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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.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on August 30, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. ferretpower2013

    There is also Betjamen’s lovely sea-side poem full of nostagia for a forgotten, or never-experienced childhood:

    Trebetherick

    We used to picnic where the thrift
    Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
    We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
    In trembling sponges on the ledge
    Below us, till the wind would lift
    Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.
    Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
    Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
    Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
    Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

    From where the coastguard houses stood
    One used to see below the hill,
    The lichened branches of a wood
    In summer silver cool and still;
    And there the Shade of Evil could
    Stretch out at us from Shilla Mill.
    Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light,
    Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
    The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
    And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat.

    But when a storm was at its height,
    And feathery slate was black in rain,
    And tamarisks were hung with light
    And golden sand was brown again,
    Spring tide and blizzard would unite
    And sea come flooding up the lane.
    Waves full of treasure then were roaring up the beach,
    Ropes round our mackintoshes, waders warm and dry,
    We waited for the wreckage to come swirling into reach,
    Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and I.

    Then roller into roller curled
    And thundered down the rocky bay,
    And we were in a water world
    Of rain and blizzard, sea and spray,
    And one against the other hurled
    We struggled round to Greenaway.
    Blesséd be St Enodoc, blesséd be the wave,
    Blesséd be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee,
    Ask for our children all happy days you gave
    To Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and me.

  2. Oooh. I love seafaring novels so thank you thank you for the seafaring poem suggestions!

  3. They are all masterpieces. I was expecting one of the Pablo Neruda’s many poems about the sea.

    When I see the sea once more
    will the sea have seen or not seen me ?

    Why do the waves ask me
    the same questions I ask them ?

    And why do they strike the rock
    with so much wasted passion ?

    Don’t they get tired of repeating
    their declaration to the sand ?

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