Driftwood and Sou’westers: Poets and the Sea

By Hugh Tranter

point lobos california

I cling to humped rocks that kneel
On unswept sands, 
where breakers reel
In splendid curves, and pile their foam
In spongy hills, that slow congeal,
And dulse and drift-wood find a home.

Stanza from the poem “At Point Lobos,”  by Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909)

people on beach in 1800s

It’s hard to imagine 19th-century people at the beach. Through sepia photographs, we observe with amusement our ancestor’s cautious engagement with the ocean, walking in formal clothes, or wearing straight-jacket swimming attire as they dip their toes in the shallows. This 19th-century starchiness seems a long way from today’s world of swimming, surfing, diving, beach fashion, and generally getting sandy and salty!

Poets such as Charles Stoddard, however, remind us how much people valued the beauty of the sea, then, as now. Their poetry reflected a broader love for the ocean. I have never been to Point Lobos (located on California’s Central Coast), the subject of the stanza on the facing page, but a quick look at images online shows me it is a place I wish I could be instantly transported to: alluring bottle green seas, golden sands, and rocky coves.

Abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier, best known for his poem “Snow Drift,” also loved to contemplate life and the sea with the aid of a driftwood fire (even if the smoke from driftwood is now considered to be toxic). 

As low my fires of drift-wood burn,
I hear that sea’s deep sounds increase,
And, fair in sunset light, discern
Its mirage-lifted Isles of Peace.

Stanza from the poem “Burning Drift Wood” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). 

Whittier also spoke of the feeling of renewal from visiting Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. He may have come up with these lines as he walked along the long beach formed by the spit out to the mouth of Hampton Harbor:

What heed I of the dusty land
And noisy town?
I see the mighty deep expand
From its white line of glimmering sand
To where the blue of heaven on bluer waves shuts down!

So then, beach, bluff, and wave, farewell!
I bear with me
No token stone nor glittering shell,
But long and oft shall Memory tell
Of this brief thoughtful hour of musing by the Sea.

Stanzas from the poem “Hampton Harbour,”  by Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909).

long beach with footprints

Poets have the gift of being able to capture memorable images of the sea through language. My favorites are often short stanzas or one-liners. Renowned 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

I started Early

Took my Dog

And visited the Sea
The Mermaids in the Basement

Came out to look at me.

Others captured mood and place: “Deep and dissolving verticals of light / Ferry the falls of moonshine down” and “And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys / Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each” (“Five Bells” by Kenneth Slessor), and “Music of hidden reefs and waves long past” (“Deep-sea Soundings” by Sarah Williams). Then there’s Shakespeare’s memorable line, “Full Fathom Five, thy father lies, of his bones are coral made” (from The Tempest, although—spoiler alert—fortunately, the writer’s father, the King of Naples, was okay after all).

pirate shipThe sea shanty is another form of sea-poetry from the 19th century, but far more extroverted than its reflective cousin. Sea shanties tell of the hardships of sea life, missed loved ones, of love and adventure, far horizons, and the many moods of the ocean. The words often come back—with a rhythmic reminder—to the need to act in the present, to haul ropes and tend sails.

And what do you think we had for breakfast?

The starboard side of an old sou’wester.

Then what do you think we had for dinner?

We had monkey’s heart and shark’s liver.

Can you guess what we had for supper?

We had strong salt junk and weak tea and water.

Then blow us out am blow us homeward,

Oh, blow today and blow tomorrow.

Blow fair and steady, mild and pleasant,
Oh, blow us into Boston Harbor.

(Blow, boys, Blow) Folk Music of the United States: American Sea Songs and Shanties AFS L26 - L27 (loc.gov)

20th-century modernism took to poetic sentiment like a demolition ball. Some might say that all those adverbs and fine thoughts had it coming, but modernism was indiscriminate, blurring the line between the good and the bad. If the 19th century was unashamedly romantic, 20th century modernist poetry was often bleak in outlook, dealing with alienation, industrialization, and the less admirable aspects of human nature (think TS Eliot’s The Waste Land).

Fortunately, nature poetry has emerged again. There are many poetry websites full of both historic and contemporary poetry about the sea. We may not sit around in parlor rooms reading poetry like characters in a period movie, but we can appreciate the love of sea poetry in its many forms.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2022 issue.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published