‘Sea of Death’ by Thomas Hood was first published in London Magazine in March of 1822. The poem consists of three stanzas that vary in length from six lines to nineteen. Hood has chosen to structure this piece with the basic rhyming pattern of aabbcc. The lines vary end sounds throughout the text but remain consistently paired up into couplets.
Hood is utilizing an extended metaphor to describe a version of death in which “Life” and “Time” are participants in its function. They are said to walk among the dead, looking on at the different types of individuals. Such as those who rest peacefully and had an easy, carefree life, the “cherubs,” and their “neighbors” who are restless and unpleasant to behold.
Summary of Sea of Death
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he thinks he saw something about death. He is observing everything he can, and believes he took notice of “life…treading” through and on top of the “sea.” This is a truly dreary place that mostly made up of wretched, depressed beings floating right under the surface of the water. Death is the only thing that is satisfied here. It sits on top of the bodies like an engorged seabird.
Life is traveling through the area in order to take a look at the only pleasant aspect of the scene, the water lily-like cherubs. For an unstated reason, there are some figures in death who are not as darkly portrayed as others. They sleep peacefully, undisturbed by their current or past predicaments. The poem concludes with the speaker emphasizing the fact that the less savory individuals in the scene are going to remain that way forever.
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Analysis of Sea of Death
—Methought I saw
Life swiftly treading over endless space;
And, at her foot-print, but a bygone pace,
The ocean-past, which, with increasing wave,
Swallow’d her steps like a pursuing grave.
Sad were my thoughts that anchor’d silently
On the dead waters of that passionless sea,
Unstirr’d by any touch of living breath:
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins with a dash. This indicates a pause in speech as if he was surprised by something or perhaps was contemplating something he didn’t expect to see. This is emphasized by the fact that the next lines indicate that the speaker “…thought [he] saw.” The sights he may or may not have seen are described in the next lines.
First he states that he thinks he saw “Life” walking “swiftly” over the ocean. The sea is an “endless space” in which she leaves her “foot-print.” This is not a peaceful relationship between the two though. The ocean is “Swallow[ing]” Life’s “steps like a pursuing grave.” It is the “sea of death” mentioned in the title of the poem
The speaker has no power to interfere with the scene he is observing. He is in a metaphorical boat “anchor’d” in the “Dead waters” of that same sea. It is “passionless” and quiet. There is nothing that can move the waters, no life can “stir” them.
Silence hung over it, and drowsy Death,
Like a gorged sea-bird, slept with folded wings
On crowded carcases—sad passive things
That wore the thin gray surface, like a veil
Over the calmness of their features pale.
In the next set of lines, the speaker emphasizes the fact that the water is quiet. There is a “Silence” over the observable area and the sea appears to sleep. It rests without worry like a “gorged sea-bird.” At this point, Death is “drowsy” and resting on top of a “sea” of “crowded carcases.”
The sea is covered in a layer of bodies. They rest just below the surface of the water. It touches them like a “thin gray….veil.” Their features are “pale” and “calm.” The dead men and women are just as quiet as the sea is except they have no agency, they are “passive.”
And there were spring-faced cherubs that did sleep
Like water-lilies on that motionless deep,
How beautiful! with bright unruffled hair
On sleek unfretted brows, and eyes that were
Buried in marble tombs, a pale eclipse!
And smile-bedimpled cheeks, and pleasant lips,
Meekly apart, as if the soul intense
Spake out in dreams of its own innocence:
The second stanza begins with the speaker making a change to the mood of the poem. The descriptions move from focusing on the darkest aspects to ones that are somewhat lighter. There are “spring-faced cherubs” in the water too. They also sleep, but resemble “water-lilies” in their beauty and light.
The “cherubs” are described as having “unruffled hair” and “unfretted brow.” They are also said to have cheeks that were once moved by smiles and “pleasant lips.” These are set apart, “Meekly,” speaking to the “innocence” of their souls. The cherubs are the exact opposite of what one would expect to find in this scene and inspire envy in “Life.”
And so they lay in loveliness, and kept
The birth-night of their peace, that Life e’en wept
With very envy of their happy fronts;
For there were neighbor brows scarr’d by the brunts
Of strife and sorrowing—where Care had set
His crooked autograph, and marr’d the jet
Of glassy locks, with hollow eyes forlorn,
In the next section, the speaker describes how the cherubs stay where they are night after night. Life comes to look upon them and weeps over how happy they appear. Their “fronts” or faces give off an air of total peace. This is made even more noticeable by the fact of the other people around them. Their neighbors have “brows’ that are “scarr’d” with “strife and sorrowing.” Their hard lives have not left them when they entered into the sea of death. It is there, on their brows that “Care” wrote itself.
And lips that curl’d in bitterness and scorn—
Wretched,—as they had breathed of this world’s pain,
And so bequeathed it to the world again,
Through the beholder’s heart in heavy sighs.
In the next four lines, the speaker continues his description of the other men and women floating around in the sea. Their lips, rather than being “pleasant” like the cherubs are “curl’d in bitterness and scorn.” They are jaded by the hard lives they lived in the “world’s pain” they’ve experienced.
Their internalized “wretched[ness]” is so powerful that when they breathe it is returned to “the world again.” One who looks upon them, such as Life, is filled with “heavy sighs.”
So lay they garmented in torpid light,
Under the pall of a transparent night,
Like solemn apparitions lull’d sublime
To everlasting rest,—and with them Time
Slept, as he sleeps upon the silent face
Of a dark dial in a sunless place.
In the final, shortest stanza of the poem, the speaker includes his description of the scene and the dark images of the sleeping dead. He states that they “lay…garmented in torpid,” or lethargic, “light” throughout every “night.” There is nothing that can soothe them into a better sleep as “Time” rests there as well. This representation of death shows its endless nature.
The “rest” is “everlasting” and “Time” never moves. “He,” (referring to “Time”) remains still as a sundial would in a “sunless place.”