Sea Fever by John Masefield
“Sea Fever” is one of the best-loved poems of John Masefield, former Poet Laureate of England. This poem was first published in Masefield’s first book of verse, Salt-Water Ballads in 1902. In this poem, Masefield describes his excitement concerning the sea, its fulfilling waves, and adventurous voyages. The title of the poem gives a hint of the poet’s childhood excitement whenever he thought about the sea. This poem vividly portrays the feelings of the speaker. Its musical verses take readers away on a journey by a tall ship, on the endless, vast sea.
- Read the full text of “Sea Fever” below:
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. - from Salt-Water Ballads (1902)
John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” describes a speaker’s inner proximity to the sea. How badly he wishes to go down the sea on a ship is portrayed in each stanza. The first stanza, for instance, begins with the speaker’s longing for the lonely sea under the wide sky. He asks for nothing else except a ship to sail continuously. The wheel’s sound associated with the wind’s sound makes his heart thrilled with joy and fulfillment.
Likewise, in the second stanza, he talks about the “call of running tide”. Hearing it, he cannot keep himself ashore. He just asks for a windy day with white clouds flying above him while he sails adrift. The last stanza deals with the speaker’s wish for life on a ship. He talks of living the adventurous days of his life happily while listening to the stories from a fellow rover.
The title of the poem “Sea Fever” is interesting to take note of. In the title, the term “Fever” refers to the nervous excitement in the speaker’s heart while he thinks about life on the sea. It is like a pleasurable disease that he does not want a cure of. He badly wants to live his life with this amorous sickness for the sea. Through the title, Masefield gives a hint to this idea. If one goes through the entire text, one can understand it is the essence of the poem. The way Masefield’s persona describes life on the sea by providing vivid imagery of the surroundings highlights his love for the adventurous life of sailors as well as the sea. This bonding incites the longing in his heart.
Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter
“Sea Fever” consists of three quatrains or stanzas having four lines each. In each quatrain, Masefield uses the end-stopped stanza pattern in order to present a complete idea within a stanza. It begins with the pronoun “I”. So, the speaker of this piece closely resembles the poet. Due to the presence of a first-person speaker alongside its beautiful rhythm, this poem is an example of a lyric. Structurally, the long lines reflect a sense of longing in the speaker’s heart.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB CCDD EEFF. This scheme is followed throughout. So, each stanza consists of two rhyming couplets that are tied together concerning the subject matter. In the first stanza, the rhyming pairs of words include “sky” and “by”, and “shaking” and “breaking”.
Each line of the text contains, more or less, fourteen syllables. The poem is written in a combination of anapestic and iambic meter with a few variations. Let’s look at the scansion of the first stanza to understand the overall metrical pattern.
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;
And the/ wheel’s kick/ and the/ wind’s song/ and the/ white sail’s/ shak-ing,
And a/ grey mist/ on the/ sea’s face,/ and a/ grey dawn/ break-ing.
In this excerpt, readers can find the use of spondees and pyrrhics in the third and fourth lines. While the last foot of these lines is trochaic. The use of anapestic rhythm alongside quick iambic notes resonates with the sound of sea waves.
Poetic Devices & Figures of Speech
In “Sea Fever”, Masefield uses the following poetic devices:
- Refrain: Each quatrain begins with a refrain of the phrase “I must down to the seas again”. It creates a resonance of the dominant passion in the speaker’s heart.
- Personification: It occurs in the following phrases: “lonely sea”, “a tall ship and a star steer her by”, “wheel’s kick”, “wind’s song”, etc. In this poem, Masefield uses this device in other instances in order to infuse life into inanimate objects such as the sea, wind, wheel, etc.
- Anaphora: Masefield uses this device in the last three lines of the first stanza. These lines begin with the conjunction “And”. It also occurs in the last two lines of the following stanzas.
- Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in “star to steer”, “sail’s shaking”, “clear call”, etc.
- Repetition: The term “call” is repeated in the first two lines of the second stanza. It is meant for the sake of emphasis.
- Polysyndeton: It occurs in the lines “And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,” and “And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying”. Here, “and” is repeated to achieve an artistic effect in the lines.
- Metaphor: It occurs in “a star to steer her by”. Here, the poet metaphorically refers to the polestar that helps sailors to find directions.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
I must 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.
The poem “Sea Fever” begins with the speaker’s wish to go to the sea. He uses the term “must” in order to reflect a sense of urgency or importance. It means he somehow needs to go there to keep. The nervous excitement concerning the sea is referred to in the title.
In the first line, he talks about going to the “lonely sea” and the sky. It seems without his presence the sea feels lonely. If he is not there who will drink its beauty to the lees. This thirst of sea fever cannot keep him ashore. He clarifies his wish in the following line. All he asks for is a tall ship to sail through and the popstar to guide him throughout the journey.
This section, though seems simple, hints at a deeper philosophical idea. It concerns spirituality. Here, the “ship”, personified as a lady, is the one who helps the speaker to sail through. While the polestar, a symbol of constancy and permanence, acts as a guide. He can get spiritual fulfillment if both of them are with him.
In the next line, Masefield personifies the inanimate objects “wheel”, “wind”, and “sail”. He refers to the sound of the ship’s wheel by the term “wheel’s kick”. Similarly, he hints at the sound of the wind by “wind’s song”. The next phrase “white sail’s shaking” depicts how the sail trembles in the wind.
The speaker describes watching the dawn from a ship. At dawn, the sea appears to be a human whose face is covered with grey mist. The poet describes the daybreak as “grey dawn breaking”. The dawn grey color is slightly darker than the color of platinum. When the sun is just beneath the horizon, the sky reflects this color.
I must 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.
The second stanza begins with a refrain of the phrase “I must down to the seas again”. Masefield uses this repetition in order to portray the speaker’s state of mind. He badly wants to go down to the seas anyhow as the running tide calls him. The “running tide” is a reference to the sound of sea waves.
According to the speaker, it is a “wild” kind of call that a listener cannot deny. Here, the term “wild” reflects the untamed nature of the sea. It is boundless, carefree, and mighty. The same echoes in its sound hearing which the speaker cannot help but go to the sea. Besides, the sound is so clear and powerful that it has the ability to stir his spirit. When one’s soul gets incited, nothing can stop him from going to the source of the stimulus.
In the following lines, he elaborates on the things he misses while staying ashore. These things include a “windy day” that favors the sailors, and the “white clouds” that fill his heart with peace. Moreover, he asks for the spray of seawater on his face, the sea “spume”, and the crying of seagulls. Spume means froth or fume that is found in sea waves.
I must 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.
In the last stanza of “Sea Fever”, Masefield further describes life at sea. He refers to it as the “vagrant gypsy life”. So, the speaker does not want a life of immobility, comfort, and contentment. He wants to break free of his cage and be like the sea. That’s why he wishes to be like a vagrant or gypsy. Like them, he does not want to stay in one place, forever. He wants to explore, unravel, and wonder about the beauty of the sea.
He wants to follow the path where the gulls take him with their shrill cries. The phrase “whale’s way” refers to life at sea. In this line, Masefield uses a simile in order to compare the sea wind to a “whetted knife”. At the sea, the wind blows so fast that it feels like a sharpened knife.
In the next line, he asks for a happy tale told by a laughing “fellow-rover”. Rover means a sailor who wanders on the sea. Through this line, the poet alludes to the stories he heard while he was on the ship. In the last line, the speaker says that he wants a quiet sleep and a sweet dream after the long journey is over. Until then he does want to sleep. Here, “sleep” is a metaphorical reference to death. By using this metaphor, the poet describes his attachment to the sea.
Masefield’s “Sea Fever” explores the themes of wanderlust, the beauty of the sea, longing, and nature. The main theme of this poem concerns a speaker’s longing for the sea. He describes his attachment with it to “Sea Fever”, an ailment that only the sea can cure. It is also a reference to the speaker’s excitement whenever he thinks of life at sea. In this poem, he describes the things that he badly wants. From his description, it is clear how much he misses the sea. It also acts as a medium of his spiritual fulfillment. Apart from that, the theme of wanderlust is present in the last stanza. Here, the poet hints at the speaker’s wish for a life like a gypsy.
The tone of the poem is calm, emotive, and urgent. In each stanza, the repetition of the phrase “I must down to the seas again” creates a sense of urgency. The speaker somehow needs to go on a ship in order to enjoy the serene beauty of the sea. It seems as if the sea keeps his spirit alive like the air we breathe. He must go there to sustain himself. Besides, the calm tone of the poem is reflected through the lines. The restlessness in the speaker’s heart is beautifully fused with the calm tone of the poem. Lastly, the nostalgia of the speaker concerning the sea is also reflected in the text.
Masefield uses the following types of imagery in “Sea Fever”.
- Visual Imagery: Masefield uses this type of imagery in order to depict the sea, sky, and ship visually in the first few lines. The line “And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking” contains a visual image of dawn at sea.
- Auditory Imagery: It is used in “wind’s song”, “white sail’s shaking”, “call of the running tide”, and “sea-gulls crying”.
- Organic Imagery: The poet uses this type of imagery to portray the feelings of the speaker. It is present in “And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over”.
- Kinesthetic Imagery: It is used in “the white sail’s shaking”, and “the running tide”, “clouds flying”.
“Sea Fever” was first published in John Masefield’s first poetry collection Salt-Water Ballads. It was published in 1902. This poem was later included in The Collected Poems of John Masefield in 1923 with a slight alteration in its first line. This book concerns the themes of seafaring and maritime history. Masefield spent his early years aboard. While he was on the ship, he listened to the sea lore from the sailors. Those stories inspired him to become a writer and storyteller himself. In this poem, Masefield shares his attachment to life aboard a ship. The memories concerning his voyages are mentioned here.
Questions and Answers
The “Sea Fever” hints at the feelings of nervous excitement in the poet’s heart concerning the sea. It is a kind of addiction of the sea, fortunately, for a wandering heart, it has no cure. Such a title is apt for this poem where Masefield describes how the sea makes his soul restless.
The poet does not want to go on a sea voyage, he “needs” to go there in order to keep his spirit alive. We breathe air for living. It is not the kind of thing that we “want”. It is our undeniable “need”. Likewise, “sea” is a “need” for the poet. Without it, he cannot live.
Through the poem, the poet tries to explore his relationship with the sea. The sea to him is like the air that human beings breathe. While the ship on which he sails on a seemingly endless journey is his soulmate, a means for his spiritual fulfillment. This message of love for the sea is conveyed through the lines of the poem.
It is a lyric poem consisting of a regular rhyme scheme and meter. The poet uses the rhyming couplet form and end-stopped quatrains in order to present his ideas.
The mood of this poem is restless and exciting. At the same time, the speaker’s thoughts concerning the sea create a peaceful mood. This duality is what makes this piece so dear to readers.
This phrase means the spray of seawater on the speaker’s face. It seems as if the sea plays with the speaker by spraying water on his face that gives him a kind of salty refreshment.
The sound of the running sea waves is referred to as “a wild call” of the sea. Here, the term “wild” symbolizes the untamed nature of the sea.
The call is so powerful and clear that a voyager can hear it from afar. A sea-lover can hear the sea’s call from a great distance. Such is the connection of the speaker with the sea.
The phrase contains a palilogy. Here, the synonymous terms “vagrant” and “gypsy” are placed side by side. It is a reference to a carefree life of a gypsy. A vagrant or gypsy is one who has no settled home and wanders from place to place. The speaker wants to be wandering about the sea like them.
Life on the sea is all about wandering for days after days without a specific place to halt. Hence, the uncertainty of life on the sea is compared to that of a vagrant or gypsy.
Rover comes from the word “rove” which means “to wander constantly without a fixed destination”. Through this phrase, Masefield refers to such a carefree, happy wanderer (rover).
The poet wants a “laughing fellow-rover” by his side to listen to the stories of the sea lore. In his sea voyage, the rover’s positive mood refreshes the poet’s weary spirits.
The speaker of this poem is the poet John Masefield himself. He speaks in this poem from the perspective of a first-person narrator.
The poet asks for a clear, windy day with white clouds flying over him when he is at the sea.
The word “grey” is repeated twice in the fourth line of the poem. It refers to the mysterious ambiance on the sea at the time of dawn.
In the last line, the phrase “long trick” is a metaphor for the long voyage of the speaker. It is also a metaphorical reference to his life.
The poet uses this phrase as a refrain at the beginning of every stanza. It is used to depict the poet’s urgency to go to the sea.
On a windy day, the poet can sail a long way for the assistance of the favorable wind.
In this phrase, Masefield personifies the sea and the sky as being lonely. It seems without him they feel lonely.
A “merry yarn” refers to an appealing story. In the poem, the “laughing fellow-rover” tells the speaker such a story.
The poet describes the sea as “lonely” in the very beginning and goes on to depict how it looks at dawn. In the second stanza, he refers to the “flung spray” and “blown spume” in order to describe how it creates beautiful forms with water (such as fume and spray).
These lines reveal the speaker’s love for the sea and his wanderlust. He does not want to stay in one place. Rather he likes to wander about until his death. The uncertainty of life at sea makes him restless.
- Full Text of Salt-Water Ballads by John Masefield (1902) — Read more poems included in Masefield’s first poetry collection.
- About Salt-Water Poems and Ballads — Learn about the history of the book’s publication and the popular poems of this collection.
- About John Masefield — Read about the poet’s life and works.
- Biography of John Masefield — Learn more about the poet and his works.