The best water-themed poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
2. Henry Vaughan, ‘The Water-Fall’.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend
Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave …
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.
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white …
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.’
4. 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’.
5. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Autumn Rain’.
The plane leaves
fall black and wet
on the lawn;
the cloud sheaves
in heaven’s fields set
droop and are drawn
in falling seeds of 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 poem begins with a comparison between the river and the sea. The ‘strong brown’ river, 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.
8. 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.
Many religions, of course, make use of water, especially the various sects of Christianity which include baptism as a holy ritual or sacrament: whether it’s the baby’s head being wetted by water from the font, or complete immersion into the water, many Christians have been baptised, and water has symbolised the purification of that person’s soul in preparation for a life of religious devotion.
But Larkin’s hypothetical religion would place water even more at the centre of things: people going to his church would regularly come into contact with water, ‘fording’ (wading?) towards special, dry clothes which they would change into, following their weekly baptism or dunking. The religious sermon and holy text, the ‘liturgy’, would feature watery imagery. And the most powerful symbol of all, perhaps, would be the humble glass of water, which would be raised ‘in the east’ (symbolising new births and beginnings?).
9. 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.
10. Oliver Tearle, ‘Breaking the Ice’.
This is how you will be reborn. The rush
of those million tiny fireflies, baby swimmers,
is a return to one’s own origins. The fish
fill the dark with their glow. Life quickens. Night
bursts into new possibilities of light.
Let’s conclude our pick of watery poems with a contemporary example from our founder-editor, the literary critic and poet Oliver Tearle. This poem, about wild-swimming at night among shoals of bioluminescent fish, likens this transformative experience to a kind of rebirth, with water once again carrying a truly cathartic power.
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).
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.