The best boat poems, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘There is no Frigate like a Book’, as Emily Dickinson once said, ‘To take us Lands away / Nor any Coursers like a Page / Of prancing Poetry’. And the link between poems and boats or ships is further strengthened by the wealth of great poems about voyaging on a ship, from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’ through to the twentieth-century modernist poet Ezra Pound’s rewriting of that poem – and beyond. Here are five of the very best poems about ships, boats, and other ocean-going vessels…
John Donne, ‘A Burnt Ship’. This little-known poem by the master of metaphysical poetry focuses on naval warfare and what happens when a ship catches fire: the crew either burn to death or fall to their deaths in the sea, drowning. Not the cheeriest way to begin this pick of the best ship poems, but it is a fine poem written by perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary.
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.’
Emily Dickinson, ‘Adrift! A little boat adrift!’ A boat mysteriously sinks – or does it? The sailors and the angels who witness this ‘little boat adrift’ read its fate very differently in this curious and enigmatic Emily Dickinson poem…
Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. This is probably Edward Lear’s most famous poem, and a fine example of Victorian nonsense verse. It was published in Lear’s 1871 collection Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, and tells of the love between the owl and the pussycat and their subsequent marriage, with the turkey presiding over the wedding. Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for a friend’s daughter, Janet Symonds (daughter of the poet John Addington Symonds), who was born in 1865 and was three years old when Lear wrote the poem.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Ship of Death’. A poem of angst and death, ‘The Ship of Death’ uses the metaphor of a journey to invoke the idea of self-discovery: the poem involves the poem’s speaker calling for the reader to prepare a ‘ship of death’ – ‘the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith’ – to transport them to ‘oblivion’, travelling from ‘the old self’ to ‘the new’. The naval metaphor has never been put to more terrifying and importunate terms than in this long poem by D. H. Lawrence – one of his most intriguing, and a fine place to disembark from this pick of the greatest ship poems.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best boat poems, you might also like these poems about roads and these classic railway poems. For more classic poetry, we also 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, and 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.