Nautical poetry is part of our collective maritime heritage — as valuable as the ghostly artefacts from the Titanic, the faded photographs in maritime archives, and the timeless marine paintings that hang in the Louvre. Here are seven sea poems that charm and captivate, including one by British Poet Laureate John Masefield (pictured above) which is familiar to coutless readers around the world.
Low Tide, Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue — oil on canvas, 1892
by French artist Eugène Boudin (1824–1898)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 –1950)
Barnacled white and weeded brown
And slimed beneath to a beautiful green,
These wet rocks where the tide went down
Will show again when the tide is high
Faint and perilous, far from shore,
No place to dream, but a place to die,—
The bottom of the sea once more.
There was a child that wandered through
A giant’s empty house all day,—
House full of wonderful things and new,
But no fit place for a child to play.
Lovers on Aran
by Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To posess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.
Note: An interesting commentary on this poem by Heaney, an Irish poet and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, can be found here.
Luminescent algae. Aquarium in Naples — coloured ink on paper, 1911
by Czech-born artist Wenzel August Hablik (1881–1934)
The World Below the Brine
By Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
Forests at the bottom of the sea—the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds—
the thick tangle, the openings, and the pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold—
the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks—coral, gluten, grass, rushes—
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there, suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface, blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard,
and the sting-ray;
Passions there—wars, pursuits, tribes—sight in those ocean-depths—
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do;
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings
like us, who walk this sphere;
The change onward from ours, to that of beings who walk other spheres.
by Rudyard Kipling (1865–936)
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.
Neptune’s Horses — colour lithograph, 1910
by English artist Walter Crane (1845–1915)
by H. D. (1886–1961)
They say there is no hope—
sand—drift—rocks—rubble of the sea—
the broken hulk of a ship,
hung with shreds of rope,
pallid under the cracked pitch.
They say there is no hope
to conjure you—
no whip of the tongue to anger you—
no hate of words
you must rise to refute.
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you are cut apart
by wave-break upon wave-break,
that you are misshapen by the sharp rocks,
broken by the rasp and after-rasp.
That you are cut, torn, mangled,
torn by the stress and beat,
no stronger than the strips of sand
along your ragged beach.
But we bring violets,
great masses—single, sweet,
violets from a wet marsh.
Violets in clumps from hills,
tufts with earth at the roots,
violets tugged from rocks,
blue violets, moss, cliff, river-violets.
Yellow violets’ gold,
burnt with a rare tint—
violets like red ash
among tufts of grass.
We bring deep-purple
We bring the hyacinth-violet,
sweet, bare, chill to the touch—
and violets whiter than the in-rush
of your own white surf.
For you will come,
you will yet haunt men in ships,
you will trail across the fringe of strait
and circle the jagged rocks.
You will trail across the rocks
and wash them with your salt,
you will curl between sand-hills—
you will thunder along the cliff—
break—retreat—get fresh strength—
gather and pour weight upon the beach.
You will draw back,
and the ripple on the sand-shelf
will be witness of your track.
O privet-white, you will paint
the lintel of wet sand with froth.
You will bring myrrh-bark
and drift laurel-wood from hot coasts!
when you hurl high—high—
we will answer with a shout.
For you will come,
you will come,
you will answer our taut hearts,
you will break the lie of men’s thoughts,
and cherish and shelter us.
By John Masefield (1878–1967)
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 gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray 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.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
The Blue Ship — oil on wood, circa 1934
by Cornish fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Whether my bark went down at sea
by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails;
By what mystic mooring
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay.