The best poems about seafaring selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the greatest sea poems? We’ve scoured the oceans of verse to bring you these ten classic seafaring poems, covering over a thousand years of English-language poetry. So if you’re ready to take to the sea, we’ll begin…
1. Anonymous, ‘The Seafarer’.
This 124-line poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old sailor looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships. As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side. Ezra Pound produced a loose translation of the poem in the early twentieth century.
Men who have never known hardship would be unlikely to believe the seafarer’s description of the difficulties of life at sea. The seafarer is without a lord, without wine or the company of women: all he has are the waves surrounding him. No man undertaking such a life could fail to fear, at least a little, what the Lord (Jesus) might have in store for him at the end – i.e., what his fate might be.
Like so much Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘The Seafarer’ was almost lost forever. I’ve previously remarked on this, but it’s a sobering thought that all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that has survived is found in just four manuscripts which escaped the ravages of time, the pillaging of the Vikings, and the censorship of the Church.
2. Edmund Spenser, from Amoretti LXXV.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
‘Vain man,’ said she, ‘that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.’
One of the earliest sonnet sequences written in English, Amoretti dates from the mid-1580s and features this fine sonnet about the poet’s seemingly vain attempt to immortalise his beloved’s name by writing it on the sand at the beach – the tide comes in, and the name is washed away. Spenser is more famous for writing the vast (and unfinished) epic poem The Faerie Queene, but as this poem demonstrates, he also helped to pioneer the English sonnet during the Elizabethan era.
Spenser’s beloved chastises him for his hubris and arrogance in seeking to immortalise her in this way, when she is but a woman, and only mortal. Her body will itself decay one day, much as her name has disappeared from the sand; her ‘name’, as in all memory of her, will be wiped out, just as her (literal) name has been erased from the shore.
3. William Shakespeare, ‘Full Fathom Five’.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
More properly known as Ariel’s song from The Tempest, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ is about Ferdinand’s father, who is believed to have been the victim of a shipwreck and lie at the bottom of the ocean.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, and much parodied and pastiched, ‘Full Fathom Five’ from The Tempest is sung by the fairy Ariel to the young Ferdinand, to tell him that his father is apparently dead and lying thirty feet below, at the bottom of the ocean, following the tempest of the play’s title and the ensuing shipwreck. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.
The Tempest begins, appropriately enough, during a storm at sea, which sees Antonio and his crew washed ashore the very island where Prospero, Antonio’s exiled brother, the man he usurped, dwells with Miranda, the sprite Ariel, and Caliban, a wild native of the island. Ariel is a fairy spirit who serves the magician and former duke Prospero.
4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow …
Is this the greatest English poem about a sea-voyage? Coleridge’s friend and collaborator was sceptical about its merits, and toyed with removing it from subsequent editions of their landmark collection Lyrical Ballads (1798).
Yet this story of a mariner and his crew, who suffer terrible misfortunes after they ill-advisedly kill an albatross, has become a classic long narrative poem and one of the defining poems of the English Romantic movement. In Watchet in Somerset, there is a statue of the Ancient Mariner, marking the place where Coleridge conceived of the idea for the poem.
The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship actually appears to have been invented in this poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably William Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s (Wordsworth got the idea of the albatross-killing from a 1726 book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke).
The poem is one of the great narrative poems in English, with the old mariner recounting his story, with its hardships and tragedy, to a wedding guest. Variously interpreted as being about guilt over the Transatlantic slave trade, about Coleridge’s own loneliness, and about spiritual salvation, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains a challenging poem whose ultimate meaning is elusive.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘I started Early – Took my Dog’.
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too …
Perhaps no other poet has attained such a high reputation after their death that was unknown to them during their lifetime. Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived her whole life within the few miles around her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, despite several romantic correspondences, and was better-known as a gardener than as a poet while she was alive.
This poem is about a trip to the seaside. But when is the sea not the sea? When it’s a symbol for carnal longings – as this poem appears to be. Dickinson is using the sea as a metaphor for the (female) speaker’s sensual awakening: note the mermaids, which came out from the basement (the sea’s bed, or the subconscious?) to look at the speaker.
The end of the poem, where the ‘Solid Town’ forces the sea to back off, invites us to consider the clash, so pronounced in nineteenth-century conservative New England, between the social expectations and mores for young women (embodied by the town as a symbol for civilisation and society) and the boundless freedom and energy of the individual (encoded in the sea).
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Smooth between sea and land’.
This little-known gem of a poem picks up on the motif present in Spenser’s sonnet mentioned above: what should the poet write on the sand for future generations to read? Nothing – for it will not last, and ‘the confounding main’ will wash over it and erase any sign that anyone had written something there.
The theme of writing something in the sand at the coast, in the vain hope that it will endure long after the writer has died, is an old one, as the Spenser poem above demonstrates. But in Spenser’s poem, the poet ended with the reassuring thought of immortality and the existence of God. Housman, who became an atheist while he was still a teenager, can off no such consolation here.
Unlike W. B. Yeats in ‘Lapis Lazuli’, where the poet sees the robustness of civilisation embodied by the rebuilding of culture and societies over different historical periods, Housman emphasises the ultimate futility of building empires or making anything.
Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?
Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.
Read the full poem by clicking the link above.
7. John Masefield, ‘Sea-Fever’.
One of the most famous sea poems in English literature, ‘Sea-Fever’ was published in 1902 in Masefield’s collection Salt-Water Ballads, when the poet was in his mid-twenties. Although its opening line is most familiar as ‘I must go down to the sea again’, it began life in its 1902 incarnation as the slightly odder ‘I must down to the seas again’.
8. H. D., ‘Oread’.
The critic Glenn Hughes called Hilda Doolittle or ‘H. D.’ the perfect Imagist, since her poetry brilliantly encapsulated the short, precise images that were at the heart of the short-lived Imagist movement led by Ezra Pound in the second decade of the twentieth century. ‘Oread’ takes its name from the nymph of the mountains and pine trees, and is presumably spoken by this land-nymph, which calls upon the sea to ‘whirl up’ and cover the rocks with its ‘pools of fir’. A love poem but also a nature poem.
And yet, the cleverness of the imagery is that the pools of fir could be a description of the green sea (resembling fir trees) or a description of actual fir trees whose green pine needles are washing over the mountains. This ambiguity is doubtless deliberate, because it fuses the land and the sea, the water and the trees, in one seamless image, suggesting the longed-for meeting of the two.
9. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’.
The third of Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘The Dry Salvages’ – although it sounds like a most unwatery poem – actually takes its name from les trois sauvages, a group of rocks off Cape Ann in Massachusetts. The five sections of the poem offer various meditations on water – look out in particular for the tour de force that is Eliot’s take on the sestina form at the beginning of the second section.
The first of the five sections of ‘The Dry Salvages’ is especially worth reading for its comparative analysis of the river and the sea. The ‘strong brown’ river is the Mississippi, which is ‘untamed and intractable’, and has served as a frontier and as a conduit for commerce. But unlike the river, which is within us, the sea is all about us. The river is a ‘god’, but the sea has ‘many gods’ and ‘many voices’: a polytheistic force of nature.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘To the Sea’.
Although he’s often thought of as a somewhat gloomy poet, Larkin (1922-85) had his tenderer, more celebratory moments too, such as in this, the opening poem from his 1974 collection High Windows, describing the annual ritual of the British family seaside holiday.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). Discover more great poems with these great poems about secrets, these classic poems about holidays and vacations, our pick of the best football poems, and these classic nature poems. For a change of pace, see our review of a superb collection of hilariously bad poetry by the great and good.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Seaside Oregon United States (picture credit: Apollomelos, 2005), via Wikimedia Commons.