Ca’lenture. A distemper peculiar to sailors, in hot climates; wherein they imagine the sea to be green fields, and will throw themselves into it if not restrained.
(From John Quincey’s medical lexicon as quoted in Johnson’s Dictionary)

Gilbert’s description of a calenture

From ‘The Commercial Academy VIII’ The World & Fashionable Advertiser, 15 March 1787, p. 2. As discovered by Sue Thomas — see ‘Placing William Gilbert’s contributions to The World & Fashionable Advertiser’, The Wordsworth Circle 53: 2 Spring 2022. (paywalled)

It is not on smooth seas or unsuspicious oceans, not in the pleasing apathy of regular trades and progressive billows, where the warmth of a genial climate unites with gentle breezes and a yielding element, to enervate, instead of invigorate, the soul—that a Seaman is to be formed:—he will not be inured to vigilance, where he can safely sleep during his watch, and leave his careless vessel to protecting gales, or at most to the solitary helmsman; even who may lash his wheel, and nod on the lazy spoke—or if he keep awake, may quit it, and overhang the placid ocean; or looking up, be charmed with the serenity of an azure and bespangled sky, more splendid than that which canopies Europe—and, forgetful of danger or hazard, be dreaming of distant heaven—or perhaps, of a nearer one; in the port he has left—till, disembodied by imagination, his visions brightened by the glittering sparkles scattered from the breaking wave, his deception almost realized by the view of a thousand dolphins sporting in his liquid neighbourhood—he fancies the inviting sea an Arcadian plain, and actually springs overboard in the happy delirium of a Calenture!—Besides this powerful effect on the mind, that produced on the body by hot climates is important. Excess of heat and exclusion of exercise unbrace the sinews, and produce general relaxation in the system.

Wordsworth, and William Gilbert’s ‘admirable description’ of the Calenture.

The only mention of William Gilbert’s prose description of the calenture, comes in Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Brothers’. Wordsworth writes that ‘This description of the Calenture is sketched from an imperfect recollection of an admirable one in prose, by Mr. Gilbert, Author of the Hurricane.’ The context of the boy at sea in the passage below may also be relevant to Gilbert, who enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1779, when he would have been about fifteen, and served for almost three years. Wordsworth’s picture of a young man ‘in those hours / Of tireless indolence’ gazing ‘Over the vessel’s side’ clearly owes much to Gilbert’s description. This lonesome figure lost in reverie has similarities with the figure in The Hurricane, who ‘sat contemplative; and viewed the breeze/ Chequer the water with far-streaming light,/ That glistened as with gems’.

From ‘The Brothers’ (1800)

‘Twas one well known to him in former days,
A Shepherd-lad :who ere his thirteenth year
Had chang’d his calling, with the mariners
A fellow-mariner, and so had fared
Through twenty seasons; but he had been rear’d
Among the mountains, and he in his heart
Was half a Shepherd on the stormy seas.
Oft in the piping shrouds had Leonard heard
The tones of waterfalls, and inland sounds
Of caves and trees; and when the regular wind
Between the tropics fill’d the steady sail
And blew with the same breath through days and weeks,
Lengthening invisibly its weary line
Along the cloudless main, he, in those hours
Of tiresome indolence would often hang
Over the vessel’s side, and gaze and gaze,
And, while the broad green wave and sparkling foam
Flash’d round him images and hues, that wrought
In union with the employment of his heart,
He, thus by feverish passion overcome,
Even with the organs of his bodily eye,
Below him, in the bosom of the deep
Saw mountains, saw the forms of sheep that graz’d
On verdant hills, with dwellings among trees,
And Shepherds clad in the same country grey
Which he himself had worn.*

* This description of the Calenture is sketched from an imperfect recollection of an admirable one in prose, by Mr. Gilbert, Author of the Hurricane.

Wordsworth’s interest in the Calenture resurfaced artistically in ‘To Enterprise’, which he wrote around 1820. ‘To Enterprise’ is most obviously a hymn to the British Empire, which makes it unattractive to the modern reader. But Wordsworth casts ‘Enterprise’ in a romantic travel narrative that celebrates the heroism of the explorer, who should be distinguished from the colonist. The ideal explorer celebrated in this poem’s second stanza is nomadic; it is the colonist in his wake who will lay claim to land and dispossess the natives.

The extract below follows the nautical stream of the narrative in Wordsworth’s poem that mixes mountain climbing, flight(!), deep sea diving, and journeying to the source of the Nile. Stripped of its context in this way it keeps a continuity with the preceding passage from ‘The Brothers’.

From ‘To Enterprise’ (1820?)

Inflamed by thee the blooming Boy
Makes of the whistling shrouds a toy
And of the ocean’s dismal breast
a play-ground,—or a couch of rest…

—But oh! what transports, what sublime reward,
Won from the world of mind, dost thou prepare
For philosophic Sage; or high-souled Bard
Who, for thy service trained in lonely woods,
Hath fed on pageants floating through the air,
Or calentured in depth of limpid floods;
Nor grieves—tho’ doomed thro’ silent night to bear
The domination of his glorious themes,
Or struggle in the net-work of thy dreams!

The Calenture from Donne to Melville

Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Gilbert might be expected to find poetry in this strange delirium, and it comes as no surprise that a hundred years previously a non-romantic such as Daniel Defoe had found it less alluring; for Robinson Crusoe, the patron saint of DIY, the calenture was about as charismatic as a life threatening form of seasickness. First Crusoe described himself as having been ‘continually sick, being thrown into a violent calenture by the excessive heat of the climate’ during his first voyage to the Guinea coast, then, on a later voyage, the calenture is given as the cause of death of a crew member.

The calenture’s entrance into pre-romantic English poetry is fittingly queasy.[1] John Donne took part in a naval expedition to the Azores in 1597. The objective was to intercept a Spanish fleet laden with silver, but this was frustrated  first by a storm that seriously damaged the English fleet, and then by a calm. He wrote two verse letters, each describing one of these hellish extremes of seafaring. ‘The Calme’ portrays the enervating effect of tropical inertia. The ship’s organs of mobility - its sails and rigging - are turned into ‘a frippery’, and without movement and a purposive ‘end’, man’s position becomes ridiculous.

What are wee then? How little more alas
Is man now, then before he was? he was
Nothing; for us, wee are nothing fit;
Chance, or ourselves still disproportion it.
Wee have no power, no will, no sense; I lye
I should not then thus feele this miserie.

The final twist of  ‘I lye…’ - enacts the ghastly restlessness of his inertia. He can’t even have the satisfaction of reaching the right conclusion; with his final gasp he confesses that he’s got it all wrong. The implication is that he will have to rewrite the poem, but, of course, he’s far too enervated to do so. In the middle of this paralysis of separated ships, Donne introduces the calenture as a toxic mirage of mobility and hence reunion:

We can nor lost friends nor sought foes recover,
But meteorlike, save that wee move not, hover,
Onely the Calenture together drawes
Deare friends, which meet dead in great fishes jawes.

By the end of Donne’s poem we are right inside the mind of someone trapped, restless and delirious enough to want to leap into the sea. This could well be called the negative pole of calenture description, but something very like the calenture experience had captured a poet’s imagination in a positive sense well before the romantic era of Gilbert and Wordsworth.

Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’, published in 1681, was ostensibly a topographical poem describing his patron’s estate. In the course of a very complex tour of the grounds, which turn out to be a microcosm of the world, Marvell views a meadow where he confounds land and sea in a way that brings the calenture experience irresistibly to mind. The transformation here is from fields to sea, but the elemental synaesthesia remains the same:


And now to the abyss I pass
Of that unfathomable grass,
Where men like grasshoppers appear,
But grasshoppers are giants there:
They, in their squeaking laugh, contemn
Us as we walk more low than them:
And from the precipices tall
Of the green spires, to us do call.


To see men through this meadow dive,
We wonder how they rise alive;
As, under water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go;
But as the mariners that sound
And show upon their lead the ground,
They bring up flow’rs so to be seen,
And prove they’ve at the bottom been.


No scene that turns with engines strange
Does oft’ner than these meadows change:
For when the sun the grass hath vexed,
The tawny mowers enter next;
Who seem like Israelites to be
Walking on foot through a green sea.
To them the grassy deeps divide,
And crowd a lane to either side.

The crowning description of the calenture is in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like so many of the short chapters in Moby Dick, ‘The Gilder’ is a perfect prose poem, far too good for a novel. Moby Dick is like an overflowing jug of poetry.

These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea; that he regards it as so much flowery earth; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not through high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie: as when the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure.

The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked.  And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.

It is hard to imagine a more ‘admirable’ prose description of the calenture. The entire chapter stands perfectly in isolation from the book, as the crowning expression of the calenture theme, here it is in Melville’s extraordinary prose.

Modern Calenturians...

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