A Poem by John Masefield (1878-1967)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
Type of Work and Structure
"Sea Fever" is a lyric poem written in simple language. The poem has three stanzas similar in structure. For example, each stanza is a quatrain consisting of two couplets. In addition, the first line of each stanza begins with the same clauseI must down to the seas againfollowed by a prepositional phrase. Each stanza also states a request beginning with And all I ask is.
In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the second to form a couplet, and the third rhymes with the fourth to form another couplet. The meter is heptameter with varying types of feet. For example, the stresses in the first line appear to occur as follows:i MUST down TO the SEAS a GAIN, to the LONE ly SEA and the SKY
and ALL i ASK is a TALL SHIP and a STAR to STEER her BY
John Masefield was born in Ledbury, England. After attending Kings School in Warwick, he went to sea at age fifteen on a large sailing ship, then worked for a time in New York City before returning to England in 1897. His experiences aboard the ship provided him the raw material that made him famous as a sea poet. In 1902, he published a collection of sea poems entitled Salt-Water Ballads, in which Sea Fever appeared.
By John Masefield
I must down1to 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 kick2and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey3mist on the sea's face and a grey4dawn breaking.
I must down5to the seas again, for the call of the running tide.................................5
I must down7to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
1...I must down: Masefield published "Sea Fever" in 1902 without using go after must in the first line of each stanza. .....Instead, he used down as a verb. However, he inserted go at a later time, thereby changing down to an adverb and .....altering the meter of the line. Some published editions of his poems retain go.
2. wheel's kick: Sudden left or right jerk of the wheel (steering apparatus, or helm).
3. grey: Some published editions of Masefield's poem use gray.
4. See 3.
5. See 1.
6. spume: Sea foam; froth.
7. See 1.
8. long trick: (1) Seaman's job on a given day, such as steering the ship; (2) life
The theme is obvious: wanderlust. The poems speaker hears the call of the seaan irresistible invitation to adventure, exploration, and independent living. Most people experience wanderlust from time to time. Some may wish only to hike through woods or drive a car in the country. Others may wish to cruise the Caribbean, fly to Tahiti, or rocket into outer space. Since prehistoric times, humankind has always been on the move. Maysfield's poem sums up the allure and excitement of traveling in a yawing ship on rolling, wind-blown seas.
Alliteration occurs frequently to enhance the appeal of the poem to the ear. Here are examples: sea and the sky (line 1), star to steer (line 2), and gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife (line 10).
One may interpret the poem as a metaphor for the journey of life and the challenges life poses. A type of metaphor, personification (treating a thing or an idea as if it were human), occurs in line 1 (lonely sea), line 3 (wind's song), and line 5 (the call of the running tide). The last line of the poem may be taken literally or figuratively. In the latter instance, quiet sleep, sweet dream, and the long trick's over all refer to death.
1. Write an informative essay centering on Masefield's experiences as a seafarer.
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