‘On the Sea’ by John Keats conforms to the pattern of a traditional, fourteen-line, Petrarchan sonnet. The text is contained within one block, but can be separated into two sections. One containing eight lines, known as an octet, and one with six, a sestet. The rhyme scheme follows a pattern of ABBAABBACDEDEC, also characteristically Petrarchan. The same can be said about the meter. ‘On the Sea’ conforms to iambic pentameter, the pattern that is most often found in both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
An important feature of Petrarchan sonnets which occurs within Keats’ ‘On the Sea’ is a turn or ‘volta’ between the first eight lines and following six. In the octet the speaker discusses the unmanageable power and surprising gentleness of the ocean. He then transitions into addressing one listener in particular and telling this unknown person they would benefit from some time spent at the sea.
The most important theme in this text is that of the sea as a mystical, unknowable force. It can cause terrible destruction one minute and then the next leave the “very smallest shell” untouched the next. He compares the ups and downs of the sea’s power to the winds of Heaven and the spell of Hecate. The final lines introduce sea nymphs to the scene. This gives the environment a magical feeling, as if the sea can do things (like improve the listener’s life) just by being watched.
Summary of On the Sea
The poem begins with the speaker describing the sea as having the ability to swallow up caverns if it wants to. Powers, such as those wielded by Heaven and Hecate work on the ocean. In the next lines, the sea’s gentleness is emphasized. It is able to touch, but leave unmoved, a single shell for long periods of time.
The second half of the poem is directed at one specific listener. This person is suffocating under the pressures and troubles of their life. The speaker believes they should take the time to consider the “wideness” of the ocean. This will improve their lives and bring them some relief.
Analysis of On the Sea
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker enters abruptly into a discussion about the sea. He states that it has had, and always will have, the ability to “whisper.” These whispers make their way, eternally, around the “Desolate shores.” Already Keats has chosen to use personification to craft a more meaningful depiction of the sea. It is given the human ability to speak. The use of the word “Desolate” in these first lines is also impactful as it sets out a solemn mood. At the same time, there is an inescapable distance between speaker and subject due to the third person narrative perspective.
The next lines imbue the sea with another character trait, gluttony. It is able to consume or absorb “twice ten thousand Caverns” at one time. This refers to the sea’s strength and ability to take anything it wants to into the depths. It is interesting in this to note the capitalization of “Caverns” in this line. It is unclear why exactly Keats chose to capitalize this word, but there are other instances of capitalization in later lines. “Sea” and “Cavern’s Mouth” are both capitalized in the final octet. When a writer capitalizes a noun it gives the object or forces a greater agency in the text. It draws attention to the word, but it also makes it seem as if it has some sort of power.
In the final line of this first quatrain, or set of four lines, the speaker refers to “Hecate.” She was a Greek goddess who is often referred to as a witch. Her connection to the sea comes from her ability to influence the moon and therefore the tides. At some point, her “spell.. leaves them.” The power of the tides quickly drains away.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
In the second half of the octet, the speaker refers to the gentler side of the sea. He states that one will often find the sea in “such gentle temper.” It is clear that this version of the ocean is very different from the one presented in the previous lines. Keats did this purposefully in order to draw the greatest contrast possible between the different moods of the ocean.
In order to emphasize how gentle the sea can be, he paints a picture of a small shell that is left on the shore. The sea “scarcely” touches it, allowing it to sit “for days…where it sometime fell.” It ended up in its present location during the last big storm in which the “winds of Heaven were unbound.” It is at this point in the text that the “volta” or turn happens. The next six lines are noticeably different than those which proceeded them.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
The ninth line of ‘On the Sea’ begins with the speaker making an exclamation. He is addressing the intended listener of the text. It is unclear who this person is supposed to be, but the reader takes their place.
He asks this person to take some time away from the troubles of their own life and look “upon the wideness of the Sea.” He refers to them as having eyeballs that are “vexed and tired.” This state is caused by the endless demands of life. He believes the sea will be calming. A reader should take note of the word “Feast” in the second line. This connects back to the use of the word “glut” in the third line.
The speaker also asks that the listener go to the sea and sit near it. This way their ears will be improved. They are suffering from the “uproar rude” of the wider world, as well as “cloying melody.” The image the speaker paints of this person’s life is a suffocating one. It is clear he believes they will be improved through consideration of the sea’s vastness.
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!
In the final two lines, the speaker depicts the moment that the listener will “start” or become aware of a change. At first, while this person is sitting “near some old Cavern’s Mouth,” They will still be brooding. Then, as if from nowhere, there will be a “start.” It is depicted through the singing of “sea nymphs.” These mythical female creatures are the final element that pulls the listener over the line. Then, they will finally be able to take a break from the pressures of the world.