‘Sea Fevers’ by Agnes Wathall is a concise three stanza poem separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The very well used, and popular, structure of four line stanzas is known as Sapphic verse. This is a reference to the ancient poet Sappho, who was the first to consistently utilize the form.
While Wathall only published one small collection of poems, titled A Trick of Light, her lyrical style is clearly present. It seems as if she had a true appreciation for music, considering that she is also known to have composed a light opera.
She chose to structure this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme that adds to the musical quality of the text. The verses follow a rhyme scheme of abab abab abab. It is interesting that Wathall chose this repeating pattern as it adds a strong feeling of unity to the text.
The end sounds also mimic the movement of the sea, wind, and natural elements that feature in the text. A reader will move back and forth with the text just as the sea moves the shore. This feature is emphasized further by the varied indention. Each set of rhyming lines in a stanza is indented to the same depth. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Sea Fevers
‘Sea Fevers’ by Agnes Wathall describes the inner life of a speaker who strictly contains her emotions inside her mind.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is not a number of different things. She is not an “ancient mariner” with a deep connection, and ability to ford, the sea. Nor is she a “hawker” or salesperson. She sees these types of people as being dishonest sellers of albatrosses.
In the next stanza she expands on what she is not. She doesn’t take pleasure from the nature alongside the ocean shore, nor does she advertise her grief for all to see. The speaker is a very secluded and introverted person. She does not reach out for emotional assistance at any point. The final lines speak on how her emotions move within her like a ship tossing on the ocean. No matter what, they do not leave her.
Analysis of Sea Fevers
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating what she is not. This is a form that Wathall’s speaker will utilize throughout the text. She consistently describes what she is not or what she will not do.
The first line informs the reader that she is not an “ancient mariner.” She does not have a deep or strong history with the sea. It does not relate directly to her profession in the way it would with a “mariner.” This type of person’s life was consumed by the sea, hers is not that way. Or at least, this is how she sees it.
The second line adds another non-detail to her life. A reader is slowly learning who this person is through who they are not. One also comes to understand the type of person they definitely do not want to be. In this case, the speaker references a…
Hawker of public crosses,
Snaring the passersby
She is not someone who spends her life trying to sell her beliefs, or any belief system, to others. This line could expand to include any kind of “hawking” not necessary that of a religious ideology.
She is against making her life based on the “Snaring” or tricking of people on the street. The speaker does not want dishonesty as a part of her daily existence. This is further emphasized by the final line of this stanza when she speaks of a “necklace of albatrosses.” This phrase relates directly to the previous religious language. Wathall is using the image of the “albatross” as something that leads one in a specific direction. It might seem to mean something, but in reality it is attached to nothing.
The second stanza utilizes an identical rhyme scheme to the first. In these lines the speaker continues to explain what her life isn’t like. She begins with a simple action of not “blink[ing]” her eye. The speaker does not see herself as being the type of person who takes joy in the “tufts of gray sea mosses.”
This is yet another reference to the sea. The poet’s entire narrative is centred around the ocean. It is the “fevers” of her life she is walking through, one line at a time. These are the darks and lights of her existence which play out around the central setting of the sea.
It is not entirely clear why the speaker does not “blink” a “glittering eye” around the natural setting of the seaside. It could reference something in her past, or perhaps any pleasure she might take from nature is overruled by another aspect of her life.
In the second set of lines she adds another experience to the list of those she does not participate in. This is the last of the poem before she turns to the nature of her own life. The speaker does not go up on the “high road” or the main street of her town. Here, she does not “ply” or sell and “trade” her “guilts and glosses.”
Through these lines the speaker is hoping to show that whatever emotions she experiences are kept within her. She does not advertise how she is feeling or show the entire world, via a spot on the “high road,” her problems.
It is in the third stanza that she stops referencing things that did not happen and instead turns to those which have. Within her own life she sees a “dark and inward sky.” The atmosphere of her personal life is contained within her own mind and heart. The “flotsam” or refuse of her daily existence does not spread beyond her. As was mentioned in the previous section, her hurt is not known by any other. This is a conscious choice and the way she wants her life to be.
For an unknown reason the speaker does not want her emotions on display. The placidity of her exterior is similar to the hidden nature of the ocean, but also in direct contrast with its power and dynamism. They exist next to one another but operate in entirely different ways.
It is only in her mind that she can see the path the “flotsam” has taken. There is no other marker of its influence.
The last two lines speak on how her “losses” move through her mind. They are not still like “skeleton ships.” Instead they “toss” around on the sea. The experiences of her past have not left her. They continue to influence her every day.