Teaching Classic and Traditional Poems About the Sea

Updated on October 10, 2019
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Karen is a certified teacher. She enjoys recording audio as well as reading to student audiences.


Adventure and romance. Solitude and hardship. Pride in being someone who embraces hardship. Frailty in the face of nature's sudden changes: The sea represents many different things. While the sea may not speak to people in quite the same way it did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it still speaks. It remains an evocative subject for poetry.

Included here are a few classic and traditional poems about the sea, some in spoken form; they are my own audio readings. Included, too, are ideas for pairing poems and helping students draw meaning.

One focus is on using language patterns and poetic structure to support basic comprehension. In some poetry selections, a central idea is stated directly. Figurative language and discipline-specific vocabulary can still lead readers astray if they don't read the poem fluently.

Another focus is poet perspective. One may hear the sea referenced as having many moods, from serene to turbulent. But it's not just the moods of the sea one finds here; it's the moods and life experiences of the poets and the personas they create.

Selecting Poems from John Masefield's Salt-Water Ballads

Poet John Masefield is often associated with sea themes, and for good reason. He trained and apprenticed for a career at sea. He left it behind at an early age to focus his attention on what was apparently the stronger love, writing. Salt-Water Ballads was published shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when Masefield was in his 20s and just a few years past the sailor life. Many poems, though not all, feature the sea.

"Sea Fever" is a classic, one of the most famous sea poems of the era. It can be paired with others from the collection. Selections vary greatly in their appropriateness for paired reading. "A Wanderer's Song" and "Personal" are among those that fall outside the ballad genre and are kid-friendly: no tales of piracy or sailor vice. Both reflect attitudes toward the sailor's life: one similar to "Sea Fever", one contrasting.

"A Wanderer's Song" reflects a pull toward the sea and the sailor life: The sea is, quite simply, where the persona wants to be.

"Personal", on the other hand, reflects homesickness. The persona is on a voyage, though currently on land, when an inn calls to his mind very strongly a life left behind.

A separate selection, "Christmas Eve at Sea" would be a good choice if one were presenting literature from within a Christian framework. The imagery suggests that the sea itself is honoring Christmas. "Chistmas Eve at Sea" is reminiscent of the William Ernest Henley selections noted below in its use of imagery to reflect the persona's own thoughts.

Listening as a Comprehension Tool for Nautical Poetry

The meaning of "Sea Fever" may be clearer to students if they read the poem aloud or listen to it read aloud. The rhythm helps keep images that reflect or build toward a single idea linked in the readers mind; this in turn gives a sense of the narrator's attitude. Masefield uses the word "and" repeatedly to link together lone images of the sailing life. Phrases like "wild call" and "wind's like a whetted knife" likely wouldn't sound positive out of context (and out of rhythm). This changes when they are assimilated as part of a coherent whole. It can be helpful for students to have a sense of the overall message before they spend much time with a dictionary figuring out what a whetted knife is!

The multi-meaning words may also pose a challenge. "Yarn" has the relatively common definition of story, but it's one that many students won't be familiar with. "Trick", used to signify a shift at lookout or behind the wheel, is much more difficult. The word is included in the glossary of Salt-Water Ballads. It is also included in some lists of nautical terms. One can search multiple dictionaries, though, without finding a definition that fits. Fortunately, adept readers can understand the poem without focusing on the word.

A few lines in "A Wanderer's Song" are heavy on nautical terminology, notably, "To a windy, tossing anchorage where yawls and ketches ride." Oral rhythms can help students place difficult phrases in the category of nautical terminology and keep them from getting bogged down trying to remember and define each one. The poem has a sing-songy rhythm; a reading can almost cross the line into song. The National Park Service is one source of audio for "A Wanderer's Song".

Part of the take-away for younger students and intervention students is this: When the narrator of "Sea Fever" says, "I must go down to the sea again," he means it. The disparate images are all a part of the thing that calls him.

"Sea Fever" Audio

Robert William Service's "Sea Sorcery"

Robert William Service's "Sea Sorcery" may be paired with "Sea Fever" for study and writing. The persona in "Sea Sorcery" also has deep feeling for the sea, but there are some key differences. This narrator lives by the sea; there's no indication that he's a traveler. The sea speaks to his imagination in a different way. It can be otherworldly and mystical, but it's not a call to travel or adventure. Nor is it a way of life in the ordinary sense.

The first stanza gives four images of the sea in different moods and moments. It may be the most difficult stanza. It can help students to mark the punctuation that separates images, noting particularly how "Or with a virile harmony in salty caves to sing," is one image, though it extends across two lines.

The second stanza shifts to the sea at night, when its image carries the narrator into a realm outside ordinary consciousness.

"Sea Sorcery", like "Sea Fever" states a central concept in a direct way: The persona loves the sea! One has to dig just a little deeper to find a broader theme. He is also extolling the otherworldly. The narrator is clearly awake in the ordinary sense when he views the nighttime sea, but it awakens him. "To beauty," he states, "I awake." He'll be blessed, he concludes, if the last things his eyes and ears take in are the moon and the sea.

Robert William Service's "The Dream": Another Take on Wanderlust

In "The Dream", Robert William Service introduces a character who opts to "sail the seas". This is another take on the sea as wanderlust -- one that suggests the dream may be more valuable than the adventure. It may be paired with Henley's "A Wanderer's Song" and "Personal".

William Ernest Henley Portrays Sea Moods

William Ernest Henley uses the sea in part as a vehicle for portraying his own moods. Whereas Masefield's "Sea Fever" states the narrator's attitude toward the sea, Henley's "The Sea is Full of Wandering Foam" and "The Surges Gushed and Sounded" use images of the sea to portray the narrator's attitude toward other circumstances in his life.

"The Surges Gushed and Sounded" reflects the contentment of someone beholding the sea, content in his awareness of someone dear to him. At the end, the persona switches from describing the landscape to addressing a person: "And in your thought..." In this case, the switch is a signal that a key idea is coming.

The persona of "The Sea is Full of Wandering Foam" is caught up in a mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction. He states that his thoughts wander among the wandering foam and driving cloud. His mood mirrors the night. "Where are the hours that came to me so beautiful and bright?" is a lament. Younger students and more literal ones may need to be taught that this type of question is a common structure for lament -- when a poet asks where something is, often what he or she is really doing is expressing sadness that the thing vanished seemingly before its time.

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