Sea Lullaby

grey wavesMy last post (August 8, 2016) mentioned Shusaku Endo’s description of the sea, and today we turn to another. How does the sea appear to us? Is it a body of water of certain salinity, certain size, certain depth, containing certain creatures? Of course the sea can be described in terms of science—and that is a great thing, by the way. That sort of description is just incomplete: for our relationship to the sea has been complex over the centuries. It may be beautiful; it may be terrifying. It may be peaceful; it may be violent. It may remind us of quiet days at the beach, or it may destroy all we know. It is this emotional and spiritual impact of the sea which must also be included in our understanding. How best to do that? With a set of facts?

My own thinking on the sea is inescapably tied to my 15-year-old neighbor Stephen who drowned in Galveston Bay when I was a boy. His death destroyed his family.

A few years later, my 11th grade high school English teacher etched one poetic image of the sea that reinforced the tragedy of Stephen’s death and has remained vivid for over 40 years. Mrs. Cora Decker was an extraordinary woman with very high expectations of her students. Because we both loved and feared her (actually, we feared disappointing her because we loved her), we rarely failed in our memorization of American poetry.

One of the poems we learned was written by Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), a beautiful woman of many scandals. Her poem “Sea Lullaby” personifies the sea, and, like Endo, she can focus our senses in an intense and dramatic way. There is a similarity with Endo’s sea which ignores our human cries, but her title suggests the sea might be a comfort to a young child, perhaps sung at night to lull him to sleep. But there is no comfort here.

Sea Lullaby

The old moon is tarnished
With smoke of the flood,
The dead leaves are varnished
With colour like blood,

A treacherous smiler
With teeth white as milk,
A savage beguiler
In sheathings of silk,

The sea creeps to pillage,
She leaps on her prey;
A child of the village
Was murdered today.

She came up to meet him
In a smooth golden cloak,
She choked him and beat him
To death, for a joke.

Her bright locks were tangled,
She shouted for joy,
With one hand she strangled
A strong little boy.

Now in silence she lingers
Beside him all night
To wash her long fingers
In silvery light.