The best water-themed poems
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.
Henry Vaughan, ‘The Water-Fall’. As we’ve written elsewhere, there’s something about the seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan which smacks more of the later Romantic movement than of the Metaphysical ‘school’ to which he belonged. This poem, describing the natural beauty of the waterfall, is a fine demonstration of how Vaughan anticipated Romanticism by over a century.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Coleridge’s classic 1798 poem first featured in Lyrical Ballads, the volume Coleridge co-authored with William Wordsworth. Wordsworth disliked ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a long narrative poem inspired by a story Coleridge had heard from a Somerset sailor, and only reluctantly allowed it to be included in reprints of the collection. Coleridge’s poem, which is now recognised as a classic, contains perhaps the most famous poetic lines about water in the whole of English literature: ‘Water, water, anywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.’
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’.
Edward Thomas, ‘Rain’. Like many of Edward Thomas’s poems, ‘Rain’ has a simple setting: the speaker, sheltering from the rain alone in a hut, muses upon his loved ones miles away and on death and the ‘love of death’. The setting is the First World War, which also lurks behind the next poem on this list…
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Autumn Rain’. This delicate poem, whose short lines and short stanzas suggest the droplets of falling rain, was first published in 1917, and the casualties of the First World War may be hinted at by Lawrence’s ‘dead / men that are slain’. The harvest time and Christian redemption are united under the rain falling from heaven.
H. D., ‘The Pool’. This short five-line poem is, along with ‘Oread’, Hilda Doolittle’s finest achievement as an Imagist poet. The speaker of the poem comes across something in the waters of a pool and wonders what it is. Is it her own reflection? Or another human being? Or something else? We’ve discussed this ambiguous poem here.
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, ‘Water’. This unrhymed poem from Larkin’s 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings sees the poet declaring that water would make a fitting subject for a religion: after all, we rely on water and our lives revolve around it as we drink it and wash and bathe in it. Larkin’s reference to ‘any-angled light’ suggests that water unites us all in this respect.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Crossing the Water’. The water being crossed in this poem is, first and foremost, the boundary between the United States and Canada – but the poem is also suffused with images of darkness and blackness which suggest that another boundary, between life and death, is also being summoned.
Discover more classic poetry with these very short poems, these great poems by Oscar Wilde, and our pick of the best poetry anthologies. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we list the best books for the poetry student here).