Classic Poems About Sailors and the Sea

Old Man and the Sea
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The sea has beckoned and entranced for eons, and it's 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.

Sea stories are often allegorical, filled with fantastic mythical beings and carrying pointed moral statements. Sea poems, too, often tend toward 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. 

Here are eight poems about the sea from such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, Matthew Arnold, and Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes: "Sea Calm"

Langston Hughes
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Langston Hughes, writing from the 1920s through the 1960s, is known as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance and for telling the stories of his people in down-to-earth ways as opposed to esoteric language. He worked many odd jobs as a young man, one being a seaman, which took him to Africa and Europe. Perhaps that knowledge of the ocean informed this poem from his collection "The Weary Blues," published in 1926.

"How still,
How strangely still
The water is today,
It is not good
For water
To be so still that way."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "Crossing the Bar"

Lord Tennyson - portrait
Culture Club / Getty Images

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. In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's “Crossing the Bar” (1889) the nautical term “crossing the bar” (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. These are the last two stanzas of the poem:

"Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar."

John Masefield: "Sea Fever"

Portrait of Poet Laureate of England John Masefield
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

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, as in John Masefield’s often recited yearning in these well-known words from “Sea Fever” (1902):

"I must go 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."

Emily Dickinson: "As If the Sea Should Part"

Emily Dickinson
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Emily Dickinson, considered one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century, did not publish her work in her lifetime. It became known to the public only after the reclusive poet's death in 1886. Her poetry is typically short and full of metaphor. Here she uses the sea as a metaphor for eternity.

"As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea—
And that—a further—and the Three
But a presumption be—
Of Periods of Seas—
Unvisited of Shores—
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be—
Eternity—is Those—"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Michael Nicholson / Contributor

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) is a parable demanding respect for God’s creations, all creatures great and small, and also for the imperative of the storyteller, the poet’s urgency, the need to connect with an audience. Coleridge's longest poem begins:

"It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?"

Robert Louis Stevenson: "Requiem"

Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tennyson wrote his own elegy, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his own epitaph in “Requiem,” (1887) whose lines were later quoted by A.E. Housman in his own memorial poem for Stevenson, “R.L.S.” These famous lines are known by many and often quoted.

"Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

Walt Whitman: "O Captain! My Captain!"

Civil War era photograph of Walt Whitman.
Library of Congress

Walt Whitman’s famous elegy for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1865) carries all its mourning in metaphors of seamen and sailing ships—Lincoln is the captain, the United States of America is his ship, and its fearful trip is the just-ended Civil War in “O Captain! My Captain!” This is an unusually conventional poem for Whitman.

"O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

Matthew Arnold: "Dover Beach"

Matthew Arnold

Rischgitz / Stringer

Lyric poet Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867) has been the subject of varying interpretations. It begins with a lyrical description of the sea at Dover, looking out across the English Channel toward France. But instead of being a Romantic ode to the sea, it is full of metaphor for the human condition and ends with Arnold's pessimistic view of his time. Both the first stanza and the last three lines are famous.

"The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay....
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Classic Poems About Sailors and the Sea." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2021, February 16). Classic Poems About Sailors and the Sea. Retrieved from Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Classic Poems About Sailors and the Sea." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).