From mankind’s earliest days, so far as we can tell, looking out at the sea has evoked powerful emotions in humans. As speakers of English, our forebears in the language were seagoing people who wrote some of their most powerful poetry about the ocean, including “The Seafarer,” recorded in the Exeter Book in the mid- to late 10th Century. In that poem, a sailor reflects on the hardship and peril that he’s encountered. The poem is full of descriptions of the power and danger of the ocean, as when he says, “Hung round with icicles/scoured by hail/Lonely and friendless/and far from home/In my ears no sound/but the roar of the sea/The icy-cold way.” (To see this in its original, CLICK HERE and read from line 17 through the first half of line 19).
I made another recent reference to that poem, talking about the Anglo-Saxon convention of “kennings.” “The Seafarer” uses poetic references to the sea as “the whale road” and “the whale’s domain.” CLICK HERE for that whaling reference.
Nine hundred years later, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote some of the most memorable lines about the power of the ocean as he looked out upon what may have been the same Northern Sea where that Anglo-Saxon seafarer had traveled:
Break, break, break/On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!/And I would that my tongue could utter/The thoughts that arise in me.
Tennyson wrote “Break, Break, Break” in about 1835. Both the anonymous author of “Seafarer” and the immensely accomplished Tennyson — who became accustomed to great acclaim and celebrity — may be surprised (if there is surprise wherever they now reside) at the enduring place their poems hold in the literature. If one is to be — as Tennyson became — Poet Laureate, one certainly needed more than just wafting, ethereal lines about existence and pantheistic oneness. With “Break, Break, Break,” Lord Tennyson delivered.
More than 175 years of familiarity to speakers of English and inclusion in probably every principal collection of Great English Poetry since then have established Tennyson’s poem so well that scarcely any one of us can stand on a point of land adjacent to the sea for more than about a minute without bringing these lines to mind. Let familiarity not breed contempt. It is a great poem, all the greater that it still conveys powerful emotion after generations of being accustomed to it.
For the record, Tennyson wrote the poem as a memorial to his close friend, Arthur Hallam, who had died in 1833, so it qualifies as not only a memorable sea poem, but as one of the great memorial elegies in English.
Other great sea poems (or shore-poems) come to mind, too (perhaps they can’t be shore poems, because that would mean they’re comprised of shore-lines, and that pun is almost too much for even this grubber in the dustbin of punnery). Western poetry essentially begins with Homer writing about the wine-dark sea. Tennyson gave us a heroic reflection of Homer’s hero in his poem from 1842 — “Ulysses” — in which the aging adventurer longs to sail out again across ” … that untravell’d world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.” While not really a sea poem, it demonstrates the place that the ocean holds as a metaphor for writers from all eras.
“Dover Beach,” by Tennyson’s younger contemporary, Matt Arnold, is almost universally anthologized as well. The opening line doesn’t seem very “poetic” at first: “The sea is calm tonight.Arnold builds the power of the wave motif (and in the moonlight on the ocean and the cliffs, a light-motif) into powerful universal symbols. The aspect of the ocean Arnold uses to convey his idea is the sound of the waves, imagining that another great writer would have heard the sound in ancient Greece:
Sophocles long ago/ Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery. We/Find also in the sound a thought,/ Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
I relish that “We find also in the sound a thought.” We do, all of us. If you can’t stand beside the ocean and have the sound of those waves — whether they are crashing, rolling, washing, rippling — stir some elevating thought in you, then you are of an alien species. Few things exceed the power of the ocean to evoke in us powerful emotions.
Driving north along the western edge of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Dad and I got a look at the archetypal northwestern coast. There were windswept grass-covered dunes and long flat stretches of beach under a leaden sky at Ocean City:
That stern and grim coast could be the domain of one of the language’s most dedicated poets of the sea, Charles Algernon Swinburne, a generation younger than Tennyson and at one time considered Lord T’s likely successor as Poet Laureate until certain behavioral oddities got old Algy scratched at the post. Swinburne wrote compellingly and evocatively of the coast of Northumbria (again, a connection with that ancient author of “The Seafarer”), although in an idiom that doesn’t hold up well for today’s readers. If you’re interested, write to me, and I’ll point you to some fascinating and even hilarious stuff Swinburne composed, but here’s a snippet from “By the North Sea” to regard as you look at the photo above:
Waste endless and boundless and flowerless/But of marsh-blossoms fruitless as free:/Where earth lies exhausted, as powerless/To strive with the sea.
At the end of Route 101’s long romance with the Pacific coast, we encountered the classic craggy, dramatic sea stacks at wave-wracked Ruby Beach:
The next day, we struck the furthest northwestern point of the continental United States, Cape Flattery. There, on the southern edge of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, “our” portion of the continent ends. Beyond that point lies only the Pacific Ocean. A lonely road leads out to the Cape, and, from a parking lot at the end of the road, a half-mile trail takes the determined traveler down through the cedar forest to an overlook.
The end of the continent is just as dramatic as one could wish.
I have stood in a few remote places of the world where I could feel I inhabited the space alone. As I stood there at the end of the continent there was no other human within sight of me or in reach of the sound of my voice. If I pitched off the edge of the cliff — a precipitous eighty or a hundred feet to the water — I would be lost forever. I could have quoted from that unknown long-ago author of “The Seafarer,” “In my ears no sound but the roar of the sea.” The onshore wind sung in my ears, and the sound of the water on the granite cliffs rose and fell and rose, ceaselessly. “Alone, alone, all all alone,” wrote Coleridge (who died the year before Tennyson composed “Break, Break, Break”). The sea persists throughout our literature as an abiding symbol.
There, by a distant northern sea, I certainly found in the sound more than one thought — thoughts that validate all that one travels for: to see the world as one always wished to see it; to have a living moment on the verge of the known world that — for that instant — frames the universe we inhabit in a context beyond the self, and beyond our human concerns. The rocks and forest and sea endure, and we can only bear witness.
Then I climbed the trail back up through the silent cedar forest, and told Dad what I’d seen.
With this, the sixth in the series, I’ll conclude my account of our recent trip to Washington state for now. One of the best things about travel, though, is that the experiences are always there in memory, and, no doubt, there will be opportunity to bring forth other recollections and photos in future articles. To start at the first in this series, CLICK HERE, or use the navigation at the bottom of the web page to move forward and back through other posts.
One other famous literary motif of gazing-out-to-sea is in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I wrote about “water gazers” HERE.
© Brad Nixon 2011, 2016