Poetry and the Sea


The sea is an immoveable constant of nature, and whether viewing it from the land or travelling in it by boat, it is a spectacle that inspires awe in its observer.

For artists, the awe associated with the sea can transform into inspiration and creativity. To celebrate our festival's relationship with the sea, here are some famous and beautiful poems depicting or inspired by the sea.

By The Sea by Christina Rossetti

While officially a Victorian poet, Rossetti’s poetry took inspiration from the Romantics, and her focus on nature and the natural shines through in her poem By The Sea. Rossetti opens the poem by asking ‘Why does the sea moan evermore?’, answering her own question by saying that it was ‘shut out from heaven.’ This use of personification is a technique used by many poets when describing the sea, perhaps indicating the closeness many of them felt to this vast piece of nature.

Sea Calm by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem Sea Calm is a short but impactful poem composed of only six lines, where he talks about

How strangely still
The water is today

Hughes worked as a sailor for six months of his life, travelling from West Africa to Europe, giving him intimate knowledge of the ocean. This poem evokes the idea of the calm before the storm, giving it an ominous feel despite the apparent ‘calm.’

Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria and considered to be one of the greatest English poets of his age. A lyrical poem written as a elegy, it is believed Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar while himself on a boat near the end of his life. A calming but sombre poem, Crossing the Bar is a poem that uses the idea of sea travel as a form of moving onto the next life, describing –

And may there be no moaning of the bar,
      When I put out to sea,
   But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
      Too full for sound and foam

as is the sea marvellous by e. e. cummings

An American poet most famous for his aversion to capitalisation, cummings’s poem as is the sea marvellous is an ode to the power and immovability of the ocean. He writes how the ocean was:

from god’s
hands which sent her forth
to sleep upon the world

It follows in a similar vein to Rossetti regarding the vastness of the ocean as crafted by God, and illustrates the power in which many poets view it.

I started Early – Took my Dog – (656) by Emily Dickinson

Starting off as a simple description of the narrator walking her dog on the beach, I started Early sees Dickinson write about being engulfed by the sea, who she personifies as a man who ‘made as he would eat me up.’ Dickinson often wrote about the sea in her poetry, in poems such as A soft Sea washed around the House and As if the Sea should part, and was an important part of her writing.

The Nightfishing by W. S Graham

It would be remiss of me to create a list of sea-inspired poems and not include Cornwall’s favourite adopted poet W. S. Graham. His long poem The Nightfishing was inspired by his time working on a fishing boat on the Cornish coast, and brings forward evocative images of the sea. He describes that ‘far out faintly calls the continual sea’, which is ‘lit black and wrought like iron.’

by Seren Livie