‘Drifting Flowers of the Sea’ by Sadakichi Hartmann was published in 1904 in the volume, Drifting Flowers of the Sea and Other Poems. This piece is made up of two stanzas, both of which contain twelve lines. The reader will immediately be struck by the slanting margins of the text. The poet chose to format the poem in this way in an effort to replicate the “drifting” feeling of the sea that is persistent throughout the poem.
The poem begins with the speaker setting the scene. He is on a beach and his feet are just touching the water. Night has fallen around him and the only light that remains is that which comes from the moon. He seems to be at a point of convergence where the wind, sea, and moon are all present.
The main characters of the poem surface from the depths of the sea, they are white, pure, flowers. These flowers are representations of the speaker’s unspoken words and unrealized dreams. The flowers exist no matter what humankind does to the planet, and will be there long after all human beings are gone.
Analysis of Drifting Flowers of the Sea
Across the dunes, in the waning light,
The rising moon pours her amber rays,
Through the slumbrous air of the dim, brown night
The pungent smell of the seaweed strays—
From vast and trackless spaces
Where wind and water meet,
White flowers, that rise from the sleepless deep,
Come drifting to my feet.
They flutter the shore in a drowsy tune,
Unfurl their bloom to the lightlorn sky,
Allow a caress to the rising moon,
Then fall to slumber, and fade, and die.
This piece begins with the speaker setting a quiet and peaceful scene at the end of a day. He describes looking out “Across the dunes,” and seeing the fading light of the day. The sun’s light might be “waning” but the moon’s light is strong, “pour[ing] out her amber rays.” As is traditional, the moon is referred to as a “she,” just as the sun is most usually spoken of as “he.”
It is clear that the speaker is standing somewhere close to the ocean. As the moon is rising, and “she” is casting her “amber rays” through the “dim, brown night,” the speaker can smell the stale scent of seaweed that has strayed up onto the sand. The moon’s light is providing a clean and clear point of contact in the dark night air. It is as if the presence of the moon is cleansing in some way.
The speaker also describes how the wind, water, and sea are all meeting around him. They are “trackless,” but have managed to come together. Additionally, there are white flowers” that rise from the water. They have emerged from the “sleepless deep.” These flowers serve the same purpose as the moon’s light, they are a clear, white, pure force in the speaker’s world.
The flowers have a short life on the beach. They come from the deep, grace the shoreline, and bask in the waning moon. Their lives end as quickly as they began when they “fade, and die.”
White flowers, a-bloom on the vagrant deep,
Like dreams of love, rising out of sleep,
You are the songs, I dreamt but never sung,
Pale hopes my thoughts alone have known,
Vain words ne’er uttered, though on the tongue,
That winds to the sibilant seas have blown.
In you, I see the everlasting drift of years
That will endure all sorrows, smiles and tears;
For when the bell of time will ring the doom
To all the follies of the human race,
You still will rise in fugitive bloom
And garland the shores of ruined space.
In the second stanza, the speaker continues his narrative regarding the sights and sounds on the beach at night. The most important image that has emerged is that of the white flowers. He imagines these flowers before they came to the surface. They once bloomed in “the vagrant deep.” They were special, beautiful, and different from their surroundings. They eventually came out of the sleepy state.
It is not just their beauty that the speaker appreciates, he sees them as representing the thoughts in his mind that he has never expressed. They are his beautiful dreams that have never been spoken. The flowers stand-in for the “Vain words” that have never been “uttered,” but have often been on his “tongue.”
In the final lines of the poem the speaker states that although the first batch of flowers have withered and faded, there are endless more still to surface from the deep. He knows that no matter how bad the world gets or the “doom” and “sorrows” that he will be made to face, the flowers will stand up to the “follies of the human race.”
They will always be there to “garland the shores of ruined space” long after humans have gone from the Earth. The speaker sees them as sentinels of Earth’s permanent beauty and representations of the potential of his thoughts.
About Sadakichi Hartmann
Sadakichi Hartmann was born in Nagasaki Harbour in 1867. His father was German and his mother, who died in childbirth, was Japanese. Hartmann and his older brother were raised in Germany by an uncle and grandmother. There they received an in-depth education. Hartmann rebelled when he was enrolled in the military academy as a young man and ran away to Paris. This caused his family to disinherit him, and send him off to the United States.
While living in the United States, Hartmann became friends with Walt Whitman. He would go on to publish a book, Conversations with Walt Whitman, in 1895. Hartmann traveled extensively and made friends with a number of influential literary and artistic figures. In 1893, Hartmann published one of his most scandalous plays, Christ. The publication of this work resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.
Hartmann was also known to write both short stories and poetry. One of his most important collections, Drifting Flowers of the Sea and Other Poems, was released in 1904. It was during this same period that he started writing literary essays regarding Japanese poetry. Hartmann would continue in this vein, completing a two-volume anthology, History of American Art, and a number of other critical works.
Eventually, Hartmann moved to California and became consumed by the Hollywood scene. After years of decline in which he did not publish, he moved away from his friends. He spent the remainder of his life living in a cabin on the Morongo Indian Reservation. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1944.