For reasons that are not hard to fathom, the sea has provided the impetus to some of the world’s greatest and best loved poems. It is beautiful. It is daunting. And above all, it is mysterious. Perhaps these same conflicting qualities drove the sailors of old to choose a life at sea notwithstanding all its hardships.
John Edward Masefield (1878-1967), British Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, waxed lyrical and romantic over this strange pull of the almighty ocean:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
(from “Sea-Fever”, in Salt-Water Ballads, 1902)
The joy and pain of sailing
In a similar vein, American poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906) conveyed a sense of the ocean’s beauty and the joy of being a sailor:
Oh for the breath of the briny deep,
And the tug of a bellying sail,
With the sea-gull’s cry across the sky
And a passing boatman’s hail.
For, be she fierce or be she gay,
The sea is a famous friend alway.
Ho! For the plains where the dolphins play,
And the bend of the mast and spars,
And a fight at night with the wild sea-sprite
When the foam has drowned the stars.
And, pray, what joy can the landsman feel
Like the rise and fall of a sliding keel?
(from “A Sailor’s Song”, in Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899)
Yet, for all its majestic beauty, the sea can be perilous and fatal — as American poet T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) reminds everyone in these riveting lines excerpted from his “Fourth Quartets” (1943):
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Today many are sailors, not for the love of the sea and the nautical life, but for the love of money. It is a materialistic quest, not a journey of the spirit. Will we see a waning of sea-related poetry? Let us hope not.
~ Barista Uno