Sea Fever

As the year draws to its close, the last word of 2022 will be given over to Harry, who writes about the importance of the sea and its symbolism in literature.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

So begins John Masefield’s 1902 poem Sea-Fever, later set to music by John Ireland (1913). It describes the pull of the sea-faring life, despite – or rather because of – its dangers:

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

The sea, as a liminal phenomenon, between life and death, has captured the imaginations of writers since time immemorial. The first book of The Bible, Genesis, describes the creation of life, made all the more vibrant by comparison to the void which preceded it:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Later, in the Gospels, Jesus chooses to reveal to his disciples some of his most powerful, life-changing miracles at sea. He calms a storm so ferocious that even seasoned fishermen think they are going to die; and he helps his disciples, these same fishermen, understand the gravitas of who he is, by walking on water.

It is significant that these events take place at sea: it is a place where seafarers fear for their lives, but – coming through the experiences which happen at sea – they emerge with more life than ever.

Look at Horatio’s concern in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4, about where the Ghost may lead Hamlet:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff

That beetles o’er his base into the sea

Hamlet does go with ghost, figuratively speaking: he goes with the Ghost’s version of events and his exhortations to avenge his death. He turns away from the life of the intellect, from his university, from the scholarly Horatio, and becomes a man of action. He does not fear the sea, but rather ‘take[s] arms against a sea of troubles’. It does not end well for Hamlet, admittedly, but we see again the close relationship between danger, symbolised by the sea, and action or ‘life’. Even if Hamlet winds up dead, the life of the whole play comes about because of his decision at the beginning to take the plunge, and dive into the sea.

See the sea used in this scene from the 1948 Laurence Olivier production:

G.K. Chesterton captures the life-affirming quality, the ignition spark, within the dangers of the sea, in his 1908 work Orthodoxy:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers…A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice…He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.

English folk singer Ralph McTell also makes the point succinctly through the narrator of his modern shanty Around The Wild Cape Horn (2010):

Well, she had us sort of hypnotized; no time to catch our breath

If you want to live your life, you have to flirt with death

Sail close to the harnessed wind and treat all risks with scorn

A farm boy and an unyoked team ploughed their way around the wild Cape Horn.

Baritone Roderick Williams released a new orchestrated version of Sea-Fever recently. See him singing to a piano accompaniment here:

John Masefield’s poem can be found here

And here is Ralph McTell singing Around The Wild Cape Horn:

Read more about the literature of the sea here.