The Sea in Literature

Aside: I’ve decided that I still have so much to cover when it comes to the sea and writing that I’m going to do a second month on it.  I’m thinking I’ll focus a bit more on literature and on the sea itself rather than the contents of the sea.  The end of this month has suddenly appeared and I feel like I’ve barely touched on writing!  So yes, another month looking at the sea and then I’m thinking I might turn to insects…

The sea features in literature in many ways.  As a habitat to be explored, as a surface to travel over, as a setting, as a character…

A quick sail through time

NB, this is a primarily British sail through time and isn’t looking at folklore and oral stories.

The use of sea in literature dates back to at least 8BC where we find it in Homer’s Odyssey; Odysseus has a ten year voyage, struggling against sea monsters and trying to get home.  By the middle ages we have the sea featuring in romances alongside mythical islands and self propelled ships as well as themes around pilgrimage.

Shakespeare makes use of the sea in his writings from the 16th century and by the 17th century we see novels reflecting the idea of the English seaman, that is a brave, just and moral man.  And they were almost always men.  Maritime labour was almost exclusively male and women on boats was considered bad luck.  This in turn means that literature about life at sea has been dominated by male characters.

From here we turn to a more romantic idea of the ocean with 18th and 19th century poets being heavily inspired by their love of nature.  The Victorians developed these feelings and created a deep symbolic meaning for the sea, that of Christian redemption, spiritual rebirth and the feminine.  At this time, as well as romanticising the sea, the mariners who sailed on her were also idealised.  Novels portrayed life at sea as idyllic, as a chance for personal growth and a place of freedom.  The sea was considered to be a place safe from industrialisation and the evils of the world as well as an arena for adventure and escape.  The reality of course was far from this.

Poetic and Pragmatic

As we’ve seen, the sea appears in a range of genres and in a number of guises.  Margaret Cohen explains that writings about the sea often take on a poetic or pragmatic form and the popularity of these two contrasting styles has ebbed and flowed through history.

When it comes to pragmatic writings, we have the notes from mariners telling of real life endeavours and the adventure stories of fiction such as Robinson Crusoe.  For most of our literary history, many of those who’ve travelled by sea have written accounts of their experiences, records of their journey.  These may be personal diaries or even ship logs detailing ‘accidents and remarkable events’ and it was these that often formed the basis of non fiction or semi fictional accounts of the sea.  Some were used by other professionals as guides and teaching points but some were relished by amateur sailors or even those readers who just wanted to escape their landlocked lives.  I believe, from my little bit of reading and research, that it was these true life accounts which gave rise to the fictional adventure stories of high seas and shipwrecks.

Under pragmatic sea literature, we generally find three standard fixtures; the sea, the ship and the sailor.  Often these are tales of work, such as the whalers in Melville’s Moby Dick or of adventure, or both.

Moving from books where the sea is crucial to, and the setting for, the story, we turn to poetic writings of the sea, those where the sea often functions as a metaphor, or a philosophical or psychological setting.  We also find a lot of poetic writings are, literally, poems but what I want to look at now is the use of poetic language and technique in prose.

Writing in the 20th century, Rachel Carson once said:

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

And her books are a fantastic example of poetic nature writing but I’m going to look at her in another post.  There’s just too much to say when it comes to the literature of the sea!

The Romantics wrote about the relationship between the individual and the sea, and their wider approach was about what nature can teach us and admiration for the beauty of the land, or sea, scape.  This contrasts greatly with the adventure stories of the ocean.

By the start of the 19th century, vague language was considered appropriate to the sea, there was an uncertainty there, possibly a difficulty finding the language of the sea.  And the outcome of this vagueness results in often poetic tellings.

The relationship we have with the sea is a complex and emotional one and this has been portrayed in literature in a myriad of ways throughout the world since the dawn of writing.

If you want to know more about sea literature and authors of sea literature, Searchable Sea Literature is devoted to works by North American authors, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays.

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