A Bringer of New Things

I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.

Great Poems: “Sometimes I walk where the deep water dips” by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

For the second installment in my “Great Poems” series (see the first here and the lead-up here), I have chosen a poem by a writer I only discovered a few years ago, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821 – 1873). I love this poem for its beautiful and gentle description of grief and melancholy; it paints a vivid portrait with all the right touches. Join me on a walk with the speaker of this poem.

Lines 1-4

Sometimes I walk where the deep water dips
Against the land. Or on where fancy drives
I walk and muse aloud, like one who strives
To tell his half-shaped thought with stumbling lips,

Right away we’re given a mental picture of a person walking alone near an ocean or bay. He’s (let’s call it a man, since the author is male) not walking with purpose, but just meandering; and he’s talking to himself, haltingly, trying to sort out his thoughts. We’re not told his mood just yet, that’s coming next…

Lines 5-9

And view the ocean sea, the ocean ships,
With joyless heart: still but myself I find
And restless phantoms of my restless mind:
Only the moaning of my wandering words,
Only the wailing of the wheeling plover,

Now we have no doubt that the walker’s mood is troubled and downcast. He is seeking relief in this maritime setting, but his heart is still distressed. The words he speaks aloud to himself sound like moans, and the nearby bird’s calls sound like wails.

Lines 10-11

And this high rock beneath whose base the sea
Has wormed long caverns, like my tears in me:

Now we have a more detailed image of the land he is walking on: a high rock with a cliff down to the sea (don’t worry, he’s not going to jump, at least that we’re told in the poem). He has seen, perhaps while swimming, that there are deep caves under the rock.

And then he makes the beautiful comparison that just as the sea has “wormed” into or worn away the rock to create the caves, his sadness has “wormed” into him and worn away his soul so that he is full of dark, deep caves inside.

These lines are my favorite part of the poem—again, I’m a sucker for clever imagery.

Lines 12-14

And hard like this I stand, and beaten and blind,
This desolate rock with lichens rusted over,
Hoar with salt-sleet and chalkings of the birds.

Here he finishes the comparison between himself and the rock. He is hardened, defeated, abandoned, and scarred. But the poem says it much better than that through its imagery!

Additional Notes

This poem uses a lot of artful poetic devices to bring to life its image and make it resonate with us. The meter (rhythm) sometimes stumbles and sometimes flows, just like the speaker’s thoughts. Repetition of words and sounds help create the feeling of an unbroken reverie; I’ll let you pick out the repetitions.

Also, the poem breaks with the traditional sonnet form in a clever way: the first four lines rhyme in a sonnet pattern, but after that, the rhyme scheme is just all over the place with no obvious pattern. I think this corresponds wonderfully to what’s happening in the poem: the first four lines are pretty simple in terms of description and scene-setting; we don’t even know what the mood is exactly. But then we see inside the speaker’s mind and feelings, which are wandering and uneven, like the rhyme scheme.

All Together

Now you are ready to join the poem’s speaker in his walking oceanside reverie.

Sometimes I walk where the deep water dips
Against the land. Or on where fancy drives
I walk and muse aloud, like one who strives
To tell his half-shaped thought with stumbling lips,
And view the ocean sea, the ocean ships,
With joyless heart: still but myself I find
And restless phantoms of my restless mind:
Only the moaning of my wandering words,
Only the wailing of the wheeling plover,
And this high rock beneath whose base the sea
Has wormed long caverns, like my tears in me:
And hard like this I stand, and beaten and blind,
This desolate rock with lichens rusted over,
Hoar with salt-sleet and chalkings of the birds.

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6 comments on “Great Poems: “Sometimes I walk where the deep water dips” by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

  1. emilievardaman
    July 31, 2014

    Beautiful imagery, yes. But also a little too depressing for me right now. The joyless heart. The tears in me,
    These days, with all the horrible news of war and atrocities, I am on a quest for kindness and beauty and humanity. I am, and I think most of the world is, desperate for peace and sanity, love and kindness. For hope.

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 31, 2014

      Thanks for commenting, Emilie. Sorry the poem didn’t speak to you. I do understand. I guess it speaks to me as vicarious expression of my own sadness.

      Like

  2. Ruth
    July 31, 2014

    Great post, thanks!

    Like

  3. Witness
    July 31, 2014

    Thanks for this second installment!

    This poem does some of what drives me away from poetry; I can handle the rhyme scheme faltering to express general faltering, though even that makes it harder to pay attention, in a poem that has set up the expectation of rhyme scheme. But I really need sentences to be pretty grammatical, if they’re to convey something other than everyday, familiar things. In lines 5-9, the poet seems to me to be just throwing words together in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Long live diagrammable sentences! I really don’t understand what he means. What is still? His heart? His self? The ocean? Or is “still” meant to convey “meanwhile”? And “but” what? What is the contradiction that “but” is referring to? And what is the conjunction that “and” refers to? Does he find himself and the phantoms? Why is it worth saying that he finds himself? And what does it mean that these phantoms are only the moaning and the wailing? Why is that particular thing important? It’s not that I assume they aren’t important; it’s that he seems to be trying to say something that he doesn’t manage to say — at least not in a way I can understand.

    Lines 10-11 are comfortingly clear, but the rest slips back into undiagrammability; it feels like I have to work too hard for a message that isn’t clear no matter how hard I try. I glean only impressions, which probably would be vivid if they weren’t just a jumble.

    It’s not my intention to tear the poem down; I really want to learn from you what makes this poem accessible to you in ways that it isn’t to me. I’m glad for the opportunity to ask.

    emilievardaman: I’ve read about how popular music tends to be quite upbeat, and relatively predictable (i.e., comforting rather than challenging), in times of cultural stress, and branches out into more varied moods only during times of peace and prosperity. So you’re far from the only one who hungers for happy art in the face of scary reality!

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 31, 2014

      Thanks for commenting, Witness. Sorry this poem didn’t speak to you, either. I really had no idea that others might not like this one as much as I do. But that’s quite okay! I’ll try to pick a more sure-fire winner next time…though I’ll probably need some trial and error to be able to do that, really. Poetry, like music, is one of those things in which personal taste is strongly involved.

      I never thought to question the grammar and meaning of lines 5-9; I never thought of any other possible interpretation, until your comments. To me, those lines manifestly mean this: he has been trying to seek for some other thought, some relief, something new to take him out of his sadness, but he only continues (“still”) to find the same old misery inside. You’re right, that’s not explicit. I guess I just jumped to that interpretation because I have felt that experience so strongly and exactly before.

      Far from wanting upbeat songs and poems in times of stress, I can’t handle them. I need songs and poems that match my mood and help me express what I’m feeling.

      Not that I’m necessarily feeling that sad right now, but this poem resonates with my past self. So many times I wandered alone oustide searching inwardly for relief from my sadness, without finding it. So, this poem represents to me a significant part of my past inner life.

      Like

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This entry was posted on July 31, 2014 by in Great Poems and tagged , , , , , .
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