The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Voyages” is a lyric sequence composed of six love poems that the poet wrote to his absent lover, a merchant seaman named Emil Opffer. The shortest of the lyrics, part 1, runs a mere sixteen lines; the longest, part 4, thirty-two lines. The majority of the 146 lines that constitute the entire sequence are in blank verse, but there seems to be no sustained effort at any measure of formal consistency. For example, lines yield to free-verse rhythms, and the five five-line stanzas of part 2 employ occasional rhymes. The eight four-line stanzas of part 6, meanwhile, follow an irregular rhyme scheme.

Part 1 describes children playing at the seashore, “[g]aily digging and scattering” while “[t]he sun beats lightning on the waves.” For all the elevated use of language—“contrived a conquest,” “treble interjections”—there is nothing unusual going on here. It is a typical, childhood day at the beach, but the speaker says that if the children could hear him over the sound of the “waves [that] fold thunder on the sand,” he would impart a dire warning to them: Play as you might on the safety of the shore, “there is a line/ You must not cross,” for “The bottom of the sea is cruel.”

Part 2 continues in the spirit of the observation with which part 1 ended, but now the sea is like a woman whose “undinal vast belly moonward bends,/ Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love.” If she is a jolly and motherly figure in the first stanza, in the second she appears more like a tauntingly pitiless queen or judge—“scrolls of silver snowy sentences,/ The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends”—whose cold vastnesses sunder all things except the “pieties of lovers’ hands.”

Now the scene changes to the Caribbean, to images of tropical flowers and wandering seafarers—“O my Prodigal”—and the reader learns why the speaker sees the sea as cruel—his lover is the voyager who is away at sea....

(The entire section is 799 words.)