The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

“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.

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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 speaker cannot blame the sea for this painful state of affairs, but he does contend with the sea almost as if she is a woman who is alienating his lover’s affections. He reminds his lover of time’s passage, which the sea, with her tides, herself measures, and urges a speedy return because “sleep, death, desire” are all one in his absence. Thus there can be no resolution to this deeper, emotional “voyage”—“bequeath us to no earthly shore”—until the lovers are reunited.

In part 3, the speaker imagines another possibility to sustain him through the pain of their separation. Because all earthly seas are one and the night sky is a common, starry sight, the act of gazing upon the sea at night, its blend of light and darkness hardly separable from the sky’s in their “infinite consanguinity,” unites him with his lover; only at dawn, when the demarcation of sea and sky is clarified, can the illusion of union be broken.

In part 4, the speaker continues the idea that he can imaginatively share his lover’s presence by contemplating the marriage of sea and sky, which the lover must also have in view, albeit in other climes—“Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes.” So too, a faith in the power and truth of love sustains him now, for he can—must—imagine that his lover is feeling and doing likewise.

Part 5 continues in the same vein as the speaker contemplates the bay into which his lover’s ship will eventually sail on its return. It is night once more, and the sea is moonlit. It is as if the speaker can see his lover, “too tall here,” both in the sky and in the moon’s reflection in the bay waters, for the moon, as it blends both a promising light and an emptying void into itself, reminds him of his lover’s blond hair and then of his lover’s absence.

In part 6, the speaker can no longer bear imaginatively projecting himself into his...

(The entire section contains 1158 words.)

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