Sea Fever

Here’s another wonderful old chestnut:

Sea Fever

by John Masefield

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.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
  And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

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;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

Someone calculated that in the UK you are never more than 70.2 miles from the sea. That furthest place being Church Flatts Farm near Coton-in-the-Elms, Derbyshire. Not surprising then that the sea, ships, sailing and the sea-side figure so large in the collective British imagination.

 
Masefield’s poem summons up that kind of longing. He yearns for the sea. For Masefield of course this was no empty romantic expression of nostalgia. He served on merchant ships. He was a voracious childhood reader and when he joined the school ship HMS Conway it was both to train for life at sea but also to break his reading habit. Masefield’s parents died when he was young and he lived with an aunt who disapproved of all the reading. Life on board gave him ample time for books so that didn’t work well.
 

Masefield’s first voyage was in 1894 on the Gilcruix, destined for Chile. In 1895, he returned to sea on a windjammer destined for New York City. He jumped ship in New York and lived as a vagrant for months, drifting between odd jobs, then finding work as an assistant to a bar keeper and working in a Yonkers carpet factory. And he kept on reading. He returned to England in 1897 as a passenger aboard a steam ship.

 

It’s a wonderful poem and deserves its place in the popular imagination. Enough with the patronizing it as old-fashioned, out-dated and out of anthologies. It even has the Anglo-Saxon kenning and alliteration of “whales way where the wind’s like a whetted knife” straight out of the 10th century poem The Seafarer.  That poem describes the desolate hardships of life on a wintry sea. Masefield’s seems cosy by comparison.

 
Here are two of Edward Ardizzone’s watercolour and ink illustrations for his classic picture book Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain (1955)

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