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”Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown”
By Lynn Whitney
Sometimes life takes you on a journey that you never expected. Quite a few years ago, I was visiting Savannah, Georgia, and made my way to the hauntingly beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery. While wandering under the live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, I came across Aiken Way. There, on a scenic bluff overlooking the Wilmington River, I discovered a bench that is the headstone of American poet, Conrad Aiken. On it is inscribed, “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.” I was fascinated by the inscription, never quite understood it, but remembered it all the same. I would often quote it when encountering someone who seemed to me to be a free spirit, a citizen of the Universe.
My own journey brought me from the world of libraries and teaching into the world of sailing. And a separate world it is, with its own citizens, language, rules and legends. Finding myself in this new atmosphere my curiosity brought me back to Conrad Aiken. What inspired him to write that epitaph?
Here is the story. Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah in 1889. From the time he was eight or nine, he knew he wanted to be a poet, largely inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. With his father a successful physician and his mother immersed in Savannah society it would have seemed to be an idyllic childhood. But it was not. On the evening of February 21, 1901, the young Conrad was awakened by the angry shouts of his father and the sound of gunshots. He ran into his parents’ room to find that his father had killed his mother and then himself, a vision that would haunt him forever.
Conrad went on to graduate from Harvard, where he studied with George Santayana and forged a lifelong friendship with T.S. Eliot. He wrote lyrical poetry heavy with symbolism and psychological exploration.
In his later years he returned to Savannah, and used to like to sit in the cemetery near the spot where his parents were buried, drink martinis and watch the shrimp boats pass by. One day a boat named Cosmos Mariner sailed past. Taken with the name, he looked it up in the shipping news and found it listed as “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.” He chose to inscribe this on his headstone along with a second inscription: “Give My Love to the World.”
What did this mean to Aiken? It would seem that he had led a restless, rather troubled life, often sailing in uncharted waters, looking for a port unknown until seen. But, maybe it meant more. There are times when we all find ourselves in unknown waters and need all hands on deck to continue our journey. There are storms to be weathered, breakdowns in systems to be resolved, and always the wind that can blow you off course at any time. And sometimes, where you end up is where you were meant to be.
“Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.” What does it mean to you?