The first message in a bottle, we are told, wasn't so much a message as a research project: the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC), better known for his study of plants, came up with the notion that the Mediterranean Sea was formed by inflow from the Atlantic Ocean, and launched several bottles overboard in an attempt to prove it. Alas, no record exists of any of the vessels being found at the far end.

Theophrastus may have been disappointed, but perhaps he would have been amused to have seen how quickly the basics of his research scheme spread across the world, for various and sundry purposes. In the Japanese epic poem The Tale of the Heike, set in the 12th century, an exiled poet inscribes planks of wood with his story, and commits them to the sea. At some point in her reign, Elizabeth I decided that current-borne bottles might contain military intelligence, and appointed an officer to be the royal uncorker of those bottles. And in 1833, Edgar Allan Poe's MS. Found in a Bottle, in which a victim of a shipwreck climbs aboard what seems to be a ghost ship, manned by an unworldly crew, and begins recording his experiences, in the hope someone somewhere will read them.

Hope, in fact, motivates most ocean-borne bottles, whether launched by researchers trying to prove a point, or by the unhappy trying to reach a loved one. A example of the latter is Nicholas Sparks' late-1990s novel Message in a Bottle, which contains this message:

Dear Catherine,

A month has passed since I have written, but it has seemed to pass much more slowly. Life passes by now like the scenery outside a car window. I breathe and eat and sleep as I always did, but there seems to be no great purpose in my life that requires active participation on my part. I simply drift along like the messages I write you. I do not know where I am going or when I will get there.

Even work does not take the pain away. I may be diving for my own pleasure or showing others how to do so, but when I return to the shop, it seems empty without you. I stock and order as I always did, but even now, I sometimes glance over my shoulder without thinking and call for you. As I write this note to you, I wonder when, or if, things like that will ever stop.

Without you in my arms, I feel an emptiness in my soul. I find myself searching the crowds for your face — I know it is an impossibility, but I cannot help myself. My search for you is a never-ending quest that is doomed to fail. You and I had talked about what would happen if we were forced apart by circumstance, but I cannot keep the promise I made to you that night. I am sorry, I am truly sorry, my darling, but there will never be another to replace you. The words I whispered to you were folly, and I should have realized it then. You — and you alone — have always been the only thing I wanted, and now that you are gone, I have no desire to find another. Till death do us part, we whispered in the church, and I have come to believe that the words will ring true until the day finally comes when I, too, am taken from this world.


The woman who finds this note finds herself unexpectedly moved, and resolves to track down the man who wrote it. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood seized on this story, and brought forth an adaptation that earned back its production cost, but not much more than that.

Sting, contemplating the possibilities of this idea and the chances of a happy ending thereto, wrote a song called "Message in a Bottle" in 1979; it's one of the best early tracks by the Police, though it went nowhere as a single in the US. As Sting lyrics go, it's pleasantly straightforward and not even slightly maudlin. Americans who want sappy sentiment with their straightforward tales are invited to remember Mac Davis.

Me? I have "maudlin" written all over my soul. Ask anyone.

The Vent

  17 April 2019

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