In the poem "Sea Fever," why does the poet John Masefield ask for a tall ship and a star to steer the way?

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The longing for the freedom of life on the sea is a theme that has resonated since Homer (and likely before, told only in oral sagas). In the case of Masefield's famous poem, the lure of sailing over the waves, especially at night, under clear skies filled with stars, is perfectly captured.

The romantic tall ships, with their billowing sails and feeling of flight over the water, are a completely different experience than ploughing through the waves on a steamer or hacking through them on a tanker. But mariners of this era did not have the technology available to sailors today, and relied on the stars to chart their night courses.

This connection with nature is prized by Masefield and celebrated in his poem. Interestingly, naval forces in several places in the world are now reviving the arts of steering by the stars and a sextant, aware that hacking of their navigation systems could leave them blind.

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John Mansfield’s poem “Sea Fever” describes the feeling a mariner gets when the seafaring way of life calls to him. The seafarer in the poem says, “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

Tall ships were, and are, known for their sea worthiness. Their sturdy build, with oaken masts, and a variety of sails made to catch the wind, is meant for enduring long voyages in rough seas. In John Mansfield’s seafaring days, tall ships facilitated trade across the Atlantic Ocean.  

Before the use of sonar and radar to chart the course of a ship, mariners used celestial or astronavigation to find their way.  Using the location of the sun, the moon and stars in relation to the horizon, mariners were able to calculate and chart their travels. Therefore, the narrator in Mansfield’s poem is asking for clear evening skies so that he see a star to chart his course. The ship and the star are all he needs.

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