On the Sea: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of On the Sea

The first part of the sonnet (the octet) is richly onomatopoeic, the gentle mood of the sea being conveyed through soft sibilants (twelve ‘s’ sounds in the first three lines) and liquid vowel sounds – in phrases such as ‘eternal whisperings’, ‘shadowy sound’ and ‘gentle temper’. Another notable sea-sound is conveyed by ‘Gluts’ in line 3, the word enacting the sound of water not only filling the caverns but suggesting the noise as it does so.
The sounds of the sea have been recurring seemingly forever and will continue to do so, linking it in Keats’ mind with ancient mysteries. He attributes the changing tides to the Greek moon-goddess Hecate in l.4, whilst the sea’s ‘music’ is attributed to the singing of sea-nymphs. 
Keats sees both the eternal dynamism of the sea and its link back to a Hellenistic past as an antidote to the stresses of modern living, which he captures with the onomatopoeia of ‘dinned with uproar rude’, its repeated ‘d’ and ‘r’ sounds capturing the cacophony that bombards human ears. 
The poem’s speaker believes that that those who need their hearing refreshed will be surprised by the healing effect of hearing waves pouring into a cavern’s mouth. Notice how this surprise is conveyed by the movement of the verse, the words ‘Until ye start’ appearing as a sudden and abrupt phrase at the beginning of the final line.
The word ‘I’ does not appear in the poem, thus making it less personal in tone than many of Keats’ sonnets. In this way Keats does not allow his own feelings to come between the reader and the sea he describes.

Investigating language and tone in On the Sea

  • How does Keats’ language convey the sounds of the sea?
  • How does it convey its power and sense of mystery?
  • Why is the tone relatively impersonal? 
    • Why does Keats not allow his own feelings to come between the sea and his readers?
  • Choose some examples of onomatopoeia and analyse their contribution to the sonnet.

Structure and versification of On the Sea

Keats uses the Petrarchan sonnet form, with two abba quatrains, followed by a cde dec sestet. The repeated rhyme-scheme of the octet helps it capture the power, sounds and moods of the sea. The octet consists of just two long sentences. Their length and rhythm has a wave-like effect, further enhanced by the extensive use of enjambement. The first four lines run on without any punctuation marks to break up the flow.
The sestet continues by focusing on human beings and the relief they can obtain by allowing their tired eyes to ‘feast’ on the sea’s vastness, as if it can assuage their need for the sights (and sounds) of hectic, everyday life and allow them to find more meaningful experience in contemplating it.

Investigating structure and versification in On the Sea

  • How does the flow of the verse suggest the movement of the sea?
    • What is the effect of the enjambement which allows the sense to flow between lines 1 and 4?
  • Explain how the final two lines convey an element of surprise.
  • What is the relationship between the poem’s octave and its sestet?
    • What are the connotations of the words used in the sestet to describe contemporary life?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.