I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .
John Masefield, Sea Fever
In fourth grade, Mrs. Honsinger gave us an assignment: Find a poem that you love, any poem, and read it in front of the class. I loved my nursery rhymes and the poetry of A.A. Milne in Now We Are Six, but I was no longer six and I wanted a grown-up poem so I approached my mother. “Which poem should I choose?” I asked. And she thought a moment, then guided me up the attic stairs, to the third story of our rambling sea captain’s home, to the marvelous playground of old clothes and quirky couches and piles of musty books. And she pulled from these piles a blue-bound book of best-loved poems and she thumbed through the pages until she found what she was looking for – and she read it to me and I closed my eyes, and even though I was twelve miles inland from our cottage in the cove, I could smell the sea and I could feel something big inside of me, something wild and unnamable. And then I read it out loud, in front of my mother. Over and over, I practiced the lines, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .” until my mother’s favorite poem, Sea Fever by John Masefield, became my favorite poem, and my sea fever was as genuine as hers.
And we’ve shared this love for the sea, my mother and I, for “the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying,” over all these years with our sea-faring New England family; through boatrides and picnics and swims in the cove, through hurricanes and calm cool evenings, it has called to us, “a clear call that may not be denied”. And two weeks ago, while eating lunch at Dionne Commons, my ninety-three year old mother closed her eyes as she chewed on a bite of her sandwich. “It tastes like the sea,” she said. I closed my eyes, and I tasted it too. I had bought the crabmeat earlier in the morning from Kevin at Gilmore’s Fish Market, had mixed it with mayonnaise in my motel room at the Hampton, and, here we were now in Mom’s new home, tasting the waves and the gulls’ cry and the sparkle on the September sea. It was intoxicating.
And while my mother napped, content, I think, with the taste on her tongue, I found myself hungering for more. And the words came back to me, over all these years, the words I had first heard in the attic of our home, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .” And I found myself saying them, out loud in the car, as I followed the banks of the Kennebec down to its mouth and the wide expanse of state park beach. And in the late afternoon and early evening of a full moon low tide, I walked this expanse of sand, splashed in the waves, licked the salt off my skin. I collected sand dollars and angel wings, smiled at people and sandpiper birds, and I looked out, again and again, at that sparkly September sea. I was filled inside with the words of my poem and something big and happy, a splashing ocean of joy.
As I drove back up that road to Bath and the Hampton Inn, the full moon rose over the Kennebec. And it was then, in that happy filled-up full moon place, that I remembered the flyer I had seen the day before stuck to the window of a local shop, “Songs of Ships and the Sea,” with Debra Cowan and John Roberts, at the Congregational Meeting Room at the Wintergreen Church. And I felt the call again, after a day of crabmeat sandwiches and sparkling beach-combing, from inside me, the call to the sea and the music born of my seafaring ancestors. So with sand still clinging to my feet and a sunburned nose, I walked that block by moonlight to the Wintergreen Church and I sat there with twelve others, intoxicated by the songs of the sea. I loved the ballads, haunting and delicious and happy somehow in their sad sad stories. I loved the shanties, those work songs of the sailing age that I first had heard as a school girl in this very same town. I loved the stories that wrapped around all of these songs. And, when the second half of the performance began, it had already been enough, more than enough, a perfect dollop of whip cream after a perfect day.
But there was more. The performers sat down again in front of their appreciative audience and said they were going to sing a favorite. And while John played his concertina, they both started to sing, slow and deep the words came out. And it took me a moment to let it sink in, a moment for it to register. But it did sink in. “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . . And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . .” I heard the words and there I was, present in my middle-aged body on a September full moon night and nine years old again and as ancient as the sea. And there they were, all those sea-faring ancestors, sitting right along with me, and my mother, too, with her blue-bound book. And I was happy beyond measure.
And I brought my happiness to my mother the next day – it was my gift to her – and I borrowed the CD player from the Dionne’s dining room and I closed my mother’s door, and I played it, John Robert’s version of John Masefield’s, Sea Fever; three times I played it for her, and we both mouthed the words that we could remember. And I’m not sure what this all meant to my mother, but for me something good had happened, something bigger than the words, something as big as the sea.
Sea Fever by John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
to the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.