Poetry of the Sea: Part 1

They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. These men see the works of the Lord; and his wonders in the deep…
— Psalm 107

Some of the English language’s finest poetry has been written about the sea. Here’s five of my favourites, some are excerpts due to length.

— ♥ —

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage  by Lord Byron
    Dark-heaving, boundless, endless, and sublime.
    The image of Eternity…

 

Full Fathom Five  by William Shakespeare (Tempest)
    Full fathom five they father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;

    Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a sea change
    Into something rich and strange.

    Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell;
    Ding dong.
    Hark! Now I hear them –
    Ding dong, bell!

 

Crossing the Bar  by Lord Tennyson
Alfred Lord Tennyson

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 to sea

    But such a tides as moving seems asleep,
    Too full of 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

 

Sea Fever  by John Masefield
    I must 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 sails shaking,
    And the grey mist in 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 seagulls 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 ere the long trip’s over

 

Rime of the Ancient Mariner  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
    The furrow followed free;
    We were the first that ever burst
    Into that silent sea.

    Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
    ’Twas sad as sad could be;
    And we did speak only to break
    The silence of the sea !

    All in a hot and copper sky,
    The bloody Sun, at noon,
    Right up above the mast did stand,
    No bigger than the Moon.

    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.

— ♥ —


Do you have a favourite sea poem? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright notices
Coleridge image: By Artist unidentified (Google Books) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tennyson image: Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

20 Comments on “Poetry of the Sea: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Poetry of the Sea: Part 3 | Julian Stockwin

  2. Pingback: Poetry of the Sea | allthingsnautical

  3. Pingback: Poetry of the Sea: Part 2 | Julian Stockwin

  4. ‘Crossing the Bar’ is so poignant – as is this by by Philip Larkin

    The North Ship Legend

    I saw three ships go sailing by,
    Over the sea, the lifting sea,
    And the wind rose in the morning sky,
    And one was rigged for a long journey.

    The first ship turned towards the west,
    Over the sea, the running sea,
    And by the wind was all possessed
    And carried to a rich country.

    The second ship turned towards the east,
    Over the sea, the quaking sea,
    And the wind hunted it like a beast
    To anchor in captivity.

    The third ship drove towards the north,
    Over the sea, the darkening sea,
    But no breath of wind came forth,
    And the decks shone frostily.

    The northern sky rose high and black
    Over the proud unfruitful sea,
    East and west the ships came back
    Happily or unhappily:

    But the third went wide
    and far Into an unforgiving sea
    Under a fire-spilling star,
    And it was rigged for a long journey.

    I also like this little offering by Emily Dickinson. How often, far from shore on a dirty day, do you get that small bird hitching a lift!

    Hope is the thing with feathers

    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul,
    And sings the tune without the words,
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
    And on the strangest sea;
    Yet, never, in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.

    and one of mine

    5.23 AM

    5.23 October morning
    radio crackles, severe storm warning
    deep in duvet, snuggle on down,
    and dream of summer’s cosy gown

    rains lash down on slates resounding
    fierce wind gusting, trees are pounding
    cold and dark outside in torment
    for those at sea must dread this moment

    trawler bucking up waves ferocious
    spindrift streaming in gales atrocious
    sailors clutch at lines for safety
    we pray they make their way home safely

    best wishes … Tony Stafford

    • The line that says “trawler bucking up waves ferocious” brings to mind “Snowflake” and all those other brave little ships that fought in tthe Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boat menace.

  5. My favorite is from e.e. cummings:

    maggie and milly and molly and may
    E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962
    10

    maggie and milly and molly and may
    went down to the beach(to play one day)

    and maggie discovered a shell that sang
    so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

    milly befriended a stranded star
    whose rays five languid fingers were;

    and molly was chased by a horrible thing
    which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

    may came home with a smooth round stone
    as small as a world and as large as alone.

    For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
    it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

    • Never have I been fond of ee cummings work. You’ve changed that for me. It echos…

      for whatever we lose (like you or me)
      it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

      Beauty.

  6. Hi Julian,

    Glad you have listed Sea Fever by John Masefield as one of you favourite poems.

    Far too many people add an extra word in the first line and say “I must GO down to the seas again—“

    A long time ago someone drafted up another verse specific for the Lady Nelson

    “I must down to the seas again to crew on the Lady Nelson

    To climb the masts, to set the sails for just no other reason

    And all I ask is a good cook with meat and fruit aplenty

    The southern night ablaze with stars and the far horizon empty”

    We are currently gearing up the Australian Wooden Boat Festival this coming long weekend.

    You should schedule a trip down under for two years time for the next festival.

    I feel you need to write a sequel to the SilK Tree so we know what happens to Ying Mei and Nicander.

    Fair winds,

    Brian

    • Thanks for this, Brian. Would love to visit the next Wooden Boat Festival in two years. Certainly have it on my Wish List! No plans at the moment for a sequel to THE SILK TREE but you never know… J

  7. No dust have I to cover me,
    My grave no man may show;
    My tomb is this unending sea,
    And I lie far below.
    My fate, O stranger, was to drown
    And where it was the ship went down
    Is what the seabirds know.

    Edwin Arlington Robinson

  8. THE DUSKY MAIDEN

    The dusky maiden swirled and swirled, while the drunken sailors whirled and whirled. With hidden agenda she pranced about, breaking many a heart on her route. She danced to and fro, round and round, she would go. Many a sailor fell in love with her beauty for sure. Dark eyes and raven hair, but her love was without care. As she danced off into the night those drunken sailors heart took flight. For if we should come into this port again, we will be looking for the DUSKY MAIDEN.

    Jack Simon 15301 N. Oracle Rd. #109 Tucson, AZ 85739

    captainjack11@q.com

    >

  9. The Sea

    The sea, the sea, the desolate forlorn sea Why so sailors take to thee? Cold, wet and unforgiving, Yet we sail upon your waters What magnet draws us forth? The adventure or the unknown, Man against the elements. Maybe we looking over that horizon, Something new, something mystical. Once we have gone your way, You always call us back. The call, the call is always there. Come back to me, I AM THE SEA.

    Jack Simon 15301 N. Oracle Rd. #109 Tucson, AZ. 85739

    captainjack11@q.co m

    >

  10. My favourite poem of the sea is Sea Fever by John Masefield which I learned in school many years ago but still remember the words. I love all your books and have read them all more than once. Looking forward to the next one.

    Regards Isabelle McEwen

    Sent from my iPad

  11. I don’t read that much poetry but I’m a fan of Rudyard Kipling, my father was in British Army in WW 1 and used to sing ballads to me, was quite a shock MANY years later to find they were from Kipling. For something different, try THE BALLAD OF THE “CLAMPHERDOWN”. I have the Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, Definitive Edition, and I consider it one of my prize books. It’s sits on the nightstand and every couple of evenings, I grab it and open at random, and am never disappointed.

    He was the soldier’s poet, as THE LAST OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and TOMMY indicated.

    Gordon Levine

  12. I am surprised you omitted the poem of Thomas Kydd’s youth…
    Row, Row, Row
    Your Boat
    Gently Down the Stream
    Merrily
    Merrily
    Merrily
    Merrily
    Life is
    But a Dream

  13. Pingback: Poetry of the Sea: Part 1 | Broadly Boats News

  14. ‘Song of the Dying Gunner A.A.1’ by Charles Causley
    and
    ‘Christmas at Sea’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

    • Posted now:-
      Song of the Dying Gunner A.A.1

      Oh mother my mouth is full of stars
      As cartridges in the tray
      My blood is a twin-branched scarlet tree
      And it runs all runs away.

      Oh ‘Cooks to the Galley’ is sounded off
      And the lads are down in the mess
      But I lie done by the forrard gun
      With a bullet in my breast.

      Don’t send me a parcel at Christmas time
      Of socks and nutty and wine
      And don’t depend on a long weekend
      By the Great Western Railway line.

      Farewell, Aggie Weston, the Barracks at Guz,
      Hang my tiddley suit on the door
      I’m sewn up neat in a canvas sheet
      And I shan’t be home no more.

      Charles Causeley

      Christmas at Sea

      The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
      The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
      The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
      And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.
      They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
      But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
      We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
      And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.
      All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
      All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
      All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
      For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.
      We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
      But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
      So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
      And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.
      The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
      The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
      The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
      And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.
      The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
      For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
      This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
      And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.
      O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
      My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;

      Robert Louis Stevenson

  15. Not poetry as such, but as well as enjoying sea songs and shanties in general, I really enjoy listening to Cyril Tawney’s songs of the sea, especially those of the 20th century navy. My dad sometimes used to sing snippets of them so it was good to be able to hear the whole song. You could be right back at a Sod’s Opera!

    Andy Field

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