On the Sea

What would you suggest to help a friend suffering from fatigue and burnout? The speaker of ‘On the Sea’ (1817) praises the soothing power of the sights and sounds of the ocean. The sonnet 'On the Sea' is a classic example of Romanticist poetry while also showcasing Keat's masterful use of imagery and ancient Greek mythology.

On the Sea On the Sea

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Contents
Table of contents
    'On the Sea' Summary and Analysis

    Date published

    1817

    Author

    John Keats

    Form / Style

    A Petrarchan sonnet

    Meter

    Iambic pentameter

    Rhyme scheme

    ABBAABBACDEDEC

    Poetic devices

    Allusions to ancient Greek mythology, juxtaposition, sibilance, repetition, personification and onomatopoeia

    Frequently noted imagery

    Sea, caves, women

    Tone

    Awe

    Themes

    Human suffering, time, transcience, and the power of nature.

    SummaryA speaker reflects on the vastness of the sea and its eternal nature, comparing the sea to the sky because of their similarities in colour.
    AnalysisThe sea, with its vastness and seemingly infinite expanse, serves as a symbol of eternity and the natural world. The speaker's comparison of the sea to the sky reinforces this idea, as both the sea and the sky are vast, unending expanses that dwarf human existence.

    'On the Sea': summary

    The speaker praises the sea, remarking upon its incredible power and duality of nature. It can be strong enough to fill up thousands of sea caves, yet gentle enough to lap over a seashell without displacing it. The speaker recommends that weary urbanites should head to the sea for its meditative, healing properties and gain some respite from the hustle and bustle of their ordinary lives.

    On the Sea, a representation of the sea's gentleness, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A seashell is an important symbol in the poem.

    Meaning

    ‘On the Sea’ conveys the power and age of the sea. This poem can be interpreted as suggesting that city life, where people are disconnected from nature, leads to suffering. It also expresses the healing power of nature; when reconnected with the sea humans will be able to gain emotional equilibrium and feel rejuvenated.

    John Keats: 'On the Sea'

    John Keats was an English Romantic poet. He died when he was only 25 years old but he left a significant legacy behind.

    Keats was born on October 31st 1795 in London. In 1811, he started training to be a surgeon, an occupation he was engaged with until the end of his life. In 1814, he wrote his first poem. Two years later, in 1816, Keats published a poem for the first time. In the following years, he continued to write poetry and he published a collection in 1817. He died of tuberculosis, on February 23rd 1821 in Rome.

    John Keats composed 'On the Sea' during a trip to the Isle of Wight. His goal for his stay on the rural Isle of Wight was to work on another poem, ‘Endymion’ (1818), without the distractions of a city or town. Whilst staying in a seaside cottage in Shanklin, he spent a lot of time gazing at the ocean. This beautiful seascape is widely believed to have inspired ‘On the Sea’ (1817), which he included in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds along with a description of his picturesque surroundings.

    'On the Sea': context

    John Keats was a key figure in the Romanticism movement. 'On the Sea' is thus a Romantic poem.

    Romanticism is a historic literary movement centered in the time period 1785-1832. Romantic literature is linked by related poetic, social, and philosophical concepts and imagery. This literary movement is known for its focus on truth, nature, and the passionate expression of emotion.1

    (The Routledge Dictionary of Key Terms)

    One of the key conventions of Romantic poetry is the glorification of nature. In ‘On the Sea’, nature, and specifically the sea, is presented as a powerful, changeable force. This can be seen by its duality, depicted as alternately strong in the lines 'its mighty swell Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns' and delicate in the lines 'in such gentle temper found /That scarcely will the very smallest shell Be moved'.

    Romantic poetry is known for its expression of feelings. ‘On the Sea’ expresses deep praise and admiration for the sea. However, it also explores a type of mental weariness and burnout which the speaker claims the sea will help cure.

    'On the Sea': poem

    Let's take a look at the full sonnet of 'On the Sea' and analyse it.

    It keeps eternal whisperings around

    Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell

    Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell

    Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.

    Often 'tis in such gentle temper found,

    That scarcely will the very smallest shell

    Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.

    When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.

    Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,

    Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;

    Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,

    Or fed too much with cloying melody—

    Sit ye near some old Cavern's Mouth and brood,

    Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!

    'On the Sea': analysis

    The title ‘On the Sea’ informs the reader of the subject of the poem.

    Form

    'On the Sea' is a Petrarchan sonnet.

    A Petrarchan sonnet, named for the Italian poet Petrarch and sometimes known as an Italian sonnet, is a 14 line verse. It consists of an octave, a group of eight lines, and a sestet, a group of six lines. The octave follows the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA. The rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary.2 (Collins Dictionary)

    Structure

    This poem is one stanza long. However, it consists of two distinct parts, the octave (eight lines) and the sestet (six lines). The octave focuses on a description of the sea. The sestet marks a shift in subject matter to the impact of the sea on human beings.

    Rhyme scheme

    ‘On the Sea’ follows the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDEDEC.

    Poetic devices and techniques

    'On the Sea' incorporates a number of literary devices and techniques:

    Sibilance

    Sibilance is used throughout the sonnet to mimic the gentle hiss of the waves as they crash upon the shore. This can be seen in the lines 'eternal whisperings', 'desolate shores' and 'gluts twice'.

    Sibilance occurs when soft 's' sounds are repeated.

    Onomatopoeia

    Keats uses onomatopoeia in the lines 'Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns'. The word 'gluts' mimics the sound of water filling up sea caves.

    Onomatopoeia is a type of sound symbolism. The meaning of an onomatopoeic word corresponds to the sound it makes. For example, words such as 'hiss', 'pop', 'bang', and 'buzz'.

    Allusion

    'On the Sea' also includes allusion.

    An allusion is a brief reference to something else from a different literary work or historic event.

    Keats refers directly to Hecate, an ancient Greek goddess of magic and spells, in the lines 'Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound'. Later, he alludes to Greek mythology in the lines 'sea nymphs quired'. Sea nymphs are present in many mythologies, however, by first referencing Hecate he links this imagery to ancient Greece. By linking the poem to the past civilizations, Keats is reminding the reader how old the sea is.

    Personification

    The sea is personified in the lines 'Often 'tis in such gentle temper found', where it is given the human quality of having a temper. This suggests that the sea is capricious, choosing whether to be rough or gentle. It adds to the tone of awe at the sea’s power.

    Personification occurs when non-human things are given human qualities.

    Juxtaposition

    The sea is described first as an all-encompassing force that can fill up caverns. Immediately afterwards it is depicted as so soft and gentle that it sometimes barely disturbs the seashells. This juxtaposition of the different moods of the sea serves to emphasise its changeable nature.

    Juxtaposition is when two different concepts are contrasted.

    Sonnet 'On the Sea': themes

    Now that we've analysed the sonnet 'On the Sea', let's dive even deeper into the main themes!

    On the Sea, The metaphor of the Sea, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The sea can be seen as a symbol of nature's majesty and unpredictability, as well as a reminder of human mortality and insignificance in the face of such natural forces.

    Human suffering

    The poem can be interpreted as suggesting that living in a noisy, bustling urban environment leads to human suffering. This can be seen in the lines 'Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude / Or fed too much with cloying melody'. Modern life is referred to through words associated with excess. A return to the simplicity of nature, specifically the seaside, is presented as a remedy to this fatigue and overstimulation.

    In the lines 'Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired/ Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea' the speaker of ‘On the Sea’ suggests that those who are tired of the noises and sights of urban life should come to the seaside for respite.

    The power of nature

    The power of nature is expressed in a variety of ways in this poem. Keats reminds the reader of its ancient age, it has been an ever-present element throughout human history, outlasting great civilisations. The poem reminds us of its physical strength and unpredictability. ‘On the Sea’ also draws attention to the spiritual connection that humans have with this great body of water, that it is able to soothe unsettled minds.

    On the Sea - Key Takeaways

    • 'On the Sea' (1817) is a Romantic poem by John Keats.

    • It is a Petrarchan sonnet.

    • The poem was inspired by Keats’ trip to the Isle of Wight.

    • The sea is presented as an antidote to human suffering.

    • 'On the Sea' uses a number of poetic devices: sibilance, onomatopoeia, allusion, personification, and juxtaposition.


    References:

    1 Peter Childs and Robert Fowler, ‘The Routledge Dictionary of Key Terms’, (2006).

    2 Collins, ‘Collins Dictionary’ (2022).

    Frequently Asked Questions about On the Sea

    What is John Keat's poem ‘On the Sea’ about?

    John Keats's poem 'On the Sea' is about the power of the sea, both physically and spiritually.

    What poet wrote about the sea?

    Many poets have written about the sea, including John Keats. Another notable Romantic poet who wrote about the sea was William Wordsworth.

    What is the subject of the poem ‘On the Sea’?

    The main subject of John Keats's poem is the power of the sea.

    What type of poem is ‘On the Sea’?

    'On the Sea' is a Petrarchan sonnet and follows the characteristics of a Romanticist poet.

    How does Keats present nature in ‘On the Sea’?

    Keats presents nature as a powerful force that can be both gentle and furious. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which location inspired 'On the Sea' (1817)?

    How many stanzas does this poem have?

    'On the Sea' is an ode.

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    StudySmarter Editorial Team

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