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On the Sea

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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.

Published In

1817.

Written by

John Keats.

Form / Style

A Petrarchan sonnet.

Meter

Iambic pentameter.

Rhyme scheme

ABBAABBACDEDEC.

Poetic devices

Allusions to Ancient Greek mythology. Juxtaposition. Sibilance. Repetition. Personification. Onomatopoeia.

Frequently noted imagery

Sea. Caves. Women.

Tone

Awe.

Key themes

Human suffering. The power of nature.

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 Context

John Keats was a key figure in the Romanticism movement. 'On the Sea' is 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 Analysis

Let's take a look at the full poem and analyse it.

On the Sea, a representation of the sea's gentleness Study SmarterA seashell is an important symbol in the poem, pixabay.

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!

Title

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 upon 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

The poem 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.

Yeats 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.

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.

Sonnet 'On the Sea' Themes

Now that we've looked at the meaning of the sonnet, let's dive even deeper into the main themes!

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 the ‘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 John Keats

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 (1817) - Key Takeaways

    • 'On the Sea' (11817) 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

The poem is about the power of the sea, both physically and spiritually.

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

The main subject of this poem is the power of the sea.

A Romantic poem and a Petrarchan sonnet.

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

Final On the Sea Quiz

Question

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

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Answer

The Isle of Wight.

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Question

How many stanzas does this poem have?

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Answer

1.

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Question

'On the Sea' is an ode.

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Answer

False.

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Question

'On the Sea' contains allusions to which mythology?

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Answer

Greek mythology.

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Question

What spiritual benefits does the speaker suggest the sea will have?

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Answer

Mentally rejuvenating. 

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Question

What type of sonnet is 'On the Sea'?

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Answer

Petrarchan.

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Question

How many lines long is the sonnet?

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Answer

14.

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Question

John Keats belonged to which literary movement?

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Answer

Romanticism.

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Question

Which of the following best describes the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Awe.

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Question

Which Ancient Greek deity is referred to in the poem?

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Answer

Hecate.

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Question

How is the sea personified?

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Answer

It is given the human characteristic of having a temper.

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Question

What is the meter of the poem?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter.

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Question

The speaker suggests that humans should beware of the sea.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which best describes Keats' presentation of the sea?

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Answer

Strong and gentle.

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Question

How is the poem structured?

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Answer

The poem features one stanza which can be separated into an octave and a sestet.

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