"Look, Stranger, at this Island Now" by W.H. Auden

Categories: Poetry

This poem us a “musical” exercise in which the poet reveals his technical skill by using sound techniques and figurative language to reinforce his description of a scene. It is one of Auden’s few poems of natural description, perhaps of the coast in the West Country of England.

The first stanza requires the stranger – someone unfamiliar with the island of kingdom of Britain but perhaps acquainted with the stereotype of it as a dull and gloomy place – to look at, and re-examine his prejudice about, Britain, as it is revealed (“discovered”) for his enjoyment by the sunlight dancing and flickering on the waves of the sea.

The alliteration and consonance of -l- sounds (leaping, light, delight) and of the dental -t- and -d- sounds (light, delight, discovers) in the second line, and the variation of long vowel sounds in “leaping” and “light”, together with the repetition of “light”, creates a quick dancing effect which mimics the reflection of sunlight off waves.

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In two more commands the narrator requires the stranger to stand and remain quiet so that he can hear the sound of the sea, varying in volume, perhaps according to the fixity required, while the pattern of stresses on “wander” and “river”, in the penultimate line, and on “swaying sound of the sea”, in the last line, combined with the sibilance, conveys an idea of the changing volume of sound coming from the sea, and the continued whispering sound that it makes.

The second stanza invites the stranger to wait at the point where a small field ends in a chalk cliff, which drops to a shingle beach below.

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The waves surge up the beach until they are halted by the cliff. The assonance of the long -au- vowel sound in “small” and “pause” in the first line, which concludes with the command to pause, gives the impression of something long ending suddenly, which creates a feeling of suspense and uncertainty as to what comes next and suggests the ending of the land and the beginning of the air. The same assonance in “chalk”, “walls”, “falls” and “tall” creates the same sense of extension but its quick repetition in “chalk wall falls” conveys the notion of a rapid or sheer drop, the alliteration of -f- conveying the notion of air bubbling up in foam.

The onomatopoeic “pluck” and “knock” vividly conveys the dragging and pounding effect of the waves on the shingle and the cliff, the sturdy defiance of the last-named being suggested in the metaphor “oppose”. The metaphor and onomatopoeia in “scrambles”, with its clutter of consonants, again vividly conveys the quick sliding descent of the shingle down the beach, the sibilance re-creating the sound it makes, while the metaphor in “sucking”, together with the break in the word, gives some idea of the powerful pulling action of the ebbing waves. Again, the description of the gull and the placing of “lodges” at the end of the line creates a sense of suspension which emphasizes the difficulty of maintaining a perch on the wave and hints at the brevity of the stay.

The third stanza takes us further out to sea and describes the ships which leave the port (“diverge”), and which seem, because of their diminutive size, as small as seeds. The simile “like floating seeds” suggests they are bearing new life. They are so far away that they do not seem to be controlled by men (“voluntary”) though they are on “errands” (which diminishes the importance of their journeys) which are “urgent” (these words imply that those who direct these vessels have an exaggerated idea of the importance or value of these journeys). The rhyming of “diverge” and “urgent” creates a sense of the ploughing movement of the ship as it passes through the water.

The last four lines of this stanza return to the start of the poem and suggest that the whole scene may continue to live in the memory of the observer, passing as silently and casually and beautifully as the clouds reflected in the water of the harbour pass, like people strolling at leisure. Here, the alliteration and consonance of the soft -m- sounds in “memory”, “mirror” and “summer”, and the half-rhymes of “mirror” “summer” and “saunter” all convey a sense of gentle and relaxed ease, appropriate for scenes which are recalled in moments of leisure.

The poem, then, invites the stranger to see for himself the beauty of this island at this special moment in time. Although it suggests a need to re-examine old prejudices about the island kingdom, it also functions as a celebration of the senses of sight and hearing which are used in observing the scene and in re-living the experience.

It is written in three stanzas of seven lines. The rhyme scheme of the first stanza is abcdcbd. The line lengths are varied effectively, to suggest changes in the movement of waves or in the duration of a sound or a feeling. Run-on or end-stopped likes are used effectively to convey similar ideas or impressions.

“Seascape In Memoriam” by M.A.S Stephen Spender

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.

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"Look, Stranger, at this Island Now" by W.H. Auden. (2016, Jul 22). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/look-stranger-at-this-island-now-by-w-h-auden-essay

"Look, Stranger, at this Island Now" by W.H. Auden

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