‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a five-line poem that is divided into four sets of six lines, or sestets, and one final set of ten lines. The poem does conform to the consistent and structured pattern of rhyme. The first two stanzas follow the rhyme scheme of abcabc, and then the third and fourth diverge slightly. The final stanza rhymes, aabccaabcc.
Browning has chosen to format the lines in this way to create a feeling of unity throughout. It also allows a reader to experience the rocking movement of rhyme that corresponds to the motions of the sea.
Summary of Sabbath Morning at Sea
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is on a “solemn ship” which is sailing into the deep blackness of the sea. She has no way off the craft and is despairing over the coming of the sabbath.
Rather than mourn the fact that she isn’t with her “sweet friends” and the “stolèd minister” she glorifies the world around her. The speaker tries to find something beautiful in the turning sea and emotionless sky.
In the final section, the speaker devotes her words to God. She describes for her intended listeners that God will get her through these days. He will allow her to raise herself above her present situation and commune with the saints in Heaven.
Analysis of Sabbath Morning at Sea
The ship went on with solemn face;
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
for parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.
In the first stanza of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, the speaker begins by describing the ship on which she is sailing. She has chosen to display the general feeling of the moment by stating that the ship has a “solemn face.” This adjective sets the tone for the entire poem. One is now fully aware that this will not be a happy description of a “sabbath morning at sea.”
The ship is sailing through an unknown part of the ocean into the “darkness.” The speaker describes the movement of the craft as if no one truly knows where it is going. It is almost as if the ship has lost its way. It is heading out to “meet…the deep.” ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ has truly taken on an ominous and foreboding tone.
In the next line, the speaker reiterates the fact that she sees the ship as being “solemn.” It is clearly not a place she wants to be.
She is spending her time on this particular morning “bow[ing] down weary in the place.” It is a “sabbath morning” which might lead a reader to think this action has to do solely with pray, and the fact that she does not have a church to worship in.
The next two lines add to her dilemma. She is not only seeking out comfort, she is so tired and sorrowful that she is being weighed down. Her “eyelids” are moving “downward” and she is drifting off into a deeper depression. She has been moving away from God during her time on board the ship.
The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o’er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!
In the second stanza, the speaker takes a real look around her and tries to reinvigorate herself with the joy of the day. She wants to celebrate the sabbath as she always does and with that in mind, she glorifies the sky, sea, and ship. The speaker makes her way through each element she can observe.
There is the “water around [her]” which is moving “turbulent[ly]” around the ship. It is powerful and in constant motion. There is also the sky that feels “impassive o’er [her].” She regards it as emotionless. It might also be “sunless” and “moonless,” but above all else, it is without feeling.
Although the world might be overwhelming, the speaker makes a concerted effort to see it in a new light. She refers to the sky as being “glorified” just for the sheer fact that she wants it to be. The speaker imbues glory into the elements around her.
Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll afar
The hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.
In the third stanza, which is also a sestet, the speaker turns from the scene directly before her to mention those she has left behind in her home. Although there is no information provided regarding why she is on this journey or who those are she is missing, the sentiment is what matters.
She immediately asks that her “sweet friends” love her from afar. She hopes that on this “sabbath day,” while the sea is “sing[ing] round [her]” that they think of her. They are able to pray as she wishes she could.
In her mind, she returns to the place where “once [she] knelt to pray.” She knows her friends are going to be there, in a spot she is intimately familiar with. While they are worshiping on the sabbath she asks that they “bless” her “deeper in [their] souls[s].” She knows that they are sad and that their voices are “falter[ing]” but that should just make them pray harder.
And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stolèd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God’s Spirit shall give comfort.
He who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.
In the final sestet of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, the speaker tries to speak lightly about what she is missing. It is clear she is in mourning over the fact she cannot be with her “sweet friends” or the “stolèd minister,” a reference to the “stole” worn by members of the clergy.
She reminisces on the times she heard the “chanting congregation” and felt “God’s Spirit.” Although she is not where she’d prefer to be, she isn’t going to let the sabbath pass without returning spiritual returning herself to the past.
The last lines of this stanza lead perfectly into the next which is focused solely on the worship of God.
He shall assist me to look higher,
He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,
An endless endless sabbath morning,
An endless sabbath morning,
And on that sea commixed with fire,
On that sea commixed with fire,
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
To the full Godhead’s burning.
The full Godhead’s burning.
This last stanza, which diverges from the rest in its number of lines and the rhythmic pattern of the verses, speaks about God and what he can do for the speaker.
She beings by stating twice that he will “assist” her in “look[ing] higher.” She will not be confined, in her mind anyway, to the ship on which she is trapped. It is “higher” in the sky and in her being that she will find the “saints” who are playing “harp and song.”
The speaker will be so changed by this experience that every day will be to her like a “sabbath morning.” She will always feel as she does in this moment.
In the final lines, the speaker references the sea on which she has been sailing for an indeterminate period of time. It is ablaze before her with the glory of God and will be a reminder to her in the future, and for however long she is on the ship, to remain in God’s grace.