Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sea-Fever by John Masefield

Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" was yesterday's poem selection. Its primary image is of sailing on the sea; its primary theme is of dealing with death. Today's poem choice could, of course, go either way. I considered John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud", another of my favorite poems from teenage years. I quite accidentally memorized the first two lines all those years ago, and I have them still: "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so." Instead, I decided to go with something sea-related. And three poems came to mind at once, so here is the one that sang loudest to me this morning (perhaps because posted it just the other day):

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 sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must 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 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.

*trick: a turn at the ship's wheel

First up, the story. The primary reason I know and love this poem is that my maternal grandmother had memorized it as a school girl in the early 1900s. She learned it in the form that it's printed here, as "I must down to the seas again", and because I learnt it that way as well, I've put that version (which comes from the first printed edition of the poem) here. You should know that it's often printed as "I must go down to the sea again", and there's a recording of Masefield chanting his work in which he quite clearly uses the word "go" throughout (Note - someone has "animated" a portrait of Masefield to accompany the text, which is mildly disturbing, but you can listen to Masefield's 1941 recitation of his poem this way). I have nevertheless kept with the version I associate with my grandmother. Just so you know.

The poem is written to be read or performed aloud, and it is essentially in a version of heptameter, which is to say that it uses accentual metre and has seven stressed syllables per line. Each line has a break (actual or implied) roughly in the middle, with four stressed syllables in the first part of the line, and three in the second part. So, "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" gives you an idea what I'm on about, I think. I added a slash to show where the break (real or implied) falls mid-line, and the double slash is the actual line break. Capitalized words get emphasis.

The lines do not fit into a specific, fixed metre, instead mixing iambs and spondees and dactyls and all manner of other technically-named feet in order to achieve a rolling sort of feel throughout the lines. In addition to the metre, the poem is written in rhymed couplets (AABB CCDD EEFF), and it uses a lot of alliteration and assonance. For instance, look at the second and third lines of the poem for the way he uses multiple types of alliteration within his lines: "And all I ask is a tall ship and the stars to steer her by/And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking". (Sorry if I confused you with so many italics - it's just that Masefield has deliberately echoed repeated sounds throughout his lines, and sometimes they come in a row, and sometimes they interlock.) He uses assonance (repetition of similar vowel sounds) as well. The use of alliteration and assonance is decidedly conscious, and lends itself to memorization and recitation.

Read on a literal level, the poem is about a yearning for adventure, or a form of wanderlust. The speaker wants to be on board a ship, have his turn at the helm, and earn a good night's sleep. On a metaphorical level, the poem is often read to mean that the speaker wants to lead a meaningful life, in which case the final line ("And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over") is read as referring to death. I think it not unfair to read it as a deliberate reference to Hamlet and his soliloquy in Act III, sc. 1, by the way ("to sleep: perchance to dream").

Masefield set to sea at the age of 15, and wrote quite a number of poems about sailors and the sea. "Sea-Fever" first appeared in print in 1902 in a collection entitled Salt-Water Ballads. He became Poet Laureate of England in 1930, and served in that position until his death in 1967. In 2005, "Sea-Fever" was selected as the favorite sea poem in Britain by Magma magazine. It was the winner by "a nautical mile."

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Anonymous said...

thank you so much for this analysis. great job :)

Anonymous said...

hey, i'm an english teacher over here in santa monica, ca, and i was looking for a good analysis of this poem; thanks for a wonderful job. all the background info and links are especially useful too! many thanks and nice work! robin

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks for the kind comments! They are much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kelly, my mother-in-law wanted this read at her funeral next Tuesday in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England and it really helps to know the poem a little more closely. Gareth

Kelly Fineman said...

Dear Gareth,

I am very sorry for your and your wife's loss. I am sending healing thoughts your way. Thank you for your lovely comment,

Anonymous said...

I would analyse the first line as: i MUST DOWN to the SEAS aGAIN. The poem starts out with the first of many spondees in it.

Rob Notara said...

I realise that you wrote this awhile ago but I was really trying to listen to the reading by John Maysfield on utube
It seems that it is private can you direct me a copy
I wish to imbed it into my thesis in visual arts

Rob Notara said...

Kelly is there another version of the reading as the link to YouTube appears to be a private site
Never come across this before
I was wanting to see if it would enhance my visual arts presentation thesis

jennyf said...

It's :
"I must go DOWN to the sea again....."

jennyf said...

The correct version is:
"I must go down to the sea again...."