‘Oily Weather’ was published in 1923 in Hemingway’s collection, Three Stories, and Ten Poems. Throughout the poem, Hemingway uses images of the sea and its lust for ships to allude to human sexuality and relationships. Although the poem is quite short, it accomplishes a great deal by the time the reader gets to the ninth line. Hemingway addresses sex and desire without confronting it head-on. He makes the reader do a little bit of work to understand that this is the theme he’s getting at.
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Summary of Oily Weather
In the first lines of the poem, Hemingway depicts the sea as something that lusts after the hulls of ships. This is its singular pursuit, and in its churning and swelling, it tries to latch onto them. On the other hand, the ships, even though they’re throbbing, spurn the sea as an old and uninteresting lover they want to avoid. The poem ends without a specific conclusion. The reader is left to consider this dynamic and the fact that it’s likely going to go on for the rest of time.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Oily Weather, ’ Hemingway engages with themes of sex, relationships, and nature. The natural images in this piece are the most obvious part of the poem. Hemingway uses them in an unusual way, though. He combines them with suggestive language in order to describe feelings of lust and desire on the part of the sea towards the ships that sail on it. In the end, the speaker reveals that the ships do not reciprocate this emotion. They spurn the sea, an interesting allusion to the sailor’s attempts to survive a long sea journey without being pulled down into its depths. The personification of the sea and ships throughout the poem is quite creative while also leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination.
Structure and Form
‘Oily Weather’ by Ernest Hemingway is a short nine-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, as one might expect considering Hemingway’s distinctly modern style of writing in his prose work. Despite this, there are some examples of half-rhyme or slant rhyme throughout this poem. For example, “hulls” and “rolls” at the ends of lines one and two. The “ing” words in the fourth line are another good example.
Hemingway makes use of several literary devices in ‘Oily Weather.’ These include but are not limited to allusion and innuendo, imagery, and enjambment. The latter is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines five and six.
The allusion or innuendo at the heart of this poem is to sex. From the first lines, it’s clear that although Hemingway is describing the sea and ships, he’s thinking about something else. The language choices, such as “throb” and “Driving,” help ensure that the reader is very much aware of this fact.
Imagery is one of the most important features of ‘Oily Weather.’ It consists of phrases like “Driving, throbbing, progressing.” These help the reader imagine the scene and feel the innuendo that Hemingway was interested in hinting at.
Analysis of Oily Weather
The sea desires deep hulls—
It swells and rolls.
The screw churns a throb—
Driving, throbbing, progressing.
In the first lines of ‘Oily Weather,’ the poet describes the “sea” and how it “swells and rolls.” Readers should take note of the use of half-rhyme with “hulls” and “rolls” in lines one and two as well as alliteration with “desires deep” in line one and “sea” and “swells” in lines one and two. Among these literary devices is the first hint at an allusion to something deeper, a sexual innuendo that runs throughout the poem. He uses words like “throb,” “Driving,” and “throbbing” to describe the sea’s longing for the “deep hulls” of ships.
Its turning waves are used as an image of lust and should immediately cast a reader’s mind towards sex. The repetition of words ending in “ing” helps to create a feeling of progress, helping the reader imagine the sea’s movements to a greater extent while also creating a very particular atmosphere.
The sea rolls with love
Undulating its great loving belly.
The sea is big and old—
Throbbing ships scorn it.
In the following lines, Hemingway only confirms that he’s using the sea to represent sexuality and longing. The sea “rolls with love,” his speaker says in the fifth line. He also uses words like “Surging” and “caressing” to drive home the point that the sea is seeking out ships lustfully, prepared to reach out for them and pull them down into the ocean. But, the “ships scorn it.” They, the speaker suggests, consider it too “big and old” and reject it as one might reject a lover who is also “big and old.” This suggestion places the ships as the object of affection that the sea pursues.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Oily Weather’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Ultimately’ by Earnest Hemingway – one of Hemingway’s other best-known poems. It is also quite short and spends its lines alluding to the nature of truth.
- ‘The Sea is History’ by Derek Walcott – is filled with images from the Bible that help to depict Walcott’s image of Black history.
- ‘The City in the Sea’ by Edgar Allan Poe – is a dark poem in which the speaker describes a doomed city, rife with sin, that sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
- ‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – is a popular short poem in which the speaker depicts life and death through the image of the seashore. He uses a traveler walking along with it as a symbol.