Have you noticed, as we grow in life’s experiences, we often extract different meanings from a piece of literature or poetry when we revisit it? We may make new discoveries about the characters or life or both.
Remember, back in high school, reading The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway? Its great lessons? A person can be “destroyed but not defeated.” A person can show “grace under pressure.” I could say these words but, at that age, to what depth did I really know and understand?
Finding a deeper understanding is one of the perks of “maturing.” Our world view has grown, as well as our experiences with great joys, great sadnesses, and tests of our character. Our emotional world and our ability to empathize have deepened along with our knowledge of the human condition.
I recently revisited the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield (1878 – 1967), Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 to 1967.
My initial reading of the poem was as a freshman in college. Clearly, it was about a seaman and camaraderie and being called by the sea. In lit class, we discussed rhyme scheme, rhythm, word choices, images. However, I’d never seen an ocean in person, only pictures of it. I’d longed for a date or a car, but not the sea.
But the poem held in my memory, especially when I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time that summer. I went down to the ocean often. To Malibu to swim out to the kelp beds. To Zuma Beach to watch the great crashing waves. I ran along the beach, dug my toes into water-packed sand, breathed the scented sea air. I swam, surrounded by a large and mysterious world. The sea did have its own call. I experienced it. The mariner’s longing in “Sea Fever” acquired more meaning.
My feeling was very different when I read the poem again recently. Just as the sea called the seaman in the poem back to the sea, I found it triggered nostalgic feelings for my hometown of Buffalo. I wanted to see the people and the place again. I wanted to let the memories and experiences that shaped me as a person fill me. The poem resonated on a more visceral level.
An older friend related another way. She identified what she felt as a desire to be surrounded by old friends, a desire to ease into final sweet peace.
If you haven’t read or heard the poem recently …
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.
What book or poem have you reread and discovered something new … about it, the characters … or yourself?