In the poem “Seascape In Memoriam”, M.A.S Stephen Spender uses a number of literary devices to convey the various characteristic aspects of the sea. The poet emphasises the power of the sea over humanity and the deceptive nature which it displays to humanity, hiding potential violence and brutality. The poem revolves around the notion of sound as a means of conveying the different faces of the sea. Tone is an important device that is used to mimic the motion of the waves. As a consequence of the sea’s rigorous activity those caught unawares often result in having their lives taken away, consequentially the theme of death is one that is highly prevalent, making the power of the sea yet more evident.
The theme of the power of the sea and its deceptive nature are repeatedly brought up throughout the poem. Spender describes the waters of the sea as being ‘mirrors flashing between fine-strung fires’. The metaphor of the sea being a mirror suggests its pretentiousness and the way in which it appears to be something it’s not, by seeming harmless. The fact that the poet refers to the sea as being an ‘unfingered harp’ is an indication of its potential for power that requires only a small amount of force to be applied to its waters with a change in weather. Spender describes the land as if a celebration was taking place, ‘the shore, heaped up with roses, horses, spires’. The poet uses listing of the horse an animal that had been trained by humans, roses that had been grown and cut by humans and spires which had been created by humans thus establishing the contrast between the self-willed waves of the sea and the tame earth.
The deception of the people in regards of the real danger associated with the sea is brought up in this poem prevalently. The poet states that the seas gentle behaviour in pleasant weather is merely superficiality, ‘a sigh like a woman’s’ proposes that like a woman who sighs in order to obtain something she desires through the means of obtaining sympathy. The sea does the same, deceiving humanity about its true might, hiding strength under its harmless sighs. The waters of the sea destroy anything that stands in their path, ‘hedged in shires, these deep as anchors, the hushing wave buries’, the fact that the wave is hushing, suggests that despite the silence, it is at the same time capable of swallowing up an entire district, furthermore supports the idea of the misleading properties of the sea.
The statement that ‘then from the shore two zig-zag butterflies…spiralling…until they fall into reflected skies’ the reference to “butterflies” is a metaphor for people and their insignificance in comparison to the enormous power of the waters, the action of spiralling suggests that due to curiosity people often fall in the trap of death as a consequence of their lack of awareness of the true danger. The mirror created on the surface of the water signifies the manner in which even though the sky is above it does not necessarily mean that it is superior to the deteriorating waves of the sea.
Throughout the poem, Spender imitates the rhythm of the waves meeting the shore line with the use of tone and word choices associated with patterns, suggesting the complexity of the sea, also the reference to music and sound made constantly throughout the poem furthermore emphasises this idea. Through the extended metaphor of the sea as a ‘harp’, the poet suggests the sea’s need for external application of force in order for any activity to take place. The contradicting remark about the ‘afternoon guilds’ as being ‘burning music for the eyes’ demonstrates a confusion of senses and hence implies the misleading behavioural patterns of the sea. The fact that the music is painful for the eyes is a suggestion of the violence that is associated with the activities of the sea and the losses that had been experienced, causing pain for the eyes.
The poet makes reference on several occasions to various patterns ‘zig-zag’, ‘spiralling’ and ‘gyres’ this is a suggestion of the complexity of the sea that like a pattern when studied closely could in fact be understood easily. A cyclic tendency can be observed in the tone used by Spender, ‘wanders on water, walking above ribbed sand’, the use of alliteration in the repetition of a soft consonant ‘w’ is representative of the slow movement of the sea, the sentences are soft-flowing containing almost no punctuation.
By the middle of the poem the tone then switches to one full of aggression and brutality, with the sentences becoming packed with different ideas being followed one directly by the other, ‘such wings sunk in ritual sacrifice’ the alliteration of a harsh and unpleasant sounding letter ‘s’ symbolises the development of brutality. Finally towards the conclusion of the poem the tone retreats back to its initial status of calm and peace. The cyclic manipulation of the tone is representative of the approach and withdrawal of the storm or a wave. The rhyming scheme that is used in this poem follows no logical path of development, suggesting the unpredictability of the sea’s activity.
Spender repeatedly refers to the destruction caused by the violent acts of the sea, using different literary terms to convey the enormous loss of life that results from human failure to recognise its true power. The poet describes the sea as being “below the land” which is a metaphor referring to a grave and the “ribbed sand” is suggestive of the human skeleton both of these quotations furthermore emphasise the theme of death in the poem. The author states the firm inevitability of the decease of those who come into contact with the sea, by saying “they die” in one compound phrase, accentuating the lack of other outcomes in a situation of a storm.
The destructive power of the sea is embodied in the constant reference to the objects that have been drawn underwater, “sunk in rital sacrifice” this quotation reveals brutality through the use of specific words like “sacrifice” in reference to death, making it seem like there was a deliberate motivation and reason for any deaths occurring at sea and that the choice of word “rital”, suggests that these deaths had deserved to take place. This is a symbolism that connects the power of the sea to the power of God, requiring humanity to make sacrifices for it, just like we do religiously.
The severe consequences of the sea are demonstrated by the lengthy enumeration of what could be found within the sea “oh what voyagers, oh what heroes, flamed like pyres….and them the sea engulfed”, the poet makes his audience recognise the bravery that is involved in facing the powerful waves through the indication of exclamation with the use of “oh”. The verb “engulfed” that the poet chooses to use suggests a certain ease with which the action was carried out, as though the sea had systematically swallowed everything, keeping it down on the seabed. Spender mentions “legends of undersea”, the fact that reference is made to legends is a suggestion of the substantial content of what the sea had taken from the world.
Stephen Spender, makes the power of the sea over people evident to the audience through the use of personification. The extended metaphor comparing the sea to a mirror is a suggestion of the way in which people have undermined the level of destruction that can be caused by the sea. The poet focuses on tone and description of patterns in order to characterise the various properties of the sea. The theme of death is brought up subtly throughout the entire poem, hinting to the audience the way it directly linked to sea activity. This poem can be interpreted as a warning for humans about the danger of the extraordinarily powerful waters.
Courtney from Study Moose
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