‘Watching for Dolphins’ by David Constantine is a six stanza poem which is divided into sets of six lines, also known as a sestet. These stanzas do not conform to a single pattern of rhyming lines, but vary as the poem progresses. In the first two stanzas, the poet follows the general schemes of abacbd, and then with different ending sounds, abcadd. The next stanzas diverge once more following the patterns of abacdd and aabcdc. The final two stanzas are the most different of all with schemes of, abcdda and abcdef.
This varying pattern is created in an attempt to keep a reader on their toes. It does not allow one to slip into complacency and easy expectation of what rhyming sound is to come next.
There are two place names in ‘Watching for Dolphins’ which are important to know before beginning an analysis of the work, “Piraeus” and “Aegean.” The second is the easiest to recognize and refers to the “Aegean” Sea which is located between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey. The second place, “Piraeus,” is a little more unusual. It is a port city in the Attica region of Greece and is the destination of the ship which serves as both a character and setting in ‘Watching For Dolphins‘.
This work describes the joys, disappointments, and ways of coping, that exist throughout one’s life. From the beginning to the end of the journey one will experience a number of different emotions, these are detailed by Constantine through an experience on a passenger ship.
The poem begins with the passengers being drawn to the bow where they hope to see dolphins. They have all come together at this point and speculate about what it will be like to see these animals jumping up and out of the water. Before they know it they have returned to port having seen nothing.
You can read the full poem Watching for Dolphins here.
Analysis of Watching for Dolphins
In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker introduces the reader to an activity that he participates in on a regular basis. This speaker is commonly on board a passenger ship or ferry which takes him and many other travelers to “Piraeus.” For more information of “Piraeus,” see the Introduction.
The crossing on which the narrator embarks only occurs during the summer, but is common enough to where he describes the movements of the passengers and ship fluidly and with great and convincing detail.
The following actions which he describes are ones that he sees on “every crossing.” This is an interesting detail as the passengers, many of whom have surely been on this ship before, still yearn for the same things. Additionally, it does not matter who the passengers are, or what class they prescribed to. All people, from all parts of the ship, “From seats in the packed saloon,” move to the deck of the ship, up to the bow.
Everyone feels some of the same desire, to see dolphins. There is an element of wonder in this activity that inhabits all the commuters for this short period. They do not consciously realize they are moving together with the same purpose, but the narrator does. He has been on enough of these journeys and is able to keep track of where everyone is. This raises the question of whether or not he still cares to see the dolphins.
Every other wish. Even the lovers
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day
In the second stanza, the narrator elaborates on the fact that this common goal forces all thoughts of one’s own life and ambitions, temporarily, from one’s head. “Every other wish” that one might have, is “Turned…on the sea.” The lovers who are sailing together replace their desire for one another with the desire to see dolphins.
The same goes for a “fat man” who is toting around “equipment to photograph the occasion.” The man came prepared for this exact moment. He knew ahead of time that there was a chance he’d get to see dolphins on this voyage. This was so important to him that he brought all of his photo equipment with him. He is, the speaker describes, looking through “sad bi-focals.” His countenance appears to be downcast, or perhaps pathetic feeling to the speaker. This is the first hint the reader gets that things may not turn out as everyone is hoping.
In the last two lines of this sestet, the speaker shows another way that the commuters attempt to see the dolphins. Some of them, those who have children, believe they are the best chance they have. They want to think that “if anyone would” see dolphins it would be the young people.
Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Sat in a silent school? Every face
In the third stanza, the people of the ship are all gathered. They are all gazing out into the water and wondering amongst themselves whether a rough or “flat” and “calm” sea is more favorable. They are trying to convince themselves that the elements, one way or another, predict their chances of seeing the dolphins. Gulls are also discussed as an omen. They wonder whether they are a “sign, that fell / Screeching from the sky.” Does that mean the dolphins are near?
It is clear that the passengers are quite restless. This one goal has overwhelmed all others, to the point that they are unable to pull themselves way from the bow.
After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go
In the fourth sestet, the traveler’s faces are still set to the sea. Each in its own way is begging, or “implor[ing]” the sea to make the dolphins show themselves. This is an action, and a way of being, which many of the commuters are unprepared for. Many, the speaker states, are not used to wanting an “epiphany” or a moment of wonder and realization. Usually, life presents itself easily and without much effort, but in this case, what the passengers want is completely beyond their control.
They do everything they can think of, including” Praying the sky would clang.” They want to experience a reverberation going out along the Aegean, in the hopes that the animals will surface. This is the climax of the poem. All the people on the deck are convinced they are going to see something and are ready to celebrate.
Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.
The hope for a successful dolphin sighting continues into the fifth stanza in which the speaker describes how everyone would act if they saw the animals in the water. They would observe the dolphins’ “snub-nosed” faces and lift up the children in celebration.
Everyone would share in their mutual joy and wonder at the creatures. The ideal scenario would have the dolphins leaving their element and jumping “three or four times” into the air and “Looping the keel.”
From that point the dolphins would be felt going “Further and further” into the depths of the ocean.
This ideal scenario is not what happens though. Before the passengers realize what has happened, the ship is back “among the great tankers,” edging toward the port. They are sailing under the enormous chains that hold the ships in place. The passengers have not seen any dolphins.
Everyone is suddenly awoken from the trance they were in and “blinking,” with downcast eyes, prepare to land in the city. Everyone is deeply disappointed but unwilling to admit it. Their previous joy seems childish now and they dismiss it in an effort to rejoin their lives.