Three Poems About the Sea

Although I grew up in Idaho, a landlocked state 800 miles away from the Pacific Ocean, I always liked the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield. I think most people are drawn to the sea in some way or another.

I even had “Sea Fever” memorized once, but I’ve forgotten it all except for the lines, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky” and “the flung spray and the blown spume.” Here is the entire poem:

Sea Fever
by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

While I was thinking about this poem—whose narrator is very much an old sailor inhabiting 20th century Georgian England—I remembered that all the elves in the high-fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings by English author J. R. R. Tolkien also longed for the sea in much the same way.

When the elf Legolas traveled near the sea and for the first time heard sea gulls calling, his innate sea-longing awoke and was expressed in this poem:

Legolas’s Song of the Sea
by J. R. R. Tolkien

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gull are crying,

The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling.
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressëaut, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people for ever!

And finally, after remembering Tolkien, I remembered one more it’s-about-more-than-just-the-sea poem:

Crossing the Bar
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Then Let Me Tell Thee A Strange Story

I’m still reading The Temple, a collection of religious poetry by George Herbert (17th-century English poet and Anglican priest).

As it is the Christmas season, I was especially struck by the unique and witty imagery of Christ descending to earth—disrobing as He goes—and ascending to heaven—as a vessel or bag to carry us to God—when I read this poem last night. Merry Christmas!

The Bag
by George Herbert (1633)

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth hear.
Though winds and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel.
Storms are the triumphs of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart.

Hast thou not heard, that my Lord JESUS died?
Then let me tell thee a strange story.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolved to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

The stars his tire of light and rings obtained,
The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,
The sky his azure mantle gained.
And when they asked what he would wear;
He smiled and said as he did go,
He had new clothes a-making here below.

When he was come, as travellers are wont,
He did repair unto an inn.
Both then, and after, many a brunt
He did endure to cancel sin:
And having given the rest before,
Here he gave up his life to pay our score.

But as he was returning, there came one
That ran upon him with a spear.
He, who came hither all alone,
Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,
Received the blow upon his side,
And straight he turned, and to his brethren cried,

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
(Believe me) it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart,
Look, you may put it very near my heart.

Or if hereafter any of my friends
Will use me in this kind, the door
Shall still be open; what he sends
I will present, and somewhat more,
Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey
Any thing to me. Hark, Despair away.

A Poem About Prayer

I recently came into possession of a copy of The Complete Works of George Herbert, which I’ve been reading and savoring. (George Herbert was a 17th-century English poet and Anglican priest.) I was especially moved by this sacred poem on prayer, which is part of a beautiful collection of religious poetry by Herbert called The Temple published in 1633.

Prayer (I)
by George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.

A Visit to Mirkwood Mere

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Waverley, the 1814 novel written by Sir Walter Scott that launched the historical novel genre.

As I posted earlier, I learned a lot of new words and encountered a many an allusion and literary reference while reading this novel.

Now that I have read Waverley and Guy Mannering, and have just commenced reading The Antiquary, I can say with confidence that Sir Walter liked to drop a lot of poems and poetical excerpts into his narratives.

Fairly early in the novel Waverley, the reader encounters this poem, which is supposed to have been written by our young hero, Edward Waverley, when he finds that he is to join the military and leave his home in England to go to Scotland.

I was pleasantly surprised by the encounter and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this poem.

Mirkwood Mere
by Sir Walter Scott

Late, when the autumn evening fell
On Mirkwood Mere’s romantic dell
The lake returned, in chasten’d gleam
The purple cloud, the golden beam.
Reflected in the crystal pool
Headland and bank lay fair and cool;
The weather-tinted rock and tower,
Each drooping tree, each fairy flower,
So true, so soft, the mirror gave,
As if there lay beneath the wave,
Secure from trouble, toil and care
A world than earthly world more fair.

But distant winds began to wake,
And roused the Genius of the Lake!
He heard the groaning of the oak,
And donn’d at once his sable cloak,
As warrior, at the battle cry,
Invests him with his panoply.
Then, as the whirlwind nearer press’d,
He ‘gan to shake his foamy crest
O’er furrowed brow and blackened cheek,
And bade his surge in thunder speak.
In wild and broken eddies whirl’d,
Flitted that fond ideal world,
And to the shore in tumult tost
The realms of fairy bliss were lost.

Yet, with a stern delight and strange,
I saw the spirit-stirring change.
As warr’d the wind with wave and wood,
Upon the ruin’d tower I stood,
And felt my heart more strongly bound,
Responsive to the lofty sound,
While, joying in the mighty roar,
I mourn’d that tranquil scene no more.

So, on the idle dreams of youth,
Breaks the loud trumpet-call of Truth,
Bids each fair vision pass away
Like landscape on the lake that lay,
As fair, as flitting, and as frail
As that which fled the autumn gale.
Forever dead to fancy’s eye
Be each gay form that glided by,
While dreams of love and lady’s charms
Give place to honor and to arms!

Good Things and Hard Things—And a Poem for the New Year

For me, the year 2013 was filled with change and an unusual mix of good and not-so-good happenings.

Because of the change and the not-so-good happenings, I’m glad to bid farewell to 2013 and turn my face toward good things in 2014.

However, if all things are not good in 2014—and surely they won’t be—then this poem reminds me that I can benefit and learn even from the hard things that 2014 might bring.

Sindhi Woman
by Jon Stallworthy

Barefoot through the bazaar,
and with the same undulant grace
as the cloth blown back from her face,
she glides with a stone jar
high on her head
and not a ripple in her tread.

Watching her cross erect
stones, garbage, excrement, and crumbs
of glass in the Karachi slums,
I, with my stoop, reflect
they stand most straight
who learn to walk beneath a weight.

Two Poems for November

Whenever I feel like this:


by Thomas Hood (1799–1845)

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon!
No dawn- no dusk – no proper time of day –
No sky – no earthly view –
No distance looking blue –

No road – no street! –
No “t’other side the way” –
No end to any Row –
No indications where the Crescents go –

No top to any steeple –
No recognitions of familiar people –
No courtesies for showing ’em –
No knowing ’em!

No mail – no post –
No news from any foreign coast –
No park – no ring – no afternoon gentility –
No company – no nobility –

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

I try to remember this:


by George Herbert (1593–1633)

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan
Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.