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Featured Poem: The Sea and The Hills by Rudyard Kipling

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 16th May 2011

A week ago, we were taken on a rather emotionally unsettling voyage across the seas courtesy of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Though the choppy and rough waters were placed at the periphery of the poem, the scene of the sea certainly did much to intensify the turbulent personal feelings at its core; it’s almost impossible to imagine how the same overwhelming sense of being stranded, hopeless and all but defeated could have been so sharply captured if set on terra firma. Yes, there is something about the sea that makes for soul-stirring verse - so much so that the amount of poetry based upon it is nearly as wide as any singular vast body of water.

Exploring the sea in poetic form is an adventure in itself. Of course there are thrilling tales of epic voyages, overflowing with all manner of swashbuckling action – the genre-shaping Rime of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge an exhaustive and immensely illustrative example of life upon the ocean waves – but the apparently quieter, reflective poems featuring the sea reveal many other fascinating facets to its character; and it seems to be appropriate to define the sea as a character, rather than a setting, symbol or motif, for the influence it enforces goes beyond the purely elemental. Its every sway evokes an array of emotions within poets and readers alike, causing buried and dormant feelings to float swiftly to the surface. Though joy is to be found amongst the playful ripples and tides which course with energy, the predominant emotions brought forth by the prevailing currents are usually altogether more perturbed; anger and fury carried through the crashing and thrashing waves, sorrow and melancholy flowing deep in the water (much akin to tears shed by millions over millions of years) and even when a calm resumes, longing and loneliness remains in the midst of the infiniteness of it all. Yet for all the wretchedness it can stir up, there’s something about the sea…something within it that beckons us, poets and readers, to keep returning to it. Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that water is at the very core of us all, being composed mostly of it as we are. Whatever the appeal, we just can’t stay away for long; I’m reminded in particular of one poet especially well acclimatised to and associated with the sea - John Masefield - and the repeated cry, as if everything depends on it, of “I must go down to the sea again”.

Masefield’s most famous ode to the sea, Sea Fever, is intensely atmospheric, encompassing the bracing physical aspects and giving a taste of ‘the vagrant gypsy life’ that has created so much of an irresistible pull within his heart and soul. The lure of life upon the water is something also considered by Rudyard Kipling, who forthrightly questions just “Who hath desired the Sea?” It’s an altogether more tempestuous sea that Kipling describes, but what a description – words ebbing and flowing as quickly as said sea is like to do; surely a rip-roaring reading aloud adventure if there ever was one. And it seems to combine all of the elements that make the sea such a fascinating topic for a poet; adventure and action, fear and ferocity, the combination of the calm and storm – both actual and emotional. Yes – there most definitely is something about the sea (unless, you’re a ‘hillman’, that is…).

The Sea and The Hills

Who hath desired the Sea? -- the sight of salt wind-hounded --
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber win hounded?
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm, grey, foamless, enormous, and growing --
Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing --
His Sea in no showing the same his Sea and the same 'neath each showing:
His Sea as she slackens or thrills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills!

Who hath desired the Sea? -- the immense and contemptuous surges?
The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, as the star-stabbing bow-sprit emerges?
The orderly clouds of the Trades, the ridged, roaring sapphire thereunder --
Unheralded cliff-haunting flaws and the headsail's low-volleying thunder --
His Sea in no wonder the same his Sea and the same through each wonder:
His Sea as she rages or stills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Who hath desired the Sea? Her menaces swift as her mercies?
The in-rolling walls of the fog and the silver-winged breeze that disperses?
The unstable mined berg going South and the calvings and groans that de clare it --
White water half-guessed overside and the moon breaking timely to bare it --
His Sea as his fathers have dared -- his Sea as his children shall dare it:
His Sea as she serves him or kills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather
Than forecourts of kings, and her outermost pits than the streets where men gather
Inland, among dust, under trees -- inland where the slayer may slay him --
Inland, out of reach of her arms, and the bosom whereon he must lay him
His Sea from the first that betrayed -- at the last that shall never betray him:
His Sea that his being fulfils?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Sea and The Hills by Rudyard Kipling

louise says:

Who hath desired the sea errr no ! not on me ( think will take up poetry NOT)
I really like the poem and can see the River Mersey from where I sit but would not desire to be on the waves a cruise on the River is all I need ! saying that I do like to be surrounded by water on three sides and looking at the waves, but when I look out at the Irish sea I just think of Dublin and my stomach lurches and no ! was not drunk as had to leave before things got interesting . MY mum went to Australia by sea and thought nothing of it so dont take after her but then again I am totally my own person but that is enough ramblings on the ocean wave , I will have another read of the poem but I wish to remain on solid ground !

[…] sea-dog to have been exhilarated and exhausted (and perhaps even just a little bit nauseated) by Kipling’s account of sea-life; no gentle glides or smooth serene journeys, but instead a headlong plunge into the centre of a […]

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