As summer fades in our rearview mirrors and we bundle our children against the autumn chill, our thoughts can’t help but drift back to the joy and peace we found at the seashore, with the crash of waves as backdrop and nothing to do but frolic. Soon we are longing for our next beach sojourn. No one expresses this longing better than John Masefield in his 1902 poem, “Sea Fever.” This beloved and oft-memorized poem may seem old fashioned today, but it still vividly evokes the wild beauty and freedom of life near the sea.
The speaker expresses his yearning for the ocean and the seafaring life through an accumulation of sense memories expressed as vivid, concrete images. The call of the gulls, the shaking of the sails, the song of the wind, the sting of the ocean spray, and the beauty of breaking dawn make us feel as if we were riding the waves with him. With no less than thirteen repetitions of the word “and,” the catalog of pleasures wash over us like the sea waves themselves. This urgency is also conveyed through each stanza’s repetition of “I must go down to the seas again” and “All I ask is….” The plural “seas” conveys a world of adventure in the many different seas a merchant seaman might visit—Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North Sea, to name a few. The poet doesn’t ask for much, not generous pay nor ample food supplies—only the natural comforts of wind, clouds, stars, and wildlife.
The drama and excitement of this poem is mainly created by its music and sound effects—most notably its strong rhythm, which not only captures the urgency of the poet’s need to return, but also recreates through language the roar of the ocean waves on the shore and their slapping on the sides of the ship. Each four-foot line of iambic, combined with anapestic, tetrameter rises to its center, crashes like a wave, and falls away at its end like a wave’s retreat: “I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide…” (l. 5) or “And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking” (l. 4)—both of which create a strong stress or crash at “seas.” The poet also skillfully uses the spondee—two stressed syllables together—to emphasize the wave’s crash in the middle of a line: “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by” (l. 2). The spondee is also prominent in lines 3, 8, and 10, which depart from the established rhythm of the rest of the poem but are rhythmically similar to each other: “And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying” (l. 8). This insistent, beating rhythm creates a sense of whirling, joyful abandon.
But why a “tall ship” (l. 2)? Why not a fast, strong, or bonny ship? In fact, the “tall ship” was a specific model of large, traditionally-rigged sailing vessel widely used in the 19th century. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) references the term in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his 1849 account of a boat trip with his brother John from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire. Polish-British author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), who spent 1874 to 1894 at sea in tall ships, also used the term in his 1906 collection of autobiographical essays, The Mirror of the Sea. “If Conrad used the term, it is fairly certain “tall ship” was common parlance among his fellow mariners in the last quarter of the 19th century” (wikipedia.com). And if Masefield were alive today, he could “go down to the seas again” by participating in the Nicolet Bank Tall Ships Festival, held in the Port of Green Bay, Wisconsin each summer.
Besides the memorable pattern of rhyming couplets throughout the poem, the poet’s frequent use of alliteration creates a delightful musicality. The whisper of retreating waves is evoked with “s” sounds throughout the poem, as with “sea,” “sky,” “ship, and “a star to steer her by” in lines 1-2. “Spray,” “spume, and “sea-gull” join forces in line 8 discussed above, while the recurrent w’s in line 10, with the “gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife,” echo the whoosh of the blowing wind. These sights, sounds, and feelings call to the poet with a clear and wild urgency that “cannot be denied” (l. 6); he is probably packing his duffel bag even as he writes! Although the sea and sky begin by being “lonely,” in the last stanza we get a taste of the social life he also misses, with the “laughing fellow-rover” who shares stories (yarns) with the speaker. The last stanza also introduces the additional yearning, beyond the sensual beauty of sea life, for the freedom of the “vagrant gypsy life” enjoyed by a merchant seaman. In nautical terminology, a “trick” referred to a sailor’s spell of work at the helm. His reward is a “quiet sleep” and “sweet dreams” after days of hard physical labor on board.
British poet John Edward Masefield was born in Herefordshire, England. He studied at King’s School in Warwick before training as a merchant seaman. As a young man, he was apprenticed aboard a windjammer that sailed around Cape Horn. In 1895, at age 17, he disembarked and stayed in New York City, working in a carpet factory before returning to London, where he worked as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian. He began writing poems describing his experience at sea and rural English life. “Sea Fever” and “Cargoes,” published in 1902, are two of his best-known poems. The long narrative poem “The Everlasting Mercy,” published in 1911, shocked the public with its unvarnished representation of coarse rural speech. He is best known for his adventure and fantasy novels for children, including Lost Endeavour (1910) and The Midnight Folk (1927). Masefield was appointed British poet laureate in 1930.
When you crave the taste of salt air, the wind whipping through your hair, and the ocean waves licking at your toes, try reading “Sea Fever” to be transported back to the beach in your imagination.
By John Masefield (1878-1967)
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.