Time contains an almost cruel irony as it talks of the perilous nature of the sea and it would later transpire Shelley himself would lose his life whilst at sea. Shelley probably spent a fair amount of time at sea and so was all too familiar with its perils. What this poem manages to do, with some skill, is portray the sea as this fearsome entity. The poet personifies and then vilifies the ocean. This is dramatic and striking.
The sea is frequently a topic covered in poetry and why wouldn’t it be? It is an area that is still largely unexplored and contains many mysteries. It is also steeped in folklore and mythology. Plus the amount of deaths that have occurred at sea are massive. There is a reason the phrase “worse things happen at sea” exists! With that in mind it is no surprise that Shelley chose this topic to write a poem about. What is unclear as why he chose to present his poem with such a strong negative slant? I mean, at various points his descriptions make the sea appear grandiose, but certainly nothing that he says throughout the poem could be considered complimentary. Perhaps he lost a relative to the ocean, or perhaps that is just the way he saw it?
Form and Tone
The poem is a fairly short piece. It consists of just two stanzas which both consist of five lines each. The poem then is written in free verse. Each of the lines consists of ten syllables. This level of accuracy was a calling card of Shelley in his work. The rhyming scheme alters in the first and second stanzas. In the first stanza the pattern is (ABAB-) in the second stanza the pattern is (AA-BB) perhaps this is used as a device to represent the turbulent nature of the seas?
Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality!
What a way to start off the poem. Shelley takes a romantic approach to the poem by personifying nature. In this case the sea which he addresses as if it were a person. This effect is quite striking and dramatic. He refers to the sea as unfathomable suggesting that it has secrets that people have been unable to figure out. The second section of this first line is really interesting it refers to the seas waves as “years” what is this meant to mean? Is the suggestion here that the crashing of waves represents the passage of time? This is quite a startling metaphor and one that generates as many questions as answers. It is this sense of intrigue which makes this poem (and many of Shelley’s poems) so compelling.
The second line talks of “Ocean of Time” this is yet another reference to the sea and time. Maybe the suggestion is that the sea is eternal. Everlasting. Therefore it can be intrinsically linked with time. It then describes the seas waters as being “of deep woe” the reason for this will become clear as the poem develops.
The third line makes reference to the seas “brackish” waters, brackish isn’t a word commonly used (Unless like me you are a tropical fish enthusiast!) Brackish water is ostensibly water that has a higher salinity than fresh water but not as high as sea water. It is often found near river mouths. Although I think here it is used just to describe salty water in general. It continues to say that the saltiness is caused by human tears. This is a very powerful metaphor and gives us a hint as to the narrator’s views on the perils of the ocean.
At the start of the fourth line the narrator uses the word thou. This is an archaic word and is seldom used in modern English, roughly speaking it is like an old version of the word “you” or in this case “your”. This line describes a shoreless flood. The idea of the ocean being shoreless once again gives the impression of the sea being eternal. This is a reoccurring notion up until this point, although is not mentioned after this. The fact that the idea of the ocean being “eternal” has been referenced three times might be significant. There is a rule called the rule of threes that says when you are repeating something three times is the optimum amount. Any more than this and it can become trite. Perhaps this is why this was done.
The fourth line runs on to the final line of the stanza and comments on the ebb and flow of the sea clasps at the limit of mortality. Once again this is quite evocative language and really is describing how the sea manages to attack mortality. This description almost makes out like the sea is the enemy of life which is quite a bold statement. The sea is abundant with life forms, but I think in particular this is an allusion to the impact of the sea on human life.
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
In the first line of the second stanza the sea is described as being “sick of prey” the use of the word prey is particularly revealing here as it suggests that the narrator views the sea as a predator. The fact that it is “sick” of it and still continues to search for more gives the ocean a greedy persona. All of these descriptions build up a picture of the character that has been given to the ocean. The second line is particularly gruesome in its description as the ocean is described as vomiting wrecks onto its shores. This almost creates the image of the sea gobbling down its victims and then spitting out the remains!
Note how the shore is described as being “inhospitable” another allusion to the lack of life. The penultimate line and final line of the poem ask the question of why the sea is like this. Why it acts in that way. The poem is given a nice sense of symmetry by finishing on the same two words it started with. This makes it feel like the poem runs in a circle which would serve to emphasize the theme of eternity put forward in the poem.
About Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley is one the most famous poets of all time. Born in the eighteenth century he had a tragically short life, dying in 1822 aged just twenty nine. He drowned at sea having been travelling in his sailboat “Don Juan” which was named as a nod to Lord Byron. Byron and Shelley had a close relationship. Together with several other notable writers and thinkers of the time they almost formed a group of sorts. Included in that group were the likes of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love and Shelley’s own spouse Mary Shelley.
Amongst his notable works are: Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, Music, When Soft Voices Die, The Cloud and The Masque of Anarchy. But perhaps his most famous piece is Prometheus Unbound which many scholars refer to as a masterpiece. All though Shelley’s poetry has stood the test of history during his life it was not well received. Most publishers refused to touch his work as it was considered blasphemous. This is an indication of the ground-breaking nature of his poetry. Shelley was a pacifist and a vegetarian which fit well with his liberal views. These views were in themselves massively inspirational and had an influence on people such as Ghandi and Marx.