At the risk of sounding extremely English, the weather here is absolutely atrocious. It’s August, it’s cold and it’s raining, so I think this is a good time to think of other climes and places. Since I’ve been doing some travelling of my own recently, I think that the sea, medium of journeys and my close neighbour here at home, is an appropriate theme for today.

The first poem is from John Masefield, who is generally known as the author of Sea Fever. This poem is also in a nautical vein, and suggests itself because it’s relatively short, has a touch of the exotic to its first two stanzas and compares that with the eternally prosaic Now. It also approaches the issue of how those commodities that govern the wealth of nations change over time in a way that I find very interesting.


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-tree shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays.

In this next poem by Shelley the sea is only a metaphor; but time itself is also a medium of journeys. For it to be personified as a limitless ocean makes a great deal more sense than as an old man.


Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears¬
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality!
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore,
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

The next poem is a natural continuation from the last. Shelley’s most famous poem is his ode to a skylark (whence comes Noël Coward’s title for Blithe Spirit), and on opening The Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins I find a poem about skylarks, the sea and Time.

The Sea and the Skylark

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench – right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make, and making break, are breaking down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.

I think something rather more cheerful is in order for the last poem. In this next piece, Richard Hovey captures the excitement of ocean travel and the call of the sea that so many Devonshire people have followed.

The Sea Gipsy

I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.