Hemans - Explication of Poem
The narrator in the poem “The Rock Beside the Sea” is metaphorically represented by a rock that anxiously waits in hope for the arrival of her ocean rover who is lost at sea. The mood of the narrator shifts from remembrance in the first stanza, to despondency and then hope in the second stanza. When spoken aloud, the rhythm of the first stanza sounds similar to the noise a horse makes when trotting: clip clop. The fluid rhythm is juxtaposed by imagery that has little to no fluidity: woods, leaves, violet. The second stanza begins with alliteration that forces the reader to slow down and the caesura in line thirteen stops the poem. The disruption in the second stanza is juxtaposed with the fluidity of things that are usually associated with rhythmic movement: melodies, ocean, watching. The purpose of this juxtaposition might be to emphasize the contrast in the last line of each stanza, which is, “my lone rock by the sea” (8, 16). A rock is heavy and, depending on the size, sometimes immovable, whereas the sea is ever flowing and changing. By juxtaposing the two stanzas, the narrator is able to reinforce the contrast between the rock and the sea throughout the poem as well as depict the geographical and possibly (if the ocean rover is dead) spiritual separation between the narrator and the ocean rover.
The rover has ties to the Earth, not the sea, which indicates stability since Earth is considered stable and firm. In the first line, the narrator reference woods which, in the context of the poem, can metaphorically represent not only men but very sturdy and reliable men who find their home roots in the Earth. Whether speaking to herself or to friends that are trying to convince her to find a new boyfriend or husband, in line three, the narrator mentions that she doesn’t need to look for a suitor, she already knew a man who exhibited these great sturdy qualities of the woods. If the narrator remembers her ocean rover as rooted to his home, and if his home is the narrator in the form of marriage, then the narrator has reason to suspect that her husband will return home to her. Her memory is the rock that tethers her to the ocean rover.
The opening word of the poem is the short and concise word, “Oh!” (1). The exclamation point creates a caesura and the word forces the speaker to not only exhale, but to consequently inhale before beginning the next word. By performing this breathing exercise, the reader is forced to take a moment and recognize that the narrator is frustrated and wants those reading and hearing the poem to listen to the following words, which are, “Tell me not the woods are fair/ Now spring is on her way” (1-2). The woods are a metaphor for men, and spring is a reference to the season when animals are mating. At least one person, and possibly more than one person, is telling the narrator that she should find another suitable mate. If the narrator had left out the opening “Oh!” the reader wouldn’t understand the extent to which the narrator is frustrated with people telling her what to do, romantically. We can infer that this is not the narrator’s first encounter with being told how she should live her love-life. This indicates that much time has passed sense her lover left.
We get a further indication that the narrator has had a suitor, the ocean rover, in the past by the narrator’s reflections in lines three through six. The narrator states, “well, well I know how brightly there/ in joy the young leaves play” (3-4). Line four can be seen as a metaphor for the budding of romantic love. The leaves are not old, nor are they middle-aged or dried up. The leaves are young. Not only are the leaves young, but they are personified so as to have the emotion of joy. The leaves are the narrator’s memory of a time in her past when she was young and experiencing the joys and thrills of young love. The reader can infer that the leaves are a metaphorical representation of the narrator’s past by looking at line three. The narrator expresses that she doesn’t simply know the joy of young leaves playing, but she really, really knows these joys, which suggests that she not only loved her ocean rover, but may have married him. If the narrator married her ocean rover, this would explain how she fully, and really, came to know the extent of young love.
Evidence of a possible marriage between the narrator and the ocean rover is further indicated by the similar ending words in lines five, six, seven, and eight: eve, be, leave, sea. In the first four lines of the first stanza, the ending words in lines one and three sound distinctly different from the ending words in lines two and four. Not only are the sounds different, but they physically make the speaker’s mouth do two different things. The words “fair” and “there” cause the speaker to keep his or her mouth pulled in while simultaneously dropping the jaw and opening the mouth so as to produce the needed sound. The words “way” and “play,” on the other hand, force the speaker to pucker out his or her mouth while keeping his or her lips close, similar to what someone does prior to a kiss; after the kissing motion, the speaker must draw his or her lips backwards while separating the lips slightly to produce the needed sound. The difference in mouth movement and sound in lines one through four can represent two separate people before marriage. The ending words in lines five through eight have a similar sound which makes the speaker perform the same movement with his or her mouth for each word. The speaker brings both ends of his mouth backward, similar to a grimace, and opens his or her lips to form the word. Since lines five through eight have similar sound and mouth movement, this could represent a union that is missing in lines one through four.
The “violet’s breath” mentioned in line six could be an indicator of the intimacy between the narrator and ocean rover (6). Violets are sweet smelling flowers whose colors are delightful to the eye but can also be used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for medicinal purposes (violet, n.1.). While the violet’s breath is probably a reference to the intimacy between the ocean rover and the narrator, the reference could further indicate how the ocean rover’s love for the narrator was therapeutic and restorative to the emotional health of the narrator. If the love between narrator and ocean rover was restorative, his absence would definitely produce the opposite result, as seen in stanza two.
The first five lines of the second stanza reflect the despondency within the narrator. As the narrator’s mind shifts from fond memories to anxiety, the poem shifts from fluidity to roughness. In situations of anxiety, the body tenses and the mind shifts from one worry to the next. Line one of the second stanza represents the mental shift in the form of a metaphor: “The wild wave’s thunder on the shore” (9). Not only are the waves crashing onto the shore, but they are crashing with the sound of thunder. The thunder is a representation of an intruding thought that has penetrated the narrator’s memory. As the narrator thinks about the love she had in her youth with the man who is now lost at sea, she can’t help but move away from the memory and be forced to face the situation in front of her.
Line thirteen indicates the height of the narrator’s internal storm. The speaker shouts, “Come back my ocean rover!” (13). The narrator is screaming out to the ocean. The rest of line thirteen reads, “come.” (13). The exclamation point after the word “rover” creates a caesura. Just as there is a peak to any storm, so must there be a peak to the narrator’s internal woes. The yelling seems to knock the narrator out of her despondent mindset. It’s as if the shock of hearing her own voice forces her to calm down. The period after the word “come” in line thirteen is the narrator speaking softly to herself, and is a representation of the internal storm dissipating.
In line ten, the transcriptionist inserted a new word that is not consistent with the original poem. The original poem uses the word “curlew” whereas the individual transcribing the poem inserted the word “sea bird” (10). The modification from curlew to sea bird is simply a change from the specific to the general; there is no change to the content of the poem. I propose a theory that the transcriptionist’s modification serves as a means to emphasize the narrator’s and ocean rover’s bond changing from marriage to separation. If the ocean rover and the narrator were married, the narrator may have felt as though she was specifically identified as the ocean rover’s wife which gives her a title. Now that the ocean rover has left her, the narrator might feel like everyone else who isn’t married and thus, just another face in the crowd; similarly, the transcriptionist takes the specific face of a curlew and gives it the general name of “sea-birds,” making the curlew just another face amongst birds. Even though the narrator waits for the ocean rover to return to her, in his prolonged absence she might no longer be seen as Misses Ocean Rover, but simply as another person with no title.
In line eleven, the transcriptionist changed the word “watching” to “heating,” which slightly alters the meaning of the poem. The word “watching” indicates concern for someone, but doesn’t present the longing that is associated with heating. The quote from the poem is, “Unto my heating heart are more than all earth’s melodies” (11). Heating here could indicate passion that burns within the narrator’s heart that can only occur between two lovers. Similar to the core of the earth being a burning source of heat that sustains the planet’s harmonious ecological balance, so is the burning within the narrator’s heart sustaining her until her ocean rover returns.
The narrator uses synecdoche when, in line fifteen, she states, “Til I can greet thy swift sail home.” “Swift sail” is in the singular and not plural form, serving as a representation of the ship as a whole. It is interesting that the narrator refers to her lover here as a “swift sail” instead of using another word that is similar to ocean rover. It is possible that the narrator is emotionally distancing herself from her lover by not referring to him here by name. As already mentioned, in line thirteen, the narrator shouted for her rover to come home, followed by a less defiant use of the word, “come.” At line thirteen, the narrator is giving up hope and it might be easier for her to refer to her lover, in line fifteen, as the sail instead of by his name. If the narrator can’t call the rover by his name and instead must use a synecdoche to reference him, this could be an indicator that on some level, she might think that the rover is dead and his return to her will be spiritual, not physical.
On the other hand, it is possible that the rover might be the one who has given up hope on the relationship with the narrator and he is, through his absence, telling her to move on. Whereas this explication leans heavily on the rover being a man of solidity with roots to his home, it should be mentioned that the OED defines a “rover” as a pirate and as “a flirtatious, promiscuous, or unfaithful man; an inconstant lover.” If we infer that the rover is promiscuous, then the term, “rover,” is consistent with the movement type of adjectives utilized in the second stanza, suggesting that the rover might have ended the relationship and moved on to someone else. The narrator’s friends in the beginning of the poem encourage the narrator to move on as well, but she is resolute, believing her rover will return to her.
After the caesura and period in line thirteen, the final three lines of the poem return back to the trotting rhythm in the first stanza. Even though the narrator has lost hope, she hasn’t lost all of her hope that one day her lover might return home. The rhythmic return in the last three lines indicates a continuance of hope on the part of the narrator. The narrator states, “there’s but one place for me” (14). She is letting everyone know that no matter the season or how fair the woods are, she will remember the violet’s breath and will not waiver from her loyalty to her ocean rover. Even though she is unsure whether or not her ocean rover is still alive or will ever return, she is resolute to wait, patiently, beside the sea.
Works Cited Page
"rover, n.2.2.b." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 2 November 2016.
"violet, n.1." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 2 November 2016.
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