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    On the Sea Essay

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    ‘Often ’tis in such a gentle temper found,That scarcely will the very smallest shell Be mov’d for days from where it sometime fell, When last the winds of Heaven were unbound’ There is the sense that the sea is gentle, but even when so, we are reminded of its immense power – the contrast in the “moods” of the sea. The sestet tells of the sea’s restorative power – for any one with ‘vex’d’ and ‘tir’d’ eyes or that have ears ‘dinn’d with uproar rude, / Or fed too much with cloying melody’. Keats is imploring the reader to be by the sea, to ‘feast [their eyes] upon the wildness of the Sea’ and ‘Sit… near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood’.

    The long vista of the sea can be restful for the eyes; the crashing of the waves can be soothing for the turbulent spirit. Keats is trying to convey the effect of the sea as a healing, soothing balm on the human spirit. The supernatural qualities of the sea almost make it seem transcendent, the power and meekness, the calm and craze, and the healing, nearly spiritual, disposition of the sea. Keats is sharing the inspiration of the sea with the reader. The focus on the transcendent qualities is a great Romantic characteristic that Keats employed here, and to great effect.

    The sonnet is a common medium for expressing emotions, but with the strict metric and rhyme scheme, its discipline prevents the poet from wallowing in self-pity or sentimentality. The rhythm of the poem is indicative of the tides, the first sentence especially; it’s hard to say without getting short of breath. Also there is sibilance, the repetition of the ‘s’ sound, making the sound of the water heard in it’s tumbling waves, with some of the words like ‘whisperings’, ‘desolate’ and ‘swell’. The tone of the poem is tranquil, providing the soothing effect of the sea.

    The sea is seen as a benign great force of nature and this is emphasised more instead of the roughness. The rough tendencies of the furling waves find calmness in this poem, an almost passiveness in it; Keats doesn’t get involved in the sea, he only watches and listens. However listening to crashing waves has that calm and peace too. The tone’s calm attitude is reflective of the theme – the calm created even with the roaring waves of the sea. As Keats wrote this poem in 1817 it was one of his earlier poems. Keats wrote nearly 60 sonnets and much of his early work was in this form.

    In 1816 there had been much civil unrest in England with riots after a bad harvest and heavy taxation. This unrest continued into 1817. This poem may have been just simply an escape for the turmoil and conflict of the times – Keats drawing into his world of ‘eternal whisperings’. Keats’ sonnet ‘Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art’ was believed to be written in 1819 and revised on that final boat trip to Italy in 1820 where he would die. ‘Bright Star’ is written with the rhyming scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet and the octave and sestet of the Petrarchan sonnet. The poet’s main theme is the common one of permanence vs. mutability.

    In much of his poetry Keats is searching for something fixed and eternal in the human world. In his more mature poetry he realises that this can be found in that world of change, death and decay. ‘Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art … No – yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillow’d upon thy fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever – or else swoon to death. ‘ The image of the star is developed into a symbol of utter perfection, the kind of perfection he admires and craves – timelessness.

    However he realises that this kind of “perfection” is incompatible with the pleasure he gets from his human life. The poem is almost like Keats’ progression of thought – from admiring and wishing to be the star, to realising the star’s isolation, to rejecting that kind of eternity for the image of himself ‘Pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast’. The poem has a Romantic valuing and feeling of emotion very much evident. Despite the fact that to be able to have the star’s permanence is impossible, this never crosses his mind.

    In the end Keats rejection of the star is not so much that he cannot have the star’s permanence, it’s that he decides he doesn’t want it. The imagination Keats uses to try to escape his impending, inescapable death has to be cast off as reality closes in – the recognition that in the human world death is the only true permanence. Keats uses the star as a contrast to the fleeting human life. While the star is personified in some respects – it has eyelids, it watches – there is great difference between the two. The star in splendour, high above the earth for all eternity, but also remote, isolated, passionless, cold and fixed.

    Human life, fleeting but also warm, changing and to do with emotions. The star feels nothing, while the poet feels great love. ‘Bright Star’ is very introspective, it explores Keats’ emotions, feelings and this is a very typical Romantic characteristic. Keats explores his desire to live forever, without reason to tie down his imagination. Without this logic and reason the human emotion can often contradict itself – the ‘sweet unrest’ of human immortality. In exploring the desire for immortality and human love he realises that he cannot have both.

    Another Romantic characteristic is the use of nature in the poem, although it is only used to describe the star, as ‘nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite’. Clearly an inhuman figure because of the ‘patient, sleepless[ness]’. This “hermit”, although human, is like the star in that they live a solitary life. The waters the star gazes upon are described as performing their ‘priestlike task’ – another human figure, although this time they are separated by their pious nature from other humans. Also both these figures are never likely to experience love, which seems to be the defining characteristic for humans for Keats.

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    On the Sea Essay. (2018, Jan 03). Retrieved from

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