On Sea Poetry

from "In Defense of Sea-Related Poetry"

     “Nearly all the English poets, from Chaucer to Keats, have a dislike for, or a dread of, the sea, and a hatred of sea-life and no high opinion of sailors.” 

—John Masefield, “Introductory,” A Sailor’s Garland


Foregoing the question of who, in the first place, would write poetry, I simply ask, who would write sea poetry? The reader might think sailors would write sea poetry, but few have. Sir Walter Raleigh, an accomplished sailor and poet, wrote no sea poetry. Shelley, an amateur sailor who by all accounts loved boats and died in one, wrote not one word of sea poetry outside poetic convention.* His friend Byron admitted knowing nothing about boats despite sailing with Shelley and actually owning a schooner, and yet wrote a lot of sea poetry. William Falconer, a Scot who went to sea as a common sailor and survived a shipwreck near Plymouth, England, in 1760 went on to write The Shipwreck, a long narrative in heroic couplets; while a best-seller in its time, only a few passages are read today. His greater contribution, the first marine dictionary, was finished in 1769 before, at age thirty-seven, off the Cape of Good Hope, in another shipwreck, he drowned. American Philip Freneau was a professional merchant marine captain, a patriot and journalist, and a poet of uneven work, much of which is sea-related.

In the nineteenth century Herman Melville, whose time in ships hardly needs mention, wrote a handful of sea poems; his main effort went into prose—a highly poetic prose. The same might be said of James Fenimore Cooper, briefly a deckhand in the merchant marine and a midshipman in the navy, whose sea verse is nothing compared with his sea fiction. R. L. Stevenson, on the other hand, is famous for both his sea fiction and sea poems. Treasure Island, an early novel, was largely the result of the Scotsman’s reading and imagination. His best-known sea poems, including “Requiem,” while written late in his life on Samoa reflect his early years among the Hebrides. No poetry resulted from his extensive experience in schooner yachts and trading schooners in the South Seas. Very late in the century came Englishman John Masefield, who by virtue of a dockside merchant marine academy and a single voyage in a square-rigger, was an accredited sailor. He was so sick on that single voyage that he had to be put in hospital on arrival in Chile, and he never again worked as a sailor or spent time in boats other than as a passenger. The irony is he was down-and-out in New York City when he came up, not a year after his offshore misery, with the sentimental sea poems that made him famous. 

In the twentieth century, first steam replaced commercial sail and stole not only the romance of going to sea but also the beauty of tiers of canvas spread from yards on multiple masts. A few young poets worked briefly as deckhands in the merchant service—Eugene O’Neill, Malcolm Lowry, Nordahl Grieg, but only O’Neill got anything substantial out of the experience and that was not, strictly speaking, poetry. Englishman Hillarie Belloc was a pioneer small-boat yachtsman but he was also an outspoken Catholic and his few sea poems are versified sermons. The naval experience of poets—or future poets—in the Second World War brought about less than a handful of good poems, including an historical narrative by Louis O. Coxe and a fine meditation by William Meredith, “The Wreck of the Thresher.”

After the Second World War travel in commercial jets changed everyone’s regard for the maritime milieu. The sea, in so far as the general population went, fell back into medieval disregard. One bright spot came with the revolutionary development of fiberglass, which beginning in the 1950s replaced wood as a boat building material. This brought about the democratization of yachting and turned the once mostly elite pastime into recreational boating available to all. Again, only a handful of poets who could actually handle the lines on a boat as well as the lines in a poem have written, and few, except for Robert Lowell (“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”) and Richard Eberhart (“Off Pemaquid”), particularly well.


Across the centuries, then, the worlds of sailors and poets did not meet. Where, then, has sea poetry as we have it come from?

Most sea poems were written by landsmen who traveled in the observer class, whether in a ship or an armchair, particularly in the nineteenth century when literary Romanticism coincided with the Age of Sail. Romanticism, quickly stated, countered the view, held for thousands of years, that the sea was a barren hostile place, and claimed instead that it was a manifestation of the eternal and the sublime, a place of beauty and the exotic. A poet as unlikely to write a sea poem as Samuel Taylor Coleridge nevertheless did so, and a fabulously great one, but he made “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a sea poem, to the extent it is that, by virtue of his wide reading in prose narratives of exploration. Before Coleridge, poets either did what he did—consider Shakespeare reading William Strachey’s letter about the shipwreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda as background for The Tempest—or they wrote using stock conceits (extended metaphors as seen in the lines of Shelley) of man on the voyage of life that had nothing much to do with a ship at sea. An interesting exception is Edmund Spenser whose nautically themed stanzas in his allegory The Fairie Queen owe their authenticity, as Jonathan Raban has suggested, to his passages in the late sixteenth century across the irish Sea between London and Cork.

Like Spenser, most poets wrote from their reading but often their sea knowledge was augmented by first-hand experience, the more so as the Americas were settled by Europeans. Going anywhere abroad meant going by vessel. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Kipling, Longfellow and countless others made the voyages. Shipwreck and the drowning of hundreds was everyday news. You can see this in Whitman, Bridges, and even Hopkins. Nautical knowledge was in the air the way airline and automobile doings are today.

The sea in the twentieth century, when it was used, which wasn’t often, was exploited for its symbolism by an observer class that included T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, and less obviously Robert Frost, Charles Olson, Dylan Thomas, and others. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” has an authenticity that correlates with his youthful summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The much anthologized “The Yachts” by William Carlos Williams is a good poem; but written in the Depression, it is Marxist and the idea that all yachts represent Capitalism at its worst is an easy attitude to adopt and therefore popular, but indefensible because patently absurd today. Other exceptions of note include Robinson Jeffers' “Boats in a Fog” and “The Purse-Seine;” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish House;” Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight and “The Sea Is History; Amy Clampitt’s “What the Light Was Like;”  and Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” The most common way for boats to turn up in post-modern verse is as metaphorical wrecks, as in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.”

Observers of the sea may be dreamers, ironic realists, or symbolists; but the sea is an arena and to go on it a sailor has to be physically fit and action-minded, adept at many different skills enacted simultaneously. A yachting historian has said that, truly, a yachtsman is a performance artist. Writers who go boating today are more typically journalists than poets. It would seem that action and contemplation in man are as antithetical as the sea and land on Earth.


* Many a green isle needs must be

In the deep wide sea of Misery,

Or the mariner, worn and wan,

Never thus could voyage on—

Day and night, and night and day,

Drifting on his dreary way,

With the solid darkness black

Closing round his vessel’s track;

(from “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills”)


© Richard Dey 2013