American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes


Throughout the ages, the immensity, power and mystery of the sea have provided a rich subject and background for poetry in narratives of selfdiscovery and social and political commentary, lyrical evocations of love and loneliness, and philosophical meditations on the meaning of life. Although not as significantly a maritime nation as is, say, Great Britain, the United States, defining itself early on geographically in terms of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, shares in the heritage of the significance of the sea. Modern and contemporary American poets often employ the sights and sounds and images of the sea in evocative ways, finding in the sea paradoxical images of eternity and mortality, unity and disintegration, significance and meaninglessness.

This paradoxical response to the sea appears in the poetry of the first truly American poets, Walt Whitman* and Emily Dickinson,* who both highlight the sea’s protean nature. The sea is a major metaphor in “Sea Drift,” a section of Leaves of Grass (1859). Here the sea, though reminding Whitman of death, becomes more significantly the voice of democracy, defining the individual self and establishing the possibility of communication among people to create a living nation. The sound of the waves in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859) allows the lone speaker to know himself and his purpose in life; in “Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd” (1865, 1881), the speaker’s surging, rhythmical lines express aurally what the poem presents intellectually: the ocean waves as an image of union with others and with the spirit of the universe.

In contrast, Emily Dickinson’s taut, gemlike musings by the inner self reveal a sense of separation from the natural world. The sea in “I started early” (#520, 1890), for example, seems the beautiful, but dangerous and overpowering Other, seeking to efface individual consciousness. Her submerged metaphors of the sea, as in this poem, are often sexual; here a female speaker is both attracted to, and seeks to escape from, a male sea. Yet for Dickinson, too, the sea as an image of eternity offers the possibility of a transcendent union of the self with a greater being, as in “My River runs to thee” (#162, 1890) or “Wild Nights” (1890), with its image of a boat ecstatically merging with the sea.

The social and political stance that underlies much of Whitman’s poetry is part of a broader tradition in American poetry, from the ship-of-state metaphors in the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, through several important twentieth-century poets. Ezra Pound* in The Pisan Cantos (lxxiv-lxxxiv of The Cantos, 1948), for example, views the sea mainly as a means of commercial interaction, while William Carlos Williams* uses the boats in “The Yachts” (1935) to critique the American class structure, personifying the yachts as members of the wealthy classes sailing heedlessly over the drowning poor. In a more general indictment of civilization, Louise Bogan contrasts the refreshing wildness of the sea with the sterility and destructiveness of shore life in her poem “Putting to Sea” (1968). Writing against the backdrop of World War II in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”* (1946), Robert Lowell* describes the sea as irredeemably contaminated by the ferocity of human beings toward one another.

For African American writers, our inhuman deeds also contaminate the sea; Robert Hayden* portrays the sea as the burial place for the dead and dying enslaved Africans en route from Africa to America (“Middle Passage,” 1946); Michael S. Harper* even more radically declares the waters of Charleston Harbor eternally polluted by America’s actions during the American Revolution, when 500 African slaves destined for American auction blocks were taken from their slave* ship and purposefully drowned so that they would not be used by the British (“American History,” 1970).

From a feminist perspective, Adrienne Rich* also depicts the sea as the final resting place of our wrecked ship of state; more importantly, it is the neutral element that may teach us to transform our society. In “Diving into the Wreck” (1973), the narrator enters the sea, where she must learn to live in new ways, without the power and control so necessary to a patriarchal American civilization. Mary Mackey’s “Don’t Tell Me the Sea Is a Woman” (1976) denies the traditional gendering of the sea by men. Olga Broumas speaks especially to the transformative powers of the sea with poems such as “Walk on Water” and “Mercy” (from Perpetua [1989]) and “Bride” and “Sea Change” (from Pastoral Jazz [1983]); sea imagery frequently infuses her work.

The sea, then, provides a fertile context for poets to explore the public relationship of the self to society. Following the current of the more mystical poems of Whitman and the private musings of Dickinson and other nineteenth-century poems such as “The Chambered Nautilus” (1858) by Oliver Wendell Holmes,* twentieth-century poets often examine the emotional life. In the first imagist poems, H. D.* suggests a comparison between the fragile, imperfect, but enduring, seaside vegetation and human suffering and endurance (Sea Garden [1916]). T. S. Eliot* in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1922) turns his emotionally enervated narrator seaward for a redeeming vision of singing mermaids*—only, however, to be denied the vision, wakened instead by human voices to the deadness of this world.

For Hart Crane* in “Voyages” (1930), the sea, first an eloquent setting for love, in essence becomes love itself. The theme of love occupies Robinson Jeffers,* too; his long, narrative poems, outside the mainstream of modern American poetry but echoing Crane in their emotional intensity, rely heavily on images of the mysterious and violent Pacific along the California coast to create the atmosphere appropriate to stories of human passion.

Babette Deutsch in “Earliness at the Cape” (1957) explores, in her comparison of dawn to the blades of a shell opening, the sharp pain that pleasure gives. Forging a raw narrative of a young man’s encounter with a shark, James Dickey* in “The Shark’s Parlor” (1968) exposes youth’s desire for blood, for control, and an older man’s realization of the encounter as a spiritual awakening into the meaning of death. In contrast, the absence of sharks in “Tide Turning” (1982) by John Frederick Nims releases the narrator to an inebriating sense of joy and freedom and camaraderie with both his shipmates and the sea.

Contemplating the sea often leads poets to the deeper philosophical and religious questions of the meaning of life, and twentieth-century poets are no exception. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) provides tantalizing glimpses of the sea’s redemptive power; in the later, deeply religious poetry of “The Four Quartets” (1940-1942) and “Marina” (1943), the serenity of the sea offers hope and grace. Sometimes poets find themselves almost overwhelmed by the destructive power of the sea, leading them to question the very meaning and value of life. The relentless natural forces of the sea depicted by Robert Frost* in “Once by the Pacific” (1928) presage not only our individual human end but the end of the world itself; in “Neither Out Far nor in Deep” (1936) the sea yields up no answers to life’s mystery.

Paradoxically, perhaps, this absence of gods, this indifference of the world to us, can make the world more meaningful. Wallace Stevens* discovers in the sea a perfect metaphor for the ever-changing nature of reality, the chief subject of his poetry. In “Sunday Morning” (1915), in the image of an island—the living, dying natural world—he finds the true meaning of beauty. In “The Idea of Order at Key West*” (1934), the singer, walking beside the sea, finds inspiration in the ever-changing natural world but also gives meaning and order to its chaotic physicality. Elizabeth Bishop* discloses in poems set beside the sea the haunting indifference of the world to us. When, for example, the narrator in “At the Fishhouses” (1955) dunks her hand in the ice-cold water, meaning suddenly crystallizes around the realization that meaning is undiscoverable.

Other contemporary poets, not struggling quite so hard for meaning, find spiritual solace in the sea. Theodore Roethke, whose central subject is the natural world, finds the sea emotionally restorative; the incessant ebb and flow of the sea in “The Rose” (1964) create a meditative calm, allowing the important questions of life to surface, enabling a new sense of self to emerge. Similarly, Mary Oliver* describes the feeling of perfection that the ocean, as both the genesis of life on earth and an image of life’s conclusion, brings to those who contemplate its incessant tidal motions. In an intricate and objective series of descriptions of seashells, those discarded habitats of sea creatures, May Swenson in “Some Small Shells from the Windward Islands” (1967) reminds us of the world’s mystery.

Yet contemplating the sea’s creatures also sometimes helps poets relieve the weight of the world’s inscrutability. Inheriting Eliot’s spiritual vision, Stanley Kunitz in his long meditative poem “The Wellfleet Whale” (1983) first describes the whale in terms of the divine Other, an incarnation of the inexplicable, but inspiring, mysteries of life. By the end of the poem, the beached and dying whale has become an image of ourselves, partaking of mortality. While Kunitz’s final vision of the whale seems a diminished empathy, other poets realize the fully redemptive power of simply being in the presence of such magnificent sea creatures. This is the case with the seals in an early poem by Daniel G. Hoffman, “The Seals of Penobscot Bay” (1954); playful, serene, in dramatic contrast to the dark, treacherous human world, they bring delight to the eyes of the narrator watching from the deck of his destroyer. Or, to look at this another way: if, as in “Who Knows Where the Joy Goes” (1984) by May Sarton, we kill the dolphins, if we lose the wild things of the world, we are diminished, left friendless and alone. In his call to solidarity with wild animals thoughtlessly plundered by power-hungry nations, Gary Snyder* ends his poem “Mother Earth: Her Whales” (1974) with a lyrical vision of whales plunging and rising in the sparkling light of a revitalized earth.

The intellectual pursuit of order within eros, politics, and religion in the present moment is the focus of W. H. Auden, whose poetry tends toward the jubilant and lyrical. Auden wrote such occasional poems as a eulogy for Henry James* (1941) and a birthday poem for Marianne Moore* (1967). Among his shorter poems on a nautical theme are “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle” (1930), “O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven” (1932), “Now through night’s caressing grip” (1935), “Look, stranger, at this island now” (1935), “The Waters” from “The Quest” (1940), “Atlantis” (1941), and “Fleet Visit” (1951). His masterpiece, arguably, is “The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempesf’ (1944).

Powerful and alluring, the voice of the sea resounds for modern and contemporary American poets as well as for ancient ones, calling them to things of the physical and spiritual world. In a variety of voices, employing a variety of images of the sea, these poets highlight the sea’s power to calm, enchant and mystify—and also to destroy.

FURTHER READING: Solley, George C., and Eric Steinbaugh. Moods of the Sea: Masterworks of Sea Poetry. Annapolis: Naval Institute P, 1981; Welland, Dennis. “Twentieth Century Poetry,” America and the Sea: A Literary History. Ed. Haskell Springer. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995, 260-88.

Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot