The greatest coastal poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
We’ve taken ourselves off to the seaside for this week’s poetry selection. What are the best poems about beaches and the coast? We offer the following ten suggestions.
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.
Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’. In this poem we’re not on the beach as such but rather on a cliff overlooking the sea, but since we’re still at the point where the land meets the sea, we think Smith deserves her place on this list of great beach poems. This poem is that rarest of things: a Gothic sonnet – a fact that needn’t surprise when we bear in mind that the sonnet’s author, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet:
William Wordsworth, ‘Evening on Calais Beach’.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
Perhaps better-known by its first line, ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’, this sonnet might be considered a religious precursor to Matthew Arnold’s beach-poem of religious despair (see ‘Dover Beach’ below). Wordsworth feels the divinity of nature as he stands at the beach and watches the waves with his female companion. We cross from Calais to Dover for a very different poetic take on the beach now…
Walt Whitman, ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’.
A boy watches two mockingbirds nesting on a beach; but one day he notices that the mother bird hasn’t returned to the nest. The cry uttered by the male bird as it calls for its mate awakens something deep within the young boy, in one of Whitman’s most touching poems (although it was branded ‘unmixed and hopeless drivel’ by one reviewer; it’s rumoured that the response published in the same newspaper shortly afterwards, praising Whitman’s poem, was penned by none other than Whitman himself).
Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Although this poem was only first published in 1867, it was actually written considerably earlier, probably in 1851. ‘Dover Beach’ is Arnold’s most famous poem. The event described in the poem is Arnold’s honeymoon – which was indeed taken at Dover in Kent. Arnold’s central metaphor of the ‘Sea of Faith’ neatly summed up many Victorians’ attitudes to a decline of religious belief in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, and the poem is now seen as an important reflection of the Victorian zeitgeist. Click on the link above to read the poem in full and learn more about it.
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 –
So begins this poem by the wonderfully idiosyncratic poet Emily Dickinson, about a trip to the seaside. But is this poem about more than just a walk on the beach – is the sea a symbolic representation of something else here, such as the speaker’s nascent sexuality?
Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’
A little nonsense now and then, as a wise man once said, is relished by the wisest men. And so this fine beach-poem, and first-rate example of nonsense verse from Lewis Carroll, earns its place here. In ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ the two title characters, while walking along a beach, find a bed of oysters and proceed to eat the lot. But we’re clearly in a nonsense-world here, a world of fantasy: the sun and the moon are both out on this night. The oysters can walk and even wear shoes, even though they don’t have any feet. No, they don’t have feet, but they do have ‘heads’, and are described as being in their beds – with ‘bed’ here going beyond the meaning of ‘sea bed’ and instead conjuring up the absurdly comical idea of the oysters tucked up in bed asleep.
Robert Graves, ‘The Beach’. This short poem comprises two stanzas, the first of which considers children playing at the beach and the second of which shifts to the salty sea-dogs who tell the children of their extensive experience of the sea.
Philip Larkin, ‘To the Sea’. Larkin’s poem of praise to the English seaside appeared in his 1974 volume High Windows. Like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Show Saturday’, it’s a surprisingly upbeat poem, celebrating the English tradition of heading to the beach with the family to enjoy the ‘annual pleasure, half a rite’ of a trip to the seaside.
Anthony Hecht, ‘The Dover Bitch’. A sort of sequel to Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, this poem by the US poet Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) focuses on the woman to whom Arnold addresses his thoughts in his poem (his newlywed wife). One of Hecht’s most famous poems, ‘The Dover Bitch’ offers an alternative take on Arnold’s coastal view – perhaps it was the American Hecht’s intention to counter the English Arnold’s pessimistic (and self-indulgent) wail of religious doubt?
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). You might also enjoy these classic poems about seas and oceans, these short poems by women, and these poems about fish.
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.