Poems of Sailors and Seafarers

A Collection of Classic Poems of the Sea

Sailboat in rough seas, St. Lucia, Carribean
Greg Pease / Getty Images

The sea has been a powerful, inevitable presence in poetry from its ancient beginnings, in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the present day. It’s a character, a god, a setting for exploration and war, an image touching all the human senses, a metaphor for the unseen world beyond the senses.

Here’s our collection of classic sea poems in English.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
    “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
    “The Secret of the Sea” (1850)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
    “The Sailor Boy” (1861)
  • Walt Whitman,
    “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865)
  • Matthew Arnold,
    “Dover Beach” (1867)
  • Walt Whitman,
    “Song for All Seas, All Ships” (from Leaves of Grass, 1871 edition)
  • Christina Rossetti,
    “A Ballad of Boding” (1881)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson,
    “Requiem” (1887)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson,
    “Christmas at Sea” (1888)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
    “Crossing the Bar” (1889)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar,
    “A Sailor’s Song” (1913)
  • John Masefield,
    “Sea Fever” (from Salt-Water Ballads, 1902)
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne,
    “A Channel Passage” (1904)
  • Ezra Pound,
    “The Seafarer” (1912)
  • Thomas Hardy,
    “The Convergence of the Twain” (1915)
  • D.H. Lawrence,
    “The Mystic Blue” (1916)
  • Carl Sandburg,
    “Young Sea” (1916)
  • Carl Sandburg,
    “The Sea Hold” (1918)
  • H. D. (Hilda Doolittle),
    “Sea-Heroes” (1920)

Notes on the Collection

Our anthology begins with one of the most beloved of Romantic narrative poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—a parable demanding respect for God’s creations, all creatures great and small, and also for the imperative of the story-teller, the poet’s urgency, the need to connect with an audience.

Sea stories are often allegorical, filled with fantastic mythical beings and carrying pointed moral statements. Sea poems, too, often tend towards allegory and are naturally suited to elegy, as concerned with the metaphorical passage from this world to the next as with any actual voyage across the earth’s oceans.

The vast natural power of the sea and the ever-present danger to men who venture across it keep the line between life and death always visible, as in another classic sea poem, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”—in which the nautical term “crossing the bar” (i.e., sailing over the sandbar at the entrance to any harbor, setting out to sea) stands in for dying, embarking for “the boundless deep.” Tennyson wrote that poem just a few years before he died, and at his request, it traditionally appears last in any collection of his work.

As Tennyson wrote his own elegy, so did Robert Louis Stevenson write his own epitaph, in “Requiem,” whose lines were later quoted by A.E. Housman in his own memorial poem for Stevenson, “R.L.S.”:

“Home is the sailor, home from sea:
   Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
   The plunder of the world.”

Walt Whitman’s elegy for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln carries all its mourning in metaphors of seamen and sailing ships—Lincoln is the captain, the United States of America his ship, and its fearful trip the just-ended Civil War in “O Captain! My Captain!” (an unusually conventional poem for Whitman):

“The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
   Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
   But I, with mournful tread,
   Walk the deck my Captain lies,
      Fallen cold and dead.”

The call of the sea, the contrast between life on land and at sea, between home and the unknown, are notes rung often in the melodies of sea poetry, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s longing for “the sailor’s mystic song” in “The Secret of the Sea,” to a young man’s defiance of a mermaid’s prophecy in his desperate need to get away from his family and set out to sea in Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy,” to John Masefield’s oft-recited yearning imperative in “Sea Fever”:

“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”
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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Poems of Sailors and Seafarers." ThoughtCo, Dec. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/poems-of-sailors-and-seafarers-2725465. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2017, December 29). Poems of Sailors and Seafarers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/poems-of-sailors-and-seafarers-2725465 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Poems of Sailors and Seafarers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/poems-of-sailors-and-seafarers-2725465 (accessed February 21, 2018).