A Sea-Side Meditation

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1. A Sea-Side Meditation

“Ut per aquas quæ nunc rerum simulacra videmus.” --Lucretius, lib. i.a
Go, travel ’mid the hills! The summer’s hand
Hath shaken pleasant freshness o’er them all.
Go, travel ’mid the hills! There, tuneful streams
Are touching myriad stops, invisible;
And winds, and leaves, and birds, and your own thoughts,
(Not the least glad) in wordless chorus, crowd
Around the thymele7 of Nature.
And travel onward. Soon shall leaf and bird,
Wind, stream, no longer sound. Thou shalt behold
Only the pathless sky, and houseless sward;10
O’er which anon11.1 are spied innumerous11.2 sails
Of fisher vessels like the wings o’ the hill,
And white as gulls above them, and as fast,—
But sink they—sink they out of sight. And now
The wind is springing upward in your face;
And, with its fresh-toned gushings, you may hear
Continuous sound which is not of the wind,
Nor of the thunder, nor o’ the cataract’s
Deep passion, nor o’ the earthquake’s wilder pulse;
But which rolls on in stern tranquility,
As memories of evil o’er the soul;—
Boweth the bare broad Heav’n.—What view you? sea—and sea!
The sea—the glorious sea! from side to side,
Swinging the grandeur of his foamy strength,
And undersweeping the horizon,—on—
On—with his life and voice inscrutable.
Pause: sit you down in silence! I have read
Of that Athenian, who, when ocean raged,
Unchain’d the prison’d music of his lips,
By shouting to the billows, sound for sound.30
I marvel how his mind would let his tongue
Affront thereby the ocean’s solemnness.
Are we not mute, or speak restrainedly,
When overhead the trampling tempests go,
Dashing their lightning from their hoofs?35 and when
We stand beside the bier? and when we see
The strong bow down to weep—and stray among
Places which dust or mind hath sanctified?
Yea! for such sights and acts do tear apart
The close and subtle clasping of a chain,
Form’d not of gold, but of corroded brass,
Whose links are furnish’d from the common mine
Of every day’s event, and want, and wish;
From work-times, diet-times,44 and sleeping-times
And thence constructed, mean and heavy links
Within the pandemonic46 walls of sense,
Enchain our deathless part, constrain our strength,
And waste the goodly stature of our soul.
Howbeit,49 we love this bondage; we do cleave
Unto the sordid and unholy thing,
Fearing the sudden wrench required to break
Those clasped links. Behold! all sights and sounds
In air, and sea, and earth, and under earth,
All flesh, all life, all ends, are mysteries;
And all that is mysterious dreadful seems,
And all we cannot understand we fear.
Ourselves do scare ourselves: we hide our sight
In artificial nature from the true,
And throw sensation’s veil associative59
On God’s creation, man’s intelligence;
Bowing our high imaginings to eat
Dust, like the serpent,62 once erect as they;
Binding conspicuous on our reason's brow
Phylacteries64 of shame; learning to feel
By rote, and act by rule, (man's rule, not God's!)
Until our words grow echoes, and our thoughts
A mechanism of spirit.
Can this last?
No! not for aye.68 We cannot subject aye
The heav'n-born spirit to the earth-born flesh.
Tame lions will scent blood, and appetite
Carnivorous glare from out their restless eyes.
Passions, emotions, sudden changes, throw
Our nature back upon us, till we burn.
What warm’d Cyrene’s fount?74 As poets sing,
The change from light to dark, from dark to light.
All that doth force this nature back on us,
All that doth force the mind to view the mind,
Engend’reth what is named by men, sublime.78
Thus when, our wonted 79 valley left, we gain
The mountain’s horrent80 brow, and mark from thence
The sweep of lands extending with the sky;
Or view the spanless plain; or turn our sight
Upon yon deep’s immensity;—we breathe
As if our breath were marble: to and fro
Do reel our pulses, and our words are mute.
We cannot mete86 by parts, but grapple all:
We cannot measure with our eye, but soul;
And fear is on us. The extent unused,
Our spirit, sends, to spirit's element,
To seize upon abstractions: first on space,
The which eternity in place I deem;91
And then upon eternity; till thought
Hath form’d a mirror from their secret sense,
Wherein we view ourselves, and back recoil
At our own awful95 likeness; ne’ertheless,
Cling to that likeness with a wonder wild,
And while we tremble, glory—proud in fear.
So ends the prose of life: and so shall be
Unlock’d her poetry’s magnific99 store.
And so, thou pathless and perpetual sea,
So, o’er thy deeps, I brooded and must brood,
Whether I view thee in thy dreadful peace,
Like a spent103 warrior hanging in the sun
His glittering arms,104 and meditating death;
Or whether thy wild visage105.1 gath’reth shades,105.2
What time thou marshall’st forth thy waves who hold
A covenant of storms, then roar and wind
Under the racking108 rocks; as martyrs lie
Wheel-bound; and, dying, utter lofty words!
Whether the strength of day is young and high,
Or whether, weary of the watch, he sits
Pale on thy wave, and weeps himself to death;—
In storm and calm, at morn and eventide,
Still have I stood beside thee, and out-thrown
My spirit onward on thine element,115
Beyond thine element,—to tremble low
Before those feet which trod thee117 as they trod
Earth,—to the holy, happy, peopled place,
Where there is no more sea.119 Yea, and my soul,
Having put on thy vast similitude,
Hath wildly moanëd at her proper121 depth,
Echoed her proper musings, veil’d in shade
Her secrets of decay, and exercised
An elemental strength, in casting up
Rare gems and things of death on fancy's shore,
Till Nature said, “Enough.”
Who longest dreams,
Dreams not for ever; seeing day and night
And corporal feebleness divide his dreams,
And on his elevate creations weigh
With hunger, cold, heat, darkness, weariness:
Else should we be like gods;131 else would the course
Of thought's free wheels, increased in speed and might
By an eterne volution,133 oversweep
The heights of wisdom, and invade her depths:
So, knowing all things, should we have all power;
For is not knowledge power? But mighty spells
Our operation sear;137.1 the Babel137.2 must,
Or ere it touch the sky, fall down to earth
The web, half form’d, must tumble from our hands,
And, ere they can resume it, lie decay’d.
Mind struggles vainly from the flesh. E’en141 so,
Hell’s angel (saith a scroll apocryphal)142
Shall, when the latter days of earth have shrunk
Before the blast of God, affect his heav’n;
Lift his scarr’d brow, confirm his rebel heart,
Shoot his strong wings, and darken pole and pole,—
Till day be blotted into night; and shake
The fever’d clouds, as if a thousand storms
Throbb’d into life! Vain hope—vain strength—vain flight!
God’s arm shall meet God’s foe, and hurl him back!

2. Note on the text

This poem exemplifies the aesthetic of the sublime and the fascination with both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan that EBB absorbed from her readings of Romantic poets, Byron in particular (see the Introduction, p. **). Here she explicitly represents the "sublime" (l. 78) in terms drawn from Edmund Burke’s a1 influential A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756) as the spontaneous response to the vast, obscure, and terrible in Nature and within the human mind. Treating the ocean as a symbol of the sublime, as Burke does and as Byron does in the conclusion to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 4 (1818; st. 179-84), she finds it a “vast similitude” (l. 120) for the hidden depths of her own mind or soul. a2 The poem follows the conventions of the descriptive-meditative lyric, as “A Sea-Side Walk” (1838) would later do. Whereas the later poem is Wordsworthian in its quiet evocation of the fusion of mind and nature, however, “A Sea-Side Meditation” is Byronic in its emphasis on the powers of mind, and in its concluding invocation of Satan’s “rebel heart” (l. 145) and Promethean over-reaching. Mermin explores the conflict between aspiration and submission dramatically embodied in this poem ([1989], pp. 52-54); Stone ([1995], pp. 66-69) emphasizes the aspiration and spirit of Romantic revisionism.

3. Explanatory Notes

“Like the images which we now see reflected by water”; passage from the scientific-philosophical treatise De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe, 1.1060) by Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-55 B.C.).

thymele “The central point of the choral movement in the Greek theatre.” [EBB’s note, 1833]; i.e., the altar in the center of the orchestra in the ancient Greek theater.

sward expanse of grass

anon soon

innumerous innumerable

that Athenian...sound Demosthenes (384?-322 B.C.), considered one of the greatest of Greek orators; through such means he cured himself of a youthful speech impediment.

hoofs the hoofs of the horses on the chariot of Jupiter or Zeus, king of the gods in classical mythology.

diet-times meal-times.

pandemonic pertaining to Pandemonium, capital of Hell in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

Howbeit be that as it may, nevertheless.

sensation's veil associative the veil woven from our sensations in linked chains of association. See An Essay on Mind, ll. 739-64, for EBB’s contrast between sensation and reflection.

Dust, like the serpent To punish the serpent for his role in Adam and Eve’s loss of Eden, God sentenced him to crawl on his belly and eat dust (Genesis 3.14).

Phylacteries amulets containing parchments inscribed with Scriptural texts worn on the forehead and arm by Jews during morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law; here used ironically.

aye ever, always

Cyrene's fount water source or fountain associated in classical myth with the water nymph from Thessaly who was borne away by Apollo, the god of poetry.

sublime see headnote.

wonted usual, customary.

horrent poetical term for "bristling."

mete measure or deal out.

deem judge or conclude.

awful inspiring awe to contemplate.

magnific magnificent.

spent exhausted.

arms weapons, armor.

visage face as expressive of feelings or temperament.

shades darkness, as in "shades of night"; possibly also disembodied spirits or ghosts.

racking an image of the rack, like the wheel in the next line, an instrument of torture.

element water, one of the four elements (fire, earth, air, and water).

feet which trod thee Christ’s feet, walking on water in Matthew 14.25; Mark 6.48; John 6.19.

no more sea alludes to the vision of a new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21.1.

proper intrinsic, inherent, own.

like gods echoing Satan or the serpent’s words to Eve, Genesis 3.5: "ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."

eterne volution eternal rolling or revolving movement.

Our operation sear blight or brand our action.

Babel the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11.1-9.

E'en even.

Hell’s angel (saith a scroll apocryphal) ll. 141-50 allude to Revelation 20.7-10, where it is prophesied that Satan will be "loosed from his prison" for a time, only to be finally defeated by God. Since "apocryphal" refers to Scriptural books not accepted as canonical or part of the revealed truth, the term here seems to be ironic.

Edmund Burke (1729-97), Irish philosopher, politician and orator, and author of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), among many other works.

The poem’s conclusion anticipates the 1844 sonnet “The Soul’s Expression” (see below), in which the rhetoric of the sublime similarly represents the “dread apocalypse of soul” (l. 14).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-01-20
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