10 of the Best Poems about the Sea
The best poems about seafaring
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…
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.
Edmund Spenser, from Amoretti LXXV. 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.
William Shakespeare, ‘Full Fathom Five’. 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.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. 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.
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’: so begins this poem by the wonderfully idiosyncratic poet Emily Dickinson, about a trip to the seaside.
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.
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’.
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 – perhaps even an erotic poem.
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.
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.
Image: Seaside Oregon United States (picture credit: Apollomelos, 2005), via Wikimedia Commons.