In John Masefield's "Sea Fever," where are the variations in meter?

Quick answer:

We notice two variations in the meter of this stanza: anapest substitutions for iambic feet and truncated iambs.

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Let's scan the first stanza together. I will mark stressed syllables in bold and use a "|" symbol to divide feet from one another.

I must | go down | to the seas | a gain | to the lone | ly sea | and the sky
And all | I ask | is a tall | ship and | a star | to steer | her by
And the wheel's | kick and | the wind's | song and | the white | sail's sha | king
And a grey | mist on | the sea's | face and | a grey | dawn brea | king

To scan a poem, it's often a good idea to start with polysyllabic words (words with more than one syllable), as we can easily mark the stresses in those. However, most of the words in this stanza are actually monosyllabic (having only one syllable)! In the first line, we can begin with the words again and lonely. We can also try reading the line by putting a stress on certain words to see how that feels: does it feel good and rhythmic or does it feel strange and contrived? I arrived at the stresses above using a combination of these strategies. The first two lines mostly adhere to an iambic heptameter (seven feet per line with the iamb as the prevailing foot—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). However, you see that the third, fifth, and seventh feet are all anapests, substitutions for iambs. Anapests have two short or unstressed syllables followed by one stressed. The second line has one such anapestic substitution. Lines three and four both begin with an anapest, followed by five iambs, and finish with a truncated iamb (where the final, stressed sound is missing). These substitutions and truncations are all metrical variations.

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Part of the success of this excellent poem is the way that the author uses meter to enact the sound and the rhythm and the feel of the waves as they lap against the boat of the speaker's imagination. Of course, the meter varies tremendously as you go through the poem, with the iambic pentameter at times changing to spondees that give these lines a definitely different feel. Consider the following example:

And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking...

The spondee of "wheel's kick" and "wind's song" and "white sail's" help to enact the sound of the waves of the sea hitting the side of the boat and the rhythm of the water. This is a technique that is used not just once in the poem, but in other lines. Now that I have identified this example try to scan lines 7 and 11 to analyse the use of spondees by the author. You might want to think about how dactyls are used as well. Good luck!

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In the poem "Sea Fever" by John Masefield, where does the meter reinforce the sense of the poem? 

The overall "sense" of the poem is that the speaker has a longing passion for the life of a sailor. He desires to be on a ship sailing the seas in order to experience the natural rhythms of the water.  

Meter is a stressed and unstressed syllable pattern in a verse or line of a poem. This poem's meter naturally reinforces the "feel" of the sea. The meter does this in two ways. First, the meter causes the poem itself to sound like a sea chantey. A sea chantey is a type of work song that was once sung to accompany labor onboard sailing vessels. The songs served a couple of purposes. They kept the minds of the sailors off of the difficult work and helped to unify their efforts. Instead of saying something like "1, 2, 3, HEAVE," the natural stressing of the song's syllables alerted sailors to the moments of effort and rest.

Secondly, because the poem has a fairly regular meter, it mimics the fairly regular ebb and flow of the ocean's tides and waves. The previous post did a great job of explaining how the poem is mostly written in iambic and anapestic feet. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The anapestic foot is unstressed, unstressed, stressed.  

Let's look at the first line of the poem because it is a good example of the mixing of iambic and anapestic feet. 

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

Using da and DUM for stressed and unstressed, here is how that line should read.  

(da DUM - da DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da da DUM)

The second line of the poem closely matches the previous rhythm; however, it attaches a spondaic foot at the end of an anapest.  

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

(da DUM - da DUM – da da DUM – DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da DUM)

Notice the two stressed syllables appearing right in a row. This doesn't mess up the rhythm of the poem in any large way, but it does force the reader to be "bounced" a bit off of the rhythm that was established in the previous line. That's exactly what it would be like on a ship. The water, most of the time, is going to be wonderfully rhythmic and repetitive, but there will be times when a wind, tide shift, or current causes the ship to move just a little bit differently. When sailors comment that they can feel the sea's moods through the ship, it's because they are attuned to those subtle changes.

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In the poem "Sea Fever" by John Masefield, where does the meter reinforce the sense of the poem? 

The meter is iambic and anapestic heptameter (seven feet and 14-21 syllables). It is mostly iambic which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (da DUM). But some anapestic feet are mixed in. An anapestic foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (da da DUM). There also a few feet made of just one stressed syllable. The iamb comes very natural to the English language. In this poem, it has a sing-song quality. This makes it sound natural and jaunty like a chantey, which is a song chanted by sailors as they work. The first two lines in heptameter, with iambs and anapests, would sound like this:

(da DUM - da DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da da DUM)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

(da DUM - da DUM – da da DUM – DUM – da da DUM – da DUM – da DUM)

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

Since it sounds like a chantey, a sea song, this reinforces the theme of the poem which is a fever for the sea. The cadence also swings back and forth. This symbolizes the ebb and flow of the tide and the rocking of the boat: the “wheel’s kick and the wind’s song.”

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