‘A Love by the Sea’ is a three-stanza poem by English poet William Ernest Henley. The three stanzas each have six lines and correspond to each other in phrasing, line length, and punctuation usage. The rhyme scheme is ABCABC for each stanza and is consistent throughout the entire poem. Not only are the rhymes consistent, but the first line of each stanza also ends in “me,” and the last line of each ends with “farewell.”
The beginning of the poem is full of intense emotions of mourning as the speaker talks of “passion,” “sobbing,” and “souls.” The second stanza is calmer and more detached as he is starting to come to terms with his loss and look back on it, seeing the past happiness. Finally, the poem concludes with the speaker saying farewell to his love and concluding the poem content that he can do nothing to compel her life.
Analysis of A Love by the Sea
Out of the starless night that covers me,
(O tribulation of the wind that rolls!)
Black as the cloud of some tremendous spell,
The susurration of the sighing sea
Sounds like the sobbing whisper of two souls
That tremble in a passion of farewell.
Henley formatted each stanza of ‘A Love by the Sea‘ in a strikingly similar manner. The first stanza begins, dissimilar than do the two that follow. The speaker begins with a location from which the following emotions, words, and experiences flow.
The speaker describes himself as being covered by a “starless night.” The reader can imagine this as a sort of oppressive blanket that at first may seem empty, but out of it comes the remainder of this stanza.
In this second line, the speaker begins to explain how his pain and troubles appear to him. When his emotions become manifest, what they look like. The next line of this poem is in parentheses. It is an aside to the main thought through which the speaker is moving. In this thought, he takes a moment to give detail to this black sky. It is not totally empty as in it are rolling winds. The word tribulation is used in this line to mean a pressing tragedy. This tragedy that will later be expanded upon comes on the rolling of the wind.
The speaker moves back to his initial thought and expands further on what the sky is like. It is like a tremendous black “spell.” This word choice gives the surroundings a very dangerous, and almost intimidating feel. This is immediately contrasted with the peaceful image or sound of the “susurration of the sea.” While this cloud may be black, it is also calm like the whispering of the sea. It is existing equally on an unnerving and peaceful plane.
This poem is full of contrasts and another appears immediately in the next line. This whispering from the sea is less like peace and more like the “sobbing whisper of two souls” that are mourning in “a passion of farewell.” This beautiful phrasing creates less of an image and more of an emotion. The speaker is clearly in a deeply emotional state within his mind and is pouring forth, to the best of his ability, what these thoughts would look like if they were physically real.
This last line of the first stanza will be repeated in two different ways in the next two stanzas.
To the desires that trebled life in me,
(O melancholy of the wind that rolls!)
The dreams that seemed the future to foretell,
The hopes that mounted herward like the sea,
TO all the sweet things sent on happy souls,
I cannot choose but bid a mute farewell.
The next two stanzas begin with dedications. It is clear that the speaker is at the end of something that was very meaningful to him, a close relationship has ended and it is beyond his control. He is dedicating these words and moments to, in this case, “the desires that trebled life in me.” This opening line can perhaps be better understood as a toast to better times.
He is reminiscing on the days in his life that were made more poignant by the desire he felt for this person. His days were made fuller, more lively, but that time has passed.
The second line of this stanza is reminiscent of the second line of the first stanza, it too is in parentheses and it speaks of the wind. This time though the wind is spoken of as being “melancholy,” this emotion is not as strong as that of “tribulation” but it is now the main feeling “of the wind that rolls.” It also fits better in this stanza as it is focused more on remembering than experiencing.
The third line of this stanza as well as the fourth and fifth, speak of other elements of this past relationship that the speaker is “toasting.” the first is that of “dreams that seemed” like they were going to become the future. This time in his life was filled with hope, so much so that his dreams seemed like they would be a reality.
The fourth line is dedicated to the “hopes” that became, and brought this “her” into his life, to become like the sea. Then finally in line five this speaker toasts “all the sweet things sent on happy souls.” He is speaking of all of the wonderful things that love brings to those who are a part of it, and of all the sweet things that lovers bring to one another. This stanza is dampened in its lifting and lovely language by the last line that brings both the reader and the speaker back to reality.
The speaker “cannot choose” but to say goodbye to these times mutely. He is not able to cry, wail, or weep for his loss.
And to the girl who was so much to me
(O lamentation of this wind that rolls!)
Sine I may not the life of her compel,
Out of the night, beside the sounding sea,
Full of the love that might have blent our souls,
A sad, a last, a long, supreme farewell.
This final stanza of ‘A Love by the Sea’ also begins with a dedication, this time the “girl” in the speaker’s life is directly mentioned. He toasts to “the girl who was so much to me.” He has moved on, in some respects past the emotion of the first stanza, and the relationship itself. He has somewhat accepted the fact that it is over but that does not keep him from speaking on it.
The second line of this stanza is once more in parentheses and it too fits with the emotions of the stanza as this time the wind is “lamenting” just as the speaker is. He is no longer trying to change anything.
The stanza continues to speak of the fact that he is unable to change the choices the “girl” makes. Her life is not his to “compel.” The next three lines of the poem are crafted into a farewell to this relationship that ended so intensely. The speaker has gone from speaking of the “sobbing” of souls, to remember the dreams that seemed to tell the future, to finally saying a farewell.
The fourth line of this stanza brings the reader back to the initial description of a dark sky, it is from this night, next to the “susurration” of the “sounding sea” that his farewell is coming. The farewell is “full of the love” that once might have “blent our soul,” or combined them into one, blended them. It is described in the last line of this piece as being the final sad, “supreme farewell.” It is with this conclusion that it becomes clear this poem itself acts as the farewell the speaker has been working towards. He has mourned, reminisced, accepted, and then finally said goodbye to a relationship that was soul-consuming.
About William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England in 1849. He first began to write poetry after having part of one of his legs amputated when he was only 12 years old. He was eventually educated at Crypt Grammar School and the University of St. Andrews. Throughout his life, Henley wrote numerous collections of poetry including, A Book of Verses and Hawthorn and Lavender. He also worked as an editor and critic. He died in 1903.