness and Europeaness while writing about this most English of subjects.
Conrad the European: 'Autocracy and War' and 'The Heroic Age'
Keith Carabine, Rutherford College, University of Kent
Joseph Conrad's letter to Henry Newbolt of 19 July 1905 contains the first mention of a request for 'a short article on Nelson' (CL3 275). It came from H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the Standard who was planning a special supplement on 21 October to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the greatest naval triumph in British history when Lord Nelson died at the very moment of his supreme triumph. Conrad confessed to Newbolt who had recently published The Year of Trafalgar, that '[m]y ignorance of the Admiral's career is appalling' but that he found the request 'tempting' (CL3 275). On 21 September Conrad reported to Galsworthy, 'I've just finished a Nelson – a 3000 words utterance' (CL3 280) and it was published on Trafalgar Day under the title 'Palman qui meruit ferat' (Nelson's motto, 'Let him who merits bear the palm'). In early January 1906 Conrad decided to include the 'Trafalgar' essay in the papers and sketches of The Mirror of the Sea. in order to make the volume 'a long book' (CL3 311); and renamed 'The Heroic Age' it concluded the volume published in October 1906.
The slight critical attention this essay has received from Morton Darwen Zabel, Jocelyn Baines, and Avrom Fleishman, hinges upon its place in the overall structure and thematics of The Mirror of the Sea. Otherwise, 'The Heroic Age', as far as I am aware, has been totally ignored by Conradians. My approach to 'The Heroic Age' draws upon Conrad's letter to Newbolt, where tackling the 'tempting' subject of Nelson prompts him to ask 'whether it would be permissible and of any use for me to try the Monthly Review' [of which Newbolt was the founder and former editor] 'now and then with an article upon politics (not 'home') something in the style' of 'Autocracy and War' in the current July issue of The Fortnightly Review.
'Now and then', Conrad continues, 'I feel a sort of stirring up of thought (probably worthless) and a sort of inwards voice (probably silly)' (CL3 275). Gwynne's invitation was probably prompted by the spate of sketches (later gathered in The Mirror of the Sea) recently published in the magazines wherein Conrad drew upon his personal experience and memories of the British Merchant Service. Conrad hoped that these sketches 'would do no harm to my popularity' (CL3 136), not least because they enabled him to escape charges of Slavonicism and feelings of 'foreignness' by foregrounding his English credentials: and writing on the most national of all Great Britain's celebrations may well have appeared to him as an ideal opportunity to emphasise his English lineage. Moreover, he felt that 'of a life that in its whole was a Great Masterpiece something can always be said – something that would not be mere rhetoric since it would spring from deep conviction' (CL3 277).1
However, as I hope to show, 'The Heroic Age' is inflected with an 'inwards voice' and deep convictions that are as much Polish and European as English, 'an inwards voice' that informs the stirring thoughts in his despairing analysis of Europe's and Poland's future in 'Autocracy and War' in the dismally unheroic year of 1905, and that accounts for the qualified, sober, even sombre, celebration of Nelson and 'the national spirit'.
Conrad was stirred into thought in 'Autocracy and War' by the destruction of the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, Manchuria by the Japanese in February 1904, followed by a succession of defeats for the tsarist forces that in turn triggered the revolutionary year of 1905, marked by massive social discontent, strikes, guerrilla warfare, and revolutionary activity throughout the Russian Empire.
Tsarist reverses inspired Polish patriots with new hopes of independence, and throughout the provinces of Russian Poland, and especially on the streets of Warsaw and Lodz, the Polish socialists and revolutionaries were waging a furious rebellion against the hated tsarist forces, even as Conrad composed this essay. And, by the time Conrad came to write his 'Trafalgar' essay, Russian Poland was not only in rebellion against the tsarists, but a brutal civil war was raging as all factions of the Polish national resistance, torn apart by feuds and schisms resorted to political and sectarian murders.2
For the first time in over forty years the issue of Poland's future and the possibility of Poland's independence were back on the European agenda and widely discussed in the press and the journals. Conrad's attitude to Poland is of course hugely complex, much debated and, as Najder reminds us, 'highly emotional and by no means consistent'. Najder, however, is surely right to conclude that 'a despairing resignation over the future of Poland remained for many years the chief element in his thinking' (CPB 24,25). And, certainly, Conrad's analysis in 'Autocracy and War' intensifies his long-held despairing view, epitomised in his early letter (1885) to Spiridion Kiliszczewski: that 'whatever may be the changes in the fortunes of living nations, for the dead there is no hope and no salvation' (CL1 13), and then in his letter to Cunninghame Graham fourteen years later, 'I look at the future from the depths of a very dark past, and I find I am allowed nothing but fidelity to an absolutely lost cause, to an idea without a future' (CL2 161).
The Heroic Age
'The Heroic Age' is in fact some 3,850 words long and though it is divided into four unequal parts, the essay splits into two equal halves; the first two parts (XLVI-XLVII), as befits Conrad's brief on this most patriotic of celebrations, dwell on England's greatest hero, and parts XLVIII-XLIX contrast the very different conditions of the modern naval man in an age of steam as opposed to sail, which is, of course, a central theme of The Mirror of the Sea, and then the differences between the heroic age of 1805 and the distinctly unheroic age of 1905.
The essay, surprisingly, does not begin as one might expect with an expatiation on the heroic and peculiarly English qualities of Nelson's life; rather it opens dramatically with the only recorded words of a young obscure naval officer: 'A fellow has no chance of promotion unless he jumps into the muzzle of a gun and crawls out of the touchhole' (MS 183).3
The 'strength' of this worthy ancestor's 'graphic expression' embodies for Conrad 'the spirit of the epoch', and its jaunty hyperbole that does not hide 'the uneasiness of his heart' (183), seems to inspire Conrad's wry and sympathetic assessment of its 'price ... significance, and ... lesson' (184). The 'price' for all 'whose way was so arduous' is, of course, that death or serious injury might well precede promotion and 'many', Conrad concludes in deadpan fashion, 'must have felt that particular inconvenience of a heroic age'. The young officer's 'significance' is also representative: 'He belongs to the great array of the unknown – who are great, indeed, by the sum total of the devoted effort put out, and the colossal scale of success attained by their insatiable and steadfast ambition' (184).
Conrad's threefold play on 'great' demands careful scrutiny. 'The great array of the unknown' always attract his 'sympathetic imagination': they include 'obscure' and 'voiceless' sailors; black men in Utopo in the Belgian Congo who can see no end to the 'very awful and mysterious' punishments inflicted on them (CL3 96); women like Winnie Verloc 'rich in suffering but indigent in words' (SA 223); or the 'tens of thousands of decaying bodies tainting the air of the Manchurian plains' and 'the hundreds of thousands of survivors' who are 'even more tragic in being left alive by fate to the wretched exhaustion of their pitiful toil' so powerfully evoked in the opening paragraphs of 'Autocracy and War' (NLL 72).
Conrad's sympathies for the great array of Russian serfs were fuelled by his (tendentious) beliefs that they were cut off 'from air, from light, from all knowledge of themselves and of the world' (73) by a brutal Autocracy and that, therefore, they died with 'the horror-struck consciousness of having mysteriously become the plaything of a black and merciless fate'; whereas the Japanese army 'stands on the high ground of conscious assent, shouldering deliberately the burden of a long-tried faithfulness' (74).
But Conrad also knew that the great array of his Polish forebears who died pro Patria had been 'great' through 'the sum total of the devoted effort put out'; and the difference between them and the French at Trafalgar as against the men Nelson led – their 'colossal scale of success' – was as he repeatedly asserts in the essay a matter of 'good' as against 'evil fortune' (194). Finally, the lesson derived from 'our worthy ancestor' reprises Martin's understated appreciation that 'he was never backwards on occasions of desperate service' (184; Letters and Papers I 66).
For Nelson's life as a 'Great Masterpiece' 'on this day' of commemoration Conrad turns again to Sir T.B. Martin, gravely described as 'a distinguished seaman of Nelson's time', whose assessment of the price, significance, and lesson of 'the spirit of the epoch' does indeed sound the note of 'deep conviction': 'Nelson's nobleness of mind was a prominent and beautiful part of his character' and he insists that Nelson's
splendid and matchless achievements will be remembered with admiration while there is gratitude in the hearts of Britons, or while a ship floats upon the ocean; he whose example on the breaking out of war gave so chivalrous an impulse to the younger men of the service that all rushed into rivalry of daring which disdained every warning of prudence and led to acts of heroic enterprise which tended greatly to exalt the glory of the nation. (185; Letters and Papers I 73, 65)
'Deep conviction' of this sort is absent from both Conrad's earlier assessment and his commentary on Martin's encomium – 'Those are his words and they are true' and 'Exalted' he wrote and not 'augmented'. And therein his feelings and pen captured the very truth' – is as stilted and forced as his repeated assurances that Martin is 'a man of sound judgement' and then of 'consummate judgement' (184-85). Similarly, Conrad's assurance that Martin, 'the good and trusted servant of his country under two kings and a queen, had felt correctly Nelson's influence, and expressed himself with precision out of the fullness of his seaman's heart' (185) has a faintly hollow ring given Conrad's own less exalted assessment of 'the price'.
Conrad's unease at such moments registers, perhaps, his habitual scepticism before (say) Kurtz's 'burning noble words' or the 'accents of irresistible heroism' encapsulated in Marcus Aurelius's 'solemn admonition: 'Let all thy words have the accent of heroic truth''. 'This is very fine' continues Conrad in 'A Familiar Preface' to A Personal Record, but 'Most of the working truths on this earth are humble, not heroic; and there have been times in the history of mankind when the accents of heroic truth have moved it to nothing but derision': and he quietly resists Martin's heroic accent because like Marcus Aurelius's 'counsels' it is 'more fit for the moralist than the artist'.4
At such moments, too, we are aware that Conrad is not a Briton but a Pole, and Poles as he sharply reminded Garnett in October 1907 'have been used to go to battle without illusions. It's you Britishers that 'go in to win' only. We have been 'going in' these last hundred years repeatedly, to be knocked on the head only – as was visible to any calm intellect' (CL3 492). Nelson, supremely of all 'Britishers', went into win: thus Southey noted in The Life of Nelson, at Trafalgar 'mere victory was not what he looked to – he wanted to annihilate the enemy's fleet' (248); Columb acknowledged Nelson's 'awful singleness of destructive purpose'; and Lord Roseberry said he is 'the war hero of our country' because 'In him the pugnacious British instinct was incarnate; with Nelson to see the foe was to fight him; he only found himself in the fury of battle'.5
Apollo Korzeniowski's life, like Nelson's, was replete with 'acts of heroic enterprise', but he and his fellow patriots were knocked on the head, and they were inspired by, and in turn inspired very different myths of national glory from those that inspired Nelson. Indeed, famously, in later life when his name 'was known as widely as that of England itself', Nelson proudly fashioned his patriotism as a form of religious conversion.
Thus, when he was only eighteen on his return from the East Indies, 'broken down by sickness, and spirits which had sunk with his strength' he 'recalled his suicidal despair' that 'I should never rise in my profession' and how 'a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented by king and country as my patron. 'Well then', I exclaimed, 'I will be a hero!' And, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger!' (Southey 11-12). Conrad, in marked contrast, as Polish scholars have taught us, was schooled from birth by his father to a hero, to 'Be a Pole!', to be a patriot of a country that is 'in her grave ... yet / She is your faith, your palm of martyrdom. ... And no salvation without Her!' (CUFE 33). As Busza explains, Conrad inherited 'two interrelated ideological myths: the 'Antemurale' myth and its post-partition mutation, the Messianic doctrine'. According to the first, which goes back at least to the seventeenth century, Poland became 'an outpost of Western civilisation, shielding Europe' from the Ottoman Empire and then in 'the new version ... developed by the Polish romantic writers, particularly after the November Rising of 1830' from the corruption and barbarism emanating out of Poland's despoiler, Russia ('The Rhetoric' 604).
'Like the 'Antemurale' myth, Messianism assigned to Poland a unique historical mission' enshrined in Adam Mickiewicz's The Books of the Polish Nation from the Beginning of the World to the Martyrdom of the Polish Nation (1832) which cast Poland as the Christ of Nations; though crucified by the 'Satanic Trinity' of Russia, Prussia, and Austria who partitioned her in order to bury 'freedom', Poland's soul, like her Redeemer's 'shall return to the body and the Nation shall arise and free all the peoples of Europe from slavery', thereby ensuring 'wars shall cease in all Christendom' ('The Rhetoric' 135-143).
Such 'passions and prejudices' ('Author's Note' to UWE viii) inform Korzeniowski's diatribe, 'Poland and Muscovy', and Conrad's and the old language teacher's case against Russia in 'Autocracy and War' and Under Western Eyes, respectively.6
Born an unwilling subject of the great Russian Empire Conrad knew from bitter personal and national experience that there was and is a huge chasm between might and right, between power and morality, that victories in war constitute a precarious and dubious foundation for both national and individual notions of superiority, pride, and identity. Thus Russia's victories against and successive subjugations of the Polish people were neither 'acts of heroic enterprise' nor did they exalt the glory of Russia, or of her nation's God; rather as he witheringly observes in 'Autocracy and War':
The government of Holy Russia arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God sent scourge has been most cruel to those whom it has allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation. (NLL 82)
Conrad's flat endorsement of Martin's exaltation of 'the glory of our nation' yields immediately in the second part of 'The Heroic Age' (XVII) to a sombre, cautionary assessment of the British navy's successes:
The British navy may well have ceased to count its victories. It is rich beyond the wildest dreams of success and fame. It may well, rather, on a culminating day of its history, cast about for the memory of some reverses to appease the jealous fates which attend the prosperity and triumphs of a nation. It holds, indeed, the heaviest inheritance that has ever been entrusted to the courage and fidelity of armed men.... In all the records of history there has never been a time when a victorious fortune has been so faithful to men making war upon the sea. (185-86)
There is no hint here or throughout the essay of 'Britannia rule the waves' or of the fond belief that 'the sea is the English element':7 rather, as Conrad warned us earlier in The Mirror of the Sea in the marvellous sketch 'Initiation', 'the sea has never been friendly to man' and is 'Faithful to no race' and recognises 'no finality of dominion' (135). Moreover, Conrad's cautious insistence here, as throughout the essay, on the British navy's unprecedented 'victorious fortune' and on Nelson's astonishing good fortune as 'a lover of Fame... And she never betrayed the greatness of his trust!' (186), is informed once again by an 'inwards voice' versed in the bitter knowledge that Poland's history since the end of the eighteenth century was a cycle of national and personal misfortune. Conrad's repeated stress on Britain's fortune in war also signals his characteristic rejection of the blending of religion and nationalism that inspired Nelson's (and his nation's) sense of his fame and his country's greatness.8
Nelson always ascribed his own and his country's successes to Providence; and on the eve of Trafalgar, in full accordance with his heroic self-image and speaking in 'the accent of heroic truth', he intoned: 'Now ... I can do no more. We must trust to the Great Disposer of all events, and the justice of our cause. I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty' (Southey 254). Readers of Conrad are familiar with the sea's duplicity, his rejection of Christianity, and of his scorn for all discourses – such as his father's and Nelson's and the varieties of Russian messianism scrutinised in Under Western Eyes – that highjack God and Providence for the Nation or the Revolution: but the apocalyptic invocation of 'a culminating day' in a commemorative essay devoted to Nelson and Trafalgar is truly startling: and as we shall see, it merits careful contextualisation.
I begin with the straightforward observation that it reprises an even grimmer 'stirring' thought in 'Autocracy and War':
It has been observed that in the course of earthly greatness a day of culminating triumph is often paid for by a morrow of sudden extinction. Let us hope it is so. ... War is with us now; and whether this one ends soon or late, war will be with us again. (NLL 90)
The sudden extinction of the Old Polish Commonwealth may inform Conrad's grim truism. However, 'Let us hope it is so' registers, I think, Conrad's 'inward voice' evident in 'Autocracy and War' in his terrible anger and almost unimaginable despair as he contemplates the inevitability of a huge European war, an 'inward voice' that seeps into Conrad's assessment of Nelson. Conrad's perspective in 'Autocracy and War' is that of a Pole, aware that a shift in the balance of power will have profound consequences for the future of Europe in general and for all submerged, mittel-European nations in particular.
The essay is suffused with dread because Conrad recognises (and prophesies) that the continuing and inevitable collapse of Autocracy presaged in 'the distant war' now taking place 'beyond the Amur or beyond the Oxus' has brought about 'a change in the condition of the West with which Europe is not well prepared to deal' (91) and which, he warns, will lead to war much closer to home. Conrad's fears are fuelled by his dismal sense that 'The German Empire' is now 'a great and dreadful legacy left to the world by the ill-omened phantom of Russia's might' (79).
He barely contains his indignation at Germany's part in the partitions of Poland and its perennial role of 'evil counsellor of Russia on all questions of her Polish problem' always 'urging the adoption of the most repressive measures with a perfectly logical duplicity' (80). Now that the collapse of Russia is imminent either of two possible futures for the Polish provinces are inimical to Germany: 'a frank reconciliation with a humanised Russia' brings 'the weight of homogenous loyalty to within a few score of miles from Berlin', (thereby threatening her Eastern borders), and 'the possibility of serious internal disturbances destroying the sort of order autocracy has kept in Russia', particularly 'a revolutionary outbreak provoked by socialists' would provide the perfect 'pretext of armed intervention' in Russian Poland (80).
The collapse of Autocracy and the rise of 'Pangermanism' and 'Weltpolitik' threatens the security of the West, but Conrad despairs because he feels that since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 'Il n'y a plus d'Europe' – there is only an armed and trading continent, the home of slowly maturing economical contests for life and death and of loudly-proclaimed worldwide ambitions' (92).
Great Britain is of course part of this armed continent and her vast Empire is involved in this 'life and death' struggle, but, as ever, he is reluctant to openly criticise his adopted homeland. Instead, fuelled by Poland's political helplessness, he focuses on Germany's policy of Weltpolitik, of 'aggrandisement of territory and influence with no regard to right and justice either in the East or in the West' that 'proves that no peace for Earth can be found in the expansion of material interests which she seems to have adopted exclusively as her only aim, ideal and watchword' (92-93).
Europe's other 'watchwords' are even grimmer: 'Never before has war received so much homage at the lips of men, and reigned with less disputed sway in their minds. It has harnessed science to its gun carriages. ... Indeed war has made peace altogether its own ... A martial, over-bearing war-lord sort of peace ... eloquent with allusions to glorious feats of arms' and its 'apostles', terribly, preach 'the gospel of the mystic sanctity of its sacrifices and the regenerating power of spilt blood to the poor in mind – whose name is legion' (90). And, tragically, the full enormity of war – the terrible sufferings endured in the Manchurian plains 'of tens of thousands decaying bodies... of maimed bodies groaning in ditches' (72) – is beyond the grasp of Europeans, ensuring that 'war will be with us again' on 'our doorsteps' (90).9
Throughout the English press, inevitably, 'Nelson's Year' and Trafalgar Day inspired numerous celebrations of Nelson's 'glorious feats of arms' and his exemplary status as 'the highest expression of the fighting spirit of his race'; and they occasioned numerous martial reflections on how his career afforded 'an unforgettable lesson in the sound conduct of war', namely the necessity of annihilating opponents and of retaining superiority of weapons and man-power in the arms race with Germany.10
For Conrad in 'Autocracy and War', such 'homage to war' contributes to 'the din' that deafens Europe to the terrible reality of the Russo-Japanese war currently devouring 'the first youth of whole generations' (90). Such lessons resurface in 'The Heroic Age' when after citing Nelson's 'faith in a crushing superiority of fire as the only means of victory and the only aim of sound tactics... putting his faith into practice against very risk', Conrad observes grimly, 'in that exclusive faith Lord Nelson appears to us as the first of the moderns' (190).
A 'modern' because though his defence of England from foreign invasion was just – unlike 'the appetite for aggrandisement' of Germany in 1905 (NLL 86) – his faith in superior firepower anticipated modern Europe's sanctioning of 'the magazine rifle of the latest pattern' and harnessing of 'science to its gun carriages' (90) that so horrified Conrad in 'Autocracy and War'. Hence Conrad's admonition that the British navy should 'cast about for the memory of some reverses' because 'the heaviest inheritance' of 'victorious fortune' is that defeat is unimaginable and that the horrors of war can be taken lightly: as indeed it was nine years later when it was widely trumpeted that the war that became the First World War would be over in six weeks. Hence, also, his troubled, awed tribute to Nelson in part three (XLVIII): he 'revolutionised ... the very conception of victory itself ... He brought heroism into the line of duty. Verily he is a terrible ancestor' (187).
As Jacques Berthoud pointed out to me, Conrad 'redefined the distinction between what you have to do (face the possibility of your own death) and what you want to do (intensify your sense of life) – with the clear implication that the two are interdependent'. (And, clearly, heroism can never be brought into the line of duty for the 'vast heaps of mangled corpses' (NLL 82) benighted and enslaved by an inhuman Autocracy). Berthoud's point is finely observed; nonetheless, Nelson is a terrible ancestor precisely because such ardour may be presumed and called on again soon, and such 'worthy ancestors' as the young naval officer will rise to the challenge; but this time, because of the huge increase in the destructive power of 'improved armaments'(150) tens of thousands of his ilk will be sacrificed in an ignoble war involving the 'armed and trading continent' of Europe. And this time, terribly, Conrad fears, 'the jealous fates' may indeed be appeased.
Autocracy and war
The opening of the last part of the essay (XLIX) begins with a testimony to Nelson's ability to breathe into the navy's 'soul his own passion of honour and fame' and then immediately takes a surprising turn:
It was a fortunate navy.... It was fortunate in its adversaries. I say adversaries, for on recalling such proud memories we should avoid the word 'enemies', whose hostile sound perpetuates the antagonisms and strife of nations so irremediable, perhaps, so fateful -and also so vain. War is one of the gifts of life; but alas! no war appears so very necessary when time has laid its soothing hand upon the passionate misunderstandings and the passionate desires of great peoples.... He fosters the spirit of concord and justice, in whose work there is as much glory to be reaped as in the deeds of arms. (192-93)
Given both Conrad's brief and his audience, these are brave and stirring thoughts that do indeed 'spring from deep conviction'. He speaks as a Francophile, of course, but more importantly his critique of jingoism, his appeal for tolerance and fear of (another) European war are fostered by 'the spirit of concord and justice' that marks him as a committed European. Conrad's appeal to, and praise of 'the spirit of concord and justice' reprise his anguish in the great opening paragraphs of 'Autocracy and War' that 'In this age of knowledge our sympathetic imagination, to which alone we can look for the ultimate triumph of Concord and Justice, remains strangely impervious to information, however correctly and even picturesquely conveyed' (NLL 71-72). Conrad despairs in 'Autocracy and War' because
The common ground of concord, good faith and justice is not sufficient to build an action upon; since the conscience of but very few men amongst us and of no single Western nation as yet, will brook the restraint of abstract ideas as against the fascination of material advantage. (91)
Moreover, he regrets that 'The trouble of the civilised world is the want of a common conservative principle abstract enough to give the impulse practical enough to form the rallying point of international action tending towards the restraint of particular ambitions', and that all past 'plausible imitations' of that principle 'disappeared long ago before the doctrine of national aspirations' (91-92).
Great Britain is, of course, also one of the Western nations with unrestrained material ambitions and a faint conscience; and, therefore, in both essays, Conrad works on behalf of the abstract ideas of 'concord, good faith and justice'.11
His 'sympathetic imagination' – manifest in his compassion for the Russian army which is 'the plaything of a black and merciless fate' (74), and for 'the ill-starred fortune' of the gallant French and Spanish fleets – bespeaks a great European, rather than an English, commentator and novelist. Thus, implicit in Conrad's appeal in 'The Heroic Age' to the spirit of concord and justice is his long-term, idealistic solution for Europe's terrible plight that provides the only ray of hope in 'Autocracy and War'.
In Europe the old monarchical principle stands justified in its historical struggle with the growth of political liberty by the evolution of the idea of nationality as we see it concreted at the present time, by the inception of that wider solidarity grouping together around the standard of monarchical power these larger agglomerations of mankind.
This service of unification, creating close-knit communities possessing the ability, the will and the power to pursue a common ideal, has prepared the ground for the advent of a still larger understanding: for the solidarity of Europeanism which must be the next step towards the advent of Concord and Justice; an advent that, however delayed still by fatal worship of force and the errors of national selfishness, has been and remains the only possible goal of our progress. (81)
Conrad has in mind the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but his belief in 'that wider solidarity' and 'This service of unification' and what he goes on to call a 'larger patriotism' reveal his 'fidelity' to 'an idea without a future', namely that enshrined in the Polish romantic celebratory version of the history and values of the Old Polish Commonwealth whose dominant class the szlachta, 'the Polish nation of the gentry', claimed like his father to speak for the needs and aspirations of 'the larger agglomerations of mankind' who were all the members of the Old Commonwealth irrespective of their ethnic background, native language, or religious beliefs.12
One hundred years later, after two terrible world wars, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the German Reich (which submitted to 'the fatal worship of force'), and the Soviet Empire which proclaimed and destroyed the dreams of 'International fraternity'; after, or better, during the bitter manifestation of 'the errors of national selfishness' in south-eastern Europe, and despite the opposition of national selfishness in all its member states, including unfortunately my own, we are gathered today in Cracow when Poland and the other states of Central Europe are once more a part of a European Union that 'remains', as Conrad foresaw, 'the only possible goal of our progress'.13 And, as this of all audiences, would both avow and confirm, Conrad was a great European because he was Polish. He knew that Poland could only have a viable political future as part of the wider solidarity of an agglomerated Europe, free from the malign designs of both Russia and Germany.14
Conrad's formulations at the beginning of the last section justify his change of title from 'Trafalgar' to 'The Heroic Age' because they initiate his persistent contrast between the heroic age of 1805 when Europe was at war and the mediocre age of 1905 when, as he warns us in 'Autocracy and War': 'More or less consciously Europe is preparing herself for a spectacle of much violence' (83).
The basic difference is that in 1905 Europe is threatened by Pangermanism which 'is a powerful and voracious organism full of unscrupulous self-confidence, whose appetite for aggrandisement will only be limited by the power of helping itself to the severed members of its friends and neighbours' (87), such as Poland; whereas in 1805, fortunately, Napoleon's 'appetite' was restrained because his navy was 'disorganised by revolutionary changes' ('The Heroic Age' 193), which ensured the French fleet always had the odds against them. Moreover, the defeat of France at the hands of Prussia in 1870 fed Conrad's fears in 1905 that 'Il n'y a plus d'Europe', and that, therefore, future European wars will be fought 'with an increased bitterness and the savage tooth and claw obstinacy of a struggle for existence' with few 'signs of generous greatness' (NLL 83).
In 1805, however, the opposing fleets shared a chivalrous code and a mutual respect. These differences sustain Conrad's case in 'The Heroic Age' that though 'Deprived by an ill-starred fortune of that self-confidence which strengthens the hands of an armed host' and 'attended by nothing but the disturbing memories of reverses' the adversaries' fleets 'presented to our approach a determined front, on which Captain Blackwood, in a knightly spirit, congratulated his Admiral' (193-94).15
Hence, Conrad generously concludes, 'By the exertions of their valour our adversaries have but added a greater lustre to our arms' (194); and both their weaknesses and their bravery should be considered when we acknowledge that 'The old navy in its last days earned a fame that no belittling malevolence dare cavil at' because 'this supreme favour they owe to their adversaries alone' (193). Praise for the gallantry of the opposing fleets is a commonplace in the literature on Trafalgar; but both Conrad's pity for Britain's adversaries, who in 1805 shared Poland's 'ill-starred fortune', and his case that the weakness of the adversaries was 'a supreme favour' are, as far as I'm aware, unique.
The penultimate paragraph begins with the melancholy observation that those 'who sank together in their repose in the cool depths of the ocean would not understand the watchwords, would gaze with amazed eyes at the engines of our strife' (194), recalling in shorthand his gloomy view of Europe in 1905. He continues:
In this ceaseless rush of shadows and shades, that, like the fantastic forms of clouds cast darkly upon waters on a windy day, fly past us to fall headlong below the hard edge of an implacable horizon, we must turn to the national spirit, which superior in its force and continuity to good and evil fortune, can alone give us the feeling of an enduring existence and of an invincible power against the fates. (194)
'Fall headlong before an implacable horizon' recalls the apocalyptic note of 'a culminating day' in Britain's history that tempers his celebration of Trafalgar and that resounds in the stirring thoughts of 'Autocracy and War'. Similarly, his appeal to 'the national spirit' and talk 'of good and evil fortune' and of 'the fates' eschew the heroic accent that Britain's colossal successes easily inspired in favour of the dying fall that seems more appropriate to the survival of the national spirit as a sustaining force in the traditions of 'dead nations' such as Poland.
Thus, at precisely the moment when he could be said (as in the sketches that make up the Mirror of the Sea) to insert himself into English national life, Conrad's 'we' and 'us', while speaking of the victorious fortunes of Great Britain, is inflected with the possibility of a future catastrophe and with the defeats and misfortunes of Poland and 'of great peoples' such as the French. As a committed European who recoils before the 'watchwords' of his day that engender 'the animosities of peoples' and of nations, Conrad refuses to contribute on the anniversary of Britain's most famous naval victory to the 'din' of war-talk.
Hence, in a soft-focused final paragraph 'the national spirit' is said to preserve from 'the decay and forgetfulness of death the greatness of our great men, and amongst them the passionate and gentle greatness of Nelson, the nature of whose genius was, on the faith of a ... distinguished Admiral, such as to 'Exalt the glory of our nation''. (194). Thus the Nelson Conrad finally dwells on is not 'the first of the moderns', and his career is used neither to provoke 'the animosity of peoples' nor to provide a lesson in the sound conduct of a modern war. Instead, fostering 'the spirit of concord and justice', Conrad divests Nelson (and Trafalgar Day) of all taint of either jingoism, chauvinism, or bellicosity; and 'surrounded by the warm devotion of a band of brothers' (187), presents him – in an essay shot through with his awareness of the imminence and cost of war and of the dangers of exalting glory – as the incarnation of a chivalrous national spirit typical of both Britain's and of Europe's Heroic Age.