I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea

Seaside through the looking glass. Author photo.

Oh, how I like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so high,
And all I ask is a tall ship
And a star to steer her by.

Green leaves a floating,
Castles in the foam,
Boats of mine a boating,
Where will all come home?*

The sea, and its margins, impact us profoundly. In the wise words of the great biologist, Rachel Carson:

Like the sea itself, the shore fascinates us who return to it, the place of our dim ancestral beginnings. In the recurrent rhythms of tides and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is the obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty. There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance.**

And later, in her chapter on “The Marginal World”, Carson says:

Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.***

In any number of ways, we come home to the sea. In travel, in thought, and in metaphor. As our origin, the ocean weaves a bright silver thread through our consciousness. It is an ever changing path which runs Tao like through our thoughts, emotions, and through the mythologies that define our world and our understanding. While the sea may have a face like the clock in the hall, it may also reflect the eternal albatross of the spotless mind.**** Its tempests mirror our innate violence, as its sometime placidity reflects our vast collective mind and soul.

The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.*****

In addition to marking the very margin of our known existence, the sea may also be more compressed, its entirety contained even within any tiny fraction of itself. Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, describes a kind of arc between the seen and the unseen, partly in terms of childhood and the transition away from it. Gaiman’s cosmic ocean appears as the neighbour’s duck pond, but the appearance belies the vastness of the truth. This broader kind of metaphor extends to water in almost any form.

Long accepted by Jungians as a metaphor for the unconscious, water encompasses both life and death, all of cosmos and reality in liquid form. Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253), the great teacher of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, described it this way:

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky. The depth is the same as the height. [To investigate the significance of] the length and brevity of time, we should consider whether the water is great or small, and understand the size of the moon in the sky.******

Melting frost. Author photo.

Often envisioned as a more yielding element (although it need not necessarily be so), water is frequently grouped with more feminine and receptive values in general. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Florizel, the young prince of Bohemia, finds himself falling in love with Perdita (who, unbeknownst to either of them, is the princess of Sicily). With the advent of his growing affections, all of Perdita’s actions assume a kind of eternal and regal profundity, and in his mind her dancing reflects the sea itself:

When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever. When you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.

A Winter’s Tale 4.4.161-72

The sea metaphor conjures eternity, the ever changing motion of the dance preserved as a wave, as in all such moments where we glimpse the eternal and wish to sustain our momentary apprehension of it. For Florizel, his awakening love encompasses his personal link with eternity, as he obliquely envisions his own individual identity suddenly becoming part of a larger whole in the same way that the waves dance on the surface of the greater ocean, of which they remain an integral part.

Light on water. Author photo.

Water may separate as well. It may divide in the form of moats guarding a fortress, or as the proverbial ‘oceans between us’ in either distance or understanding. Water may symbolise circumstances or forces that cleave shared fortune or romance asunder.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of shipwrecks causing division and distress. The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Pericles, and the Tempest all feature shipwrecks in various ways. In Measure for Measure, the character Mariana loses her kindly brother to a shipwreck which also claims the dowry with which she was to marry Angelo. As the Duke tells Isabella:

She should this Angelo have married,
was affianced to her oath, and the nuptial appointed.
Between which time of the contract and
limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was
wracked at sea, having in that perished vessel the
dowry of his sister. But mark how heavily this befell
to the poor gentlewoman. There she lost a noble
and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever
most kind and natural; with him, the portion and
sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with
both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming

Measure for Measure 3.1.238-49.

The Duke further relates that with the loss of her fortune, the sanctimonious, self serving Angelo contrives to leave Mariana.

Left her in her tears and dried not one
of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows
whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in
few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which
she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her
tears, is washed with them but relents not.

Measure for Measure 3.1.251-6

The Duke describes her subsequent sad, detached existence at St. Luke’s, saying, “There at the moated grange resides this dejected Mariana.” Her kind and loving brother gone, and with her fiancé having cruelly abandoned her, Mariana not only retreats from the world, but sequesters herself within a moated country house, living inside a ring of water. In a Jungian sense, the water in Measure for Measure, reflects Mariana’s emotional state–first embodied as the sea, as a tempestuous agent of loss, and afterwards as the moat, a symbol emotional stagnation. Her sorrow being so ‘enmoated’ echoes her near complete disenfranchisement from the world.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously used Shakespeare’s description as the basis for his poem “Mariana” about the tedium inherent in pining for lost love:

‘Mariana in the moated grange.’
            —Measure for Measure.

With blackest moss the flower-plots
   Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
   That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
   Unlifted was the clinking latch;
   Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
Her tears fell with the dews at even;
   Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
   Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
   When thickest dark did trance the sky,
   She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
      She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
Upon the middle of the night,
   Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
   From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
   In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
   Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
      She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
About a stone-cast from the wall
   A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
   The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
   All silver-green with gnarled bark:
   For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
And ever when the moon was low,
   And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
   She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
   And wild winds bound within their cell,
   The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
      She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
All day within the dreamy house,
   The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
   Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
   Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
   Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
   The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
   The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
   When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
   Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
      Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
         He will not come,’ she said;
      She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         Oh God, that I were dead!’

“Mariana” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This popular poem is widely available on the internet and in print.

In Tennyson’s poem, the farmhouse and its environs reflect Mariana’s isolation, resonating strongly with her deteriorated emotional state. Her entire life has become a frozen echo of the shipwreck that took her brother’s life and robbed her of her marriage prospects. In her post wreck psyche, motion has ceased, and the poem remains remarkably empty of active verbs. Mariana’s life has become locked into a static jumble of sorrow and bleak landscape. The only motion is the invisible passing of the hours. The poetic climax underscores loss and lack with fierce simplicity. “He will not come.” The future appears definite, but it remains exactly like the present–dominated by the lack of her beloved. The long slow days and nights stretch ahead within the landed shipwreck characterised by the grange, an often confused jumble of imagery and emptiness.

Mariana by John Everett Millais, 1851. In the Tait Britain.

Yet, water may give as well as take, and it may just as often serve as a vehicle or a way to something greater–to life, love, or opportunity. It is not always Homer’s ‘wine eyed sea’, glittering darkly up at us out of history. Boat journeys do not always end in disaster. They do not all lead to Sir Guyon’s “Gulfe of Greedinesse”. Water is not always salt, leading to shrinking boards and parched throats, dead albatrosses and ghost ships.*******

Just as often, water may bring positive outcomes–quenching thirst, cooling us, and beautifying our surroundings. Sometimes, our way is not fraught with peril. Watercourses may be slower and gentler, leading us to friendship and adventure.

“Hullo, Mole!” said the Water Rat.

“Hullo, Rat,” said the Mole.

“Would you like to come over?” enquired the Rat presently.

“Oh, it’s all very well to talk,” said the Mole, rather pettishly, he being new to a river and riverside life and its ways.

The Rat said nothing, but stooped and unfastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped onto a little boat which the Mole had not observed. It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.

The Rat sculled smartly across and made fast. Then he held up his fore-paw as the Mole stepped gingerly down. “Lean on that!” he said. “Noq rhwn, step lively!” and the Mole to his surprise and rapture found himself actually seated in the stern of a real boat.

“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “never been in  a – you never – well I – what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that? asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing – about – in – boats; messing -“

Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows. New York: The Heritage Press, 1940, pp. 6-7.********
Earnest Shepard illustration for The Wind in the Willows, 1931.

We all hope that our ride will be like Rat and Mole’s, leading on to friendship and discovery. We hope our boats will lead us on to landscapes brilliant with engagement and wonder. That our waters will remain calm, and that, when they cannot be, we will find safe harbour where we may weather the worst parts of the storm.

Life can be difficult enough. My hope is that every reader of these words will be able to make or find a sturdy enough craft to carry them dependably through their days to journey’s end. A craft of the mind, body, or of the spirit may do, but I hope it will be one that is seaworthy for all three climates, as well as any others which may happen upon us along the way.

Naturally, a boat creates its own dancing waves, and life is full of those. Rachel Carson’s ‘drive of life’ is like Perdita’s dance, embodied by the ever moving waves. Sunlight, moonlight, and the stars ripple, shiver, and reassemble endlessly, as do the circumstances in which we live. Water is the stuff of life. It is the element in which life begins, ends, and on which it briefly rides.

*With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson and John Masefield for liberally reimagining their work. (Originally, ‘The Swing’ and ‘Where Go the Boats?’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is from his A Child’s Garden of Verses–first published as Penny Whistles in 1885. John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ was originally published in Salt Water Ballads in 1902.)

**Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. With Illus. by Bob Hines. New York: Signet Science Library, 1959, p. 3.

***Ibid, p. 11.

****Apologies again for the borrowing, to Stevenson (for his poem, “The Moon”) and to Charlie Kaufman (for his screenplay, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). A bit of the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner may be in there too.

*****Carson, p.11.

******Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjōkōan: the Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. New York, NY: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

*******Homer uses the phrase about the “wine dark” or “wine eyed” sea several times in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, seeming to describe a threatening sea, one that is tempestuous, or seems about to become so. Sir Guyon appears in Book 2 of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in Canto XII (I think). Lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are reasonably well known and self evident.

********Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908, but this citation comes from my grandfather’s 1940 edition of the work, which I’m delighted to have on my shelf.

9 Replies to “I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea”

  1. I love this one. I’m always called to the sea. Your chosen works also reflect some of.my favourites: Tennyson and Wind in the Willows.

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