Neapolitan Fisherboy (Pêcheur napolitain à la coquille), 1857–after 1861 [cropped photo]
Marble sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
According to scientists, the sound you hear when you place a seashell next to your ear is not the sound of the ocean. It is the ambient noise from the immediate surroundings which is amplified in the cavity of the shell. No matter, listening to the sound is a delightful experience for many. It has even inspired some poets who hear from the chambers of the shell, not just wind and sea, but the haunting tales they bear.
by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (English, 1845–1907)
The hollow sea-shell, which for years hath stood
On dusty shelves, when held against the ear
Proclaims its stormy parents; and we hear
The faint far murmur of the breaking flood.
We hear the sea. The sea? It is the blood
In our own veins, impetuous and near,
And pulses keeping pace with hope and fear
And with our feeling’s every shifting mood.
Lo, in my heart I hear, as in a shell,
The murmur of a world beyond the grave,
Distinct, distinct, though faint and far it be.
Thou fool; this echo is a cheat as well,—
The hum of earthly instincts; and we crave
A world unreal as the shell-heard sea.
James Stephens (Irish, 1880–1950)
And then I pressed the shell
Close to my ear
And listened well,
And straightway like a bell
Came low and clear
The slow, sad murmur of the distant seas,
Whipped by an icy breeze
Upon a shore
Wind-swept and desolate.
It was a sunless strand that never bore
The footprint of a man,
Nor felt the weight
Since time began
Of any human quality or stir
Save what the dreary winds and waves incur.
And in the hush of waters was the sound
Of pebbles rolling round,
For ever rolling with a hollow sound.
And bubbling sea-weeds as the waters go
Swish to and fro
Their long, cold tentacles of slimy grey.
There was no day,
Nor ever came a night
Setting the stars alight
To wonder at the moon:
Was twilight only and the frightened croon,
Smitten to whimpers, of the dreary wind
And waves that journeyed blind—
And then I loosed my ear … O, it was sweet
To hear a cart go jolting down the street.
by Walter R. Cassels (English, 1826–1907)
From what rock-hollow’d cavern deep in ocean,
Where jagged columns break the billow’s beat,
Whirl’d upward by some wild mid-world commotion,
Has this rose-tinted shell steer’d to my feet?
Perchance the wave that bore it has rejoiced
Above Man’s founder’d hopes, and shatter’d pride,
Whilst fierce Euroclydon swept, trumpet-voiced,
Through the frail spars, and hurl’d them in the tide,
And the lost seamen floated at its side!
Ah! thus too oft do Woe and Beauty meet,
Swept onward by the self-same tide of fate,
The bitter following swift upon the sweet,
Close, close together, yet how separate!
Frail waif from the sublime storm-shaken sea,
Thou seem’st the childhood toy of some old king,
Who ‘mid the shock of nations lights on thee,
And instant backward do his thoughts take wing
To the unclouded days of infancy;
Then, sighing, thus away the foolish joy doth fling.
Forth from thine inner chambers come there out
Low murmurs of sweet mystic melodies,
Old Neptune’s couch winding lone caves about,
In tones that faintly through the waves arise,
And steal to mortal ears in softest sighs.
The poet dreams of olden ages flowing
Through the time-ocean to the listening soul,
Ages when from each fountain clear and glowing,
Unto the spirit Naiad voices stole.
And still, from earth and sea, there ever pealeth
A voice far softer than leal lover’s lay,
Bearing the heart, o’er which its true sense stealeth,
Far to diviner dreams of joy away,
And to the wisdom of a riper day.