Monday, April 29, 2019

On the Wine Dark Sea—Poems on Salt Water

Dutch Boats by J.W,M. Turner

I grew up where the tang in the air at dawn was sagebrush, not salt water, where the vast rolling expanse was the high prairie sloping away from the Big Horns toward the Powder River, and where most of the year you can wade across almost any water without getting your belt wet.  I have never lived by the shore or, except for a childhood Sunday excursion to Catalina Island, ever been on the ocean.
Despite my landlubber status, it is easy to see the lure of the sea, its lore, its call to mysterious adventure.  So many poets have felt that call.
Sometimes called an elegy to himself, this famous poem by Mathew Arnold could also be included in a roundup of death poems.  In fact the sea and death often seem inseparable especially in the days when many who sailed never returned to port.
Dover Beach.
Dover Beach
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

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.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Mathew Arnold

Ships on a stormy sea.

Walt Whitman, of course, caught the hurly-burly of the ships of the world crowding the harbor of old New York, is thrilled by the wide world they represent—and by the sailor boys come ashore.  But he dare not forget the many never come to harbor again.

Song for All Seas, All Ships


To-day a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the Seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal;
Of unnamed heroes in the ships—Of waves spreading and spreading, far as the eye can reach;
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing;
And out of these a chant, for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.

Of Sea-Captains young or old, and the Mates—and of all intrepid Sailors;
Of the few, very choice, taciturn, whom fate can never surprise, nor death dismay,
Pick’d sparingly, without noise, by thee, old Ocean—chosen by thee,
Thou Sea, that pickest and cullest the race, in Time, and unitest Nations!
Suckled by thee, old husky Nurse—embodying thee!
Indomitable, untamed as thee.

(Ever the heroes, on water or on land, by ones or twos appearing,
Ever the stock preserv’d, and never lost, though rare—enough for seed preserv’d.)


Flaunt out O Sea, your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out, visible as ever, the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself, and for the soul of man, one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven Signal, for all nations, emblem of man elate above death,
Token of all brave captains, and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty;
Reminiscent of them ‘twined from all intrepid captains, young or old;
A pennant universal, subtly waving, all time, o’er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships,

—Walt Whitman

Stephen Crane's Open Boat

Stephen Crane was a youthful phenom as writer.  One of his seminal experiences was being shipwrecked and cast a-sea in an open boat in storm tossed waters.  Although he was quickly rescued, it led to his classic story of survival The Open Boat and poetry like this.

The ocean said to me once

The ocean said to me once,
Yonder on the shore
Is a woman, weeping.
I have watched her.
Go you and tell her this—
Her lover I have laid
In cool green hall.
There is wealth of golden sand
And pillars, coral-red;
Two white fish stand guard at his bier.

“Tell her this
And more—
That the king of the seas
Weeps too, old, helpless man.
The bustling fates
Heap his hands with corpses
Until he stands like a child
With a surplus of toys.”

—Stephen Crane

Gulls in a rising tempest.
Carl Sandburg was no sailor.  After he relocated from the Midwest to North Carolina, he learned to the shore and tide pools.  His ocean is unconcerned with commerce, or even human experience.  It is its own true thing.

From the Shore

A lone gray bird,
Dim-dipping, far-flying,
Alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults
Of night and the sea
And the stars and storms.

Out over the darkness it wavers and hovers,
Out into the gloom it swings and batters,
Out into the wind and the rain and the vast,
Out into the pit of a great black world,
Where fogs are at battle, sky-driven, sea-blown,
Love of mist and rapture of flight,
Glories of chance and hazards of death
On its eager and palpitant wings.

Out into the deep of the great dark world,
Beyond the long borders where foam and drift
Of the sundering waves are lost and gone
On the tides that plunge and rear and crumble

—Carl Sandburg

Beach stones.

Lillian Moore, best known as a brilliant children’s and young adult writer, editor, and publisher, also walked the beaches.

Beach Stones
When these small
clear pools and
nets of weed

teased by spray

they glowed
glinted sunsparks on
their speckled

Spilled on the
they were
wet-sand jewels
still flecked with

gray stones
dry and dim.

Why did we bring them home?

—Lillian Moore

Massachusetts beach.
Everett Hoagland was of late the Poet Lauriat of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that old home port to whalers, clipper ships,  and  fishermen.  The sea has always called to him.  He compiled and edited Ocean Voices:  An Anthology of Ocean Poems.

At East/West Beaches

The day night was born
we searched for time and sea-
smoothed fragments of blue, green,

brown bottles. Glass
cleared of gloss
made of man-
and woman-
made fire

and sand
made from
stone, made

from rock, made
from cosmic dust. We

fringed the lips of under-
tow with footprints the waves
redeemed from the firm, wet
shore. We gathered and gave each other
milk white moonstones, aeons
old obsidian, pebbles trans-
lucent as sucked rock

candy and rolled up our jeans in the raw
salty mist. The sun sank into

a violet-lipped quahog, and grit-edged
night opened like a mussel. Under
lacquered, pearly black
light of moonrise we crossed
over a sandbar
into camp

by duned scrub
beach rose. The night day
was born we turned
around and found
no footprints.

—Everett Hoagland

Mary Oliver.

We will close with Mary Oliver, another lover of beaches.

Ocean, a poem

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.
—Mary Oliver

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