On the Sea: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of On the Sea

The poem describes the power and mystery of the sea and reflects on its extreme changes of mood – from wild and violent to gentle. The speaker recommends the sea as a cure for those who are weary: the sight of the sea will revive their tired eyes. Similarly anyone whose ears have been bombarded by too much man-made noise will find relief in the magical sounds of waves playing in the mouth of an old sea-cave.

Commentary on On the Sea

The poem was written in April 1817 on the Isle of Wight. In the letter which Keats wrote to Reynolds, and in which he included a copy of the poem, Keats said that he had been ‘haunted’ by ‘the passage in Lear – “Do you not hear the sea?”’.  Keats was referring to King Lear Act 4 Scene 6.


Hecate: the goddess of the lower world, of witchcraft, ghosts and magic. However, she was the underworld aspect of Artemis (her name on earth) and Selene (her name as moon-goddess). Here Keats uses the name to mean the moon.
shadowy sound: Keats yokes together two of the five senses here (an example of synaesthesia). ‘Shadowy’ more normally appeals to sight. Used of the sound of waves, the phrase manages to convey the faint indistinctness of their sound as well as the darkness of the caves from which their sound emanates.
winds of heaven .. unbound: Aeolus, the god of the winds in Ancient Greek mythology, gave Ulysses all the winds tied up in a bag so that his ship would not be subject to their potential violence. Unluckily for Ulysses, his sailors released them.
Nymphs: minor deities associated with trees and water and represented as beautiful, eternally young maidens; generally they were attendants of the gods. It was the Oceanids that were associated with the sea.
quired: sang as a choir.

Investigating commentary on On the Sea

  • What part do you think mythological references (such as Hecate and Aeolus) might play in a poem about the sea?
  • Look at King Lear Act 4 Scene 6. What influence do you think this passage from Shakespeare had on Keats’ sonnet?
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