The author of “Sea Fever,” English writer John Masefield (1878–1967), was the United Kingdom’s poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967. This poem draws richly from his experience working at sea, which began at a very young age. Masefield was an orphan raised by an aunt. He was unhappy in school and left in 1891 to be trained as a merchant seaman soon afterward. Nowadays we can’t imagine a boy of thirteen or so going off alone to work on a ship, but this had been a long-standing coming-of-age tradition that continued well into Masefield’s time.
You can imagine that this adventure made a deep and lasting impression. It was at sea that Masefield found a new kind of home and became enchanted with storytelling, which sailors would do to pass the time when they were not working. This experience helped him decide that he wanted to become a writer.
In order to consider your first question (“In what ways is life at sea not very comfortable?”) let’s keep in mind that there are many experiences in life that can be challenging sometimes, but the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. What do you imagine may have been uncomfortable about life at sea? Think about the weather and how vulnerable a ship can be in the mighty ocean when a storm comes through. Additional dangers may include rocks and icebergs that can damage and sink a ship, as well pirates.
As far as daily discomforts, the weather can be rainy, damp, and cold for days at a time; food and water are limited and rationed and may not be fresh and tasty. Then there is sea sickness: the rocking motion of a boat or ship can upset the stomach and cause nausea and vomiting.
Yet each of the three stanzas in this short poem begins with the phrase, “I must go down to the seas again.” This repetition is a literary device that conveys the intensity of the sea’s allure (powerful pull or fascination) for the poet, in spite of the discomforts of life aboard a ship. Let’s have a look at each of the three stanzas to find answers to your second question (“Why do you think the speaker still longs for it”?).
We see in the first stanza the image of a magnificent “tall ship” (with high masts and sails) and a vast and awe-inspiring night sky (stars have long been a sailor’s map). Masefield uses imagery that appeals to all five senses. Reading the first stanza we can almost feel “the wheel’s kick” on our palms—the resistance and jerking movements caused by the power of the wind and waves. Our ears are filled with the “wind’s song” and “the white sail’s shaking.” Our eyes take in the grey color of the mist on “the sea’s face.” We sense an adventure that is like nothing else.
The second stanza builds up the intensity of the poet’s desire to return to the sea, using the metaphor of the “running tide” and its “call”—the rushing sound of water as it moves out from the coast during low tide and back in during high tide. The forces that control tides (the Earth’s rotation, the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon) have a primordial pull not only on the ocean, but also on the poet himself. It is a “wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied.” The call of the sea comes from deep in his soul.
The third (and last) stanza tells us that the poet feels a longing for the seafaring lifestyle itself and the people in it—“the vagrant gypsy life” in which one’s home also acts as one’s vehicle. Life on a ship is “the gull’s way and the whale’s way,” as both these creatures are also daily travelers intimately connected with water. In this stanza Masefield describes a discomfort. We come across the very vivid simile, “where the wind’s like a whetted knife.” Whetted is another word for “sharpened.” And once again we read the phrase “and all I ask,” which lets us know that there is recompense for the difficulties.
The poet asks for the simple rewards of a “merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover” (a yarn is a story and a rover is wanderer). He looks forward to the companionship of a jolly shipmate and his entertaining tales, and, at last, to the well-earned “quiet sleep and a sweet dream” when his turn keeping watch ("trick") is over.