Nature has always inspired writers, but no aspect of nature has been more inspirational than the sea. Consider Homer’s Odyssey, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. From sailors’ shanties to Moby Dick, the sea has inspired countless songs and works of literature. There is something incredibly romantic about the ocean that compels people to seek the horizon, explore our inward seas, and write about the journey.
Let’s talk about Sea Poetry. First, a shout out to Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, in my opinion two of the greatest sea poems ever. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend you repair that educational omission. You’ll be glad you did.
And now here are three of my favorite sea poems:
The Skeleton In Armor
As a child, I encountered this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a 1922 edition of Journeys Through Bookland, Volume 5. The picture above both frightened and fascinated me, and I returned to this poem and its accompanying illustration again and again. In the poem, the writer encounters a skeleton in armor. It’s a Viking skeleton, and the Viking relates the saga of his sea journey from Scandinavia to North America accompanied by a beautiful maiden he stole from her father. Here is a sample stanza:
And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
Death! Was the helmsman’s hail,
Death without quarter!
Mid-ships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel;
Down her black hulk did reel
Through the black water!
In this stanza the maiden’s father and his henchmen are chasing the Viking ship carrying the stolen girl. The Viking rams their ship with his iron keel and sinks it. Everyone on board dies. The story is wild and pagan; even the rhythm and meter catch the reader up and make the heart beat faster. To read the complete text, go to http://www.poetry-archive.com/l/the_skeleton_in_armor.html
This poem by John Masefield is another I read as a child. “Sea Fever” celebrates the imperative call of the sea. For those who have felt it, there’s nothing like it. For those who haven’t, I can’t explain it but Masefield does a pretty good job. Here is one stanza of “Sea Fever”:
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 a quiet sleep and a sweet dream
When the long trick’s over.
One thing I like about this poem is that it gets the idea across that for those who hear it the ocean’s call trumps all else. The sea life can be lonely and cold and dangerous, but it’s both compelling and magical. If this isn’t a Tsunami Ranger poem, I don’t know what is. The complete text is available at http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Poetry/MasefieldSeaFever.html
I hope you have all heard of Edward Lear. He is famous for his limericks and of course, for writing “The Owl and the Pussycat”. But he also wrote “The Jumblies”, a poem which I find very sweet and rather poignant. It’s yet another of my childhood favorites. Here’s the first stanza:
They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And everyone cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”
The called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! We don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
When I was rereading this poem recently, it occurred to me that their heads are green because they’re seasick. Their hands are blue because they’re cold. Their lands are far and few because there aren’t many beings like them, probably because they do things like going to sea in a sieve. But it makes a great yarn. Find the complete text of “The Jumblies” at http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/ns/jumblies.html
What are the common elements here? Words that come to mind are: wild, exotic, fierce, unconformable, daredevil, free. This is Life with a capital “L”. There is a sense of abandon, of flinging caution to the winds and being drawn deliciously if perhaps fatally into adventure. But whatever happens, the experience will be full and rich and unforgettable. This is the romance of the sea. I hope you have enjoyed these samples of sea poetry.
Please share some of your favorite books or poems about the sea. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a good read, especially sea lit!