This poem revolves around the sea that can transcend a person from real to surreal, mundane to the divine, and chaos to peace. Pablo Neruda, the modern maestro of poetry, depicts how he learns the life-lessons from the sea in this poem. His mortal self climbs up the ladder of salvation to reach the tranquil state, human beings crave. It is only possible for the presence of the embalming waves and deep sounds of the sea. Moreover, by the use of vivid imagery, the poet puts forth his realization beautifully in this poem.
This poem describes how the sea teaches the poet the art of living one’s life to the fullest. The poem begins with the confusion of the speaker. He is not sure what exactly teaches him. Is it the waves or something else? However, from the following, Neruda starts to answer his question. Being a young man, the process seems tough for the speaker. However, the more he gets closer to the sea’s calmness, the more he gets closer to its core. In this way, he becomes a part of “its pure movement.”
You can read the full poem here.
This poetic meditation upon the sea consists of four movements. The poet separates his idea into four sections. However, these stanzas are connected internally. Apart from that, the first two stanzas consist of eight lines and the last stanza contains fourteen lines. There is not any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. For this reason, it is a free verse poem. In a few instances, the poet uses slant rhymes. Moreover, the overall poem is composed in the iambic meter, with a few metrical variations. Lastly, the poet maintains the flow of the poem by the use of internal rhyming.
‘The Sea’ begins with a personification. In the first line, the poet personifies the sea. Thereafter, in “shining suggestions” Neruda uses a metaphor. The last line of the first stanza contains another metaphor in “the university of the waves.” Here, the poet compares the waves to a university as the poet learns from these waves. The second stanza begins with onomatopoeia in the phrase, “shells crunched.” Here, the poet employs a simile to compare the crunching of shells to the “shivering planet.” Moreover, the last three lines of this stanza contain hyperbole and epigram as well. Thereafter, in the third stanza, Neruda uses several metaphors in the lines, “the cracking of the blue cold” and “the gradual wearing away of the star.” There is an alliteration in “stone shrine.” Lastly, the poem ends with an epigram.
I need the sea because it teaches me,
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.
The first stanza of the poem describes why the poetic persona (or Neruda himself) needs the sea the most. The reason is that the sea teaches him. But, how it imparts its lessons, is not clear to the poet. However, the poet does not know if he learns the musicality of life or self-awareness from it. Moreover, he is not sure “it’s a single wave or its vast existence” that teaches him. Likewise, whether it is the harsh voice of the sea or the shining suggestions of life that touches the poet deep, is not sure too.
Thereafter, in the last few lines, the poet explains “the fact.” The fact is that when the poet slumbers after having a meditative stroll near the sea, he enters into the “university of the waves.” In this dreamy abode, his learning begins. In front of him rests the wise sea. Lying on his bed, Neruda decodes its teachings.
It’s not simply the shells crunched
as if some shivering planet
What it taught me before, I keep. It’s air
ceaseless wind, water and sand.
In his dream, the speaker can hear the sound of the shells crunched by the sea waves. This sound seems to him as if “some shivering planet” is giving signs of its likely death. However, the poet does not go astray with such withering thoughts. Rather, he chooses the constructive part of nature. In his imagination, he reconstructs “the day out of a fragment” of thought. Moreover, he creates his imaginary stalactite from “a silver of salt” and “the great god out of a spoonful.” Such is the power of poetic imagination. It enables an artist to visualize completeness in fragments and the sea in a droplet of water!
The next stanza marks a shift in the poem. Here Neruda says what the sea taught him, he keeps it safe in his heart. He cannot ever forget its air, “ceaseless wind, water, and sand.” As they collectively form the image of the sea in his mind.
It seems a small thing for a young man,
to have come here to live with his own fire;
and my life changed suddenly:
as I became part of its pure movement.
The last stanza of ‘The Sea’ contains several epigrammatic lines. Here the poet truthfully expresses his thoughts and admits his youthful follies. According to the poet, the sea seems a small thing for a young man who lives with his inner fire. However, when the mind starts to nature, it can differentiate the physical stimulus from the spiritual urge. As one matures, the latter proves to be more important than the former stimulus.
Whatsoever, in the following lines, the poet says how the sea changed his thought process and changed his mindset. Firstly, the pulse of the waves that rose and fell in its abyss, showed him the nature of human life. Thereafter, the cracking of the “blue cold” (a metonym for ice) and the gradual wearing away of the star-shine in sea waves taught his evolution is the essence of life.
Moreover, the “soft unfolding of the waves” on the shores, the “squandering snow with its foam,” and the “quiet power” of the sea remind him of his smallness concerning the vastness of the sea. It seems to him that there might be a “stone shrine in the depths.” The guardian spirit of the sea rests there. However, the teachings of the mighty sea, a symbolic representation of God, replaced the poet’s thinking pattern. Previously, the “stubborn sorrow” and “gathering oblivion” burdened his spirit. But, now his life has changed as he “became part of its pure movement.”
‘The Sea’, one of Pablo Neruda’s thought-provoking poems, appears in his poetry collection, “On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea”, published in 2004 and translated by Alastair Reid. In this poem, readers can find the elements of romanticism and the poet’s adoration for the sea. Moreover, through this poem, he presents a macrocosmic picture in the microcosmic representation of the sea. The poet’s closeness to the sea and his feelings for it, make this piece dearer to the readers.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Neruda’s poem, ‘The Sea’.
- On the Sea by John Keats – This poem describes the incredible power and delicacy of the tides. It’s one of the best John Keats poems.
- The Sea of Glass by Ezra Pound – It’s one of the best Ezra Pound poems and here the speaker describes the sea, lovers, and faces depicted in the sky.
- The Sea is History by Derek Walcott – This poem contains several biblical images and it’s a meditation upon suffering and death.
- Drifting Flowers of the Sea by Sadakichi Hartmann – This poem describes white flowers’ presence in the sea, and their relation to perseverance and unspoken dreams.