The Sea and The Sky: Summary & Analysis

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On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.


      The poem The Sea and the Skylark was first entitled Walking by the Sea. It was written between 9th and 14th May 1877, at Rhyl, the ‘shallow and frail town’ which appears in line of the sonnet. It is a sea side town and a few miles away from St. Beurjo’s college where Hopkins lived for three years (1874-77) to complete his theological studies. The town Rhyl was a summer resort. But during the offseason, the town appeared to be a ghost town. According to Mackenzie, “Man had been created to have dominion over the animal and physical creation (Genesis: 1:26) but Hopkins, looking with an eye of an artist at his fellow-countrymen in the mass, felt that so far from having evolved upwards, they represented the dregs of a once noble race”.

      Most of the people used to come to Rhyl on horses from Liverpool, then an unhealthy and dirty town. Hopkins told Bridges once: “I admire the handsome horses, I remarked for the thousandth time with sorrow and loathing the base and be spotted figures and features of the Liverpool crowd. When I see the fine and manly Norwegians that flock hither to embark for America, walk our streets and look about them, it fills me with shame and wretchedness. I am told Sheffield is worse thought.” The poet in this sonnet makes a contrast between the life-giving purity of Nature and the deceptions of the civilization that man is creating.


      Stanza 1. The poet while walking by the sea side, hears two sounds — the sound of the skylark and the sound of the sea. Both these sounds impressed him much. From the right side comes the noise of the sea, which at high tide strikes against the shore and rushes towards the ramps of the sea-wall. With each wave the water floods the sea-shore and then recedes, and this process continues as long as the moon continues to wax and wane. It happens according to the scientific truth that tides are controlled by the moon.

      Stanza 2. In the second stanza, the poet says that from the left side of the poet comes the sound of the skylark, singing as he leaves the earth and flies up into the sky. The skylark’s song seems to follow a musical score which may be compared to a skein of wool. Every strain of his music is like a lock of fleece waving in the air. The musical note of Skylark’s song that comes out of its throat not in smooth and even flow but in a crisp curl of melody. The skylark pours his music at ease at first and then with continuous efforts till he has spent all.

      Stanza 3. The two different voices emanating from the objects of nature, because of their purity, rise far above the sordid and confused human sounds of the industrial towns. God has created as the most honored of the whole world but we have lost that state of joy and cheerfulness. Man has lost the state of innocence and happiness which he enjoyed in the garden of Eden before he was expelled from the paradise.

      The poet in this stanza says that we are losing our constructive energy rapidly and are moving fast to our doom as our state of innocence and cheerfulness is deteriorating day by day. The word ‘slime’ refers to Genesis 2: 7. It is said in Genesis that man is originally made of dust and to dust ultimately he will return; or it can be said that man’s ultimate goal is the dust. Thus man is constantly moving towards his end and not progressing towards anything constructive.


Stanza 1

Line 1: Ear and ear: The two sounds one of the sea and the other of the skylark, fall on the two ears of the poet.

Too old to end: These two sounds are as old as the world and will never end; these two are immemorial noises which will continue forever.

Line 2: Trench: The two sounds make a deep impression on the poet’s ear.

Right: From the right direction the sound of sea-waves was coming.

The tide that ramps against the shore: The high tides that break against the sea-shore.

Line 3 With a flood or a fall: The sea-shore is flooded when the waves strike against it, but when the waves retreat, the shore is left drenched but not ‘flooded’.

Low lull-off: there is a lull or pause after the wave strikes against the shore and then retreats.

All-roar: when the next wave comes, there is a big noise or roar like that of a lion.

Line 4: Frequenting there: The sea-waves will continue to visit the sea-shore.

While moon shall wear and wend: The expression refers to a scientific truth that in the continuous process of sea-waves striking against the shore and retreating the moon, will continue to “wear” (to become smaller in size) and “wend” (to grow bigger in size).

Stanza 2

Line 1: Left-hand: From the direction of the left side of the poet.

Off land: above the earth; far away from the sea.

Ascend: Fly upwards into the sky

Line 2: Rash-fresh: excitingly fresh or new.

Re-winded: Refreshed

Newskeined score: The song of the skylark is compared to a musical score which is compared to a new skein of wool, the poet here refers to the skylark’s song which is like a skein of unwound wool when it climbs the sky to sing.

Line 3: In crisps of curl-off wild winch whirl: Every note of the melodious song of skylark is compared with a curly, wavy new skein of wool that goes up to the sky as if being lifted by a hoisting device.
and pour: The skylark produces his melody without any effort.

Line 4: And Pelt: The skylark “pelts” or showers heavily its melodious tune on earth incessantly.

to spill: to pour.

spend: to use.

      Till note’s to spill nor spend: The skylark sings till there is no longer any music left with him to pour out or produce.

Stanza 3

Line 1: This shallow and frail town: The town of Rhyl where this poem was written is thus described Shallow and frail are used for the urban industrialized civilization. The sound of the sea and specially the musical tone of the skylark has put the town to shame as the town with its meaningless, unworthy life has not vitality in it. The pure and unpolluted sounds of the sea and the skylark has made the town lively.

Line 2: How ring right.....turbid time: These two pure sounds ring out our confused and ugly urban civilization.

Turbid: confused

Line 3: Being pure: The two sounds, i..e the sound of skylark and the sound of sea are pure and devoid of any sin.

We life's pride We the human beings are the pride and crown of all the creation. We are the most cared-for beings i.e. cared by God.

Line 4: Have lost that cheer and charm.....past prime: We have now lost, being sinful and foolish, that joy, that state of innocence and happiness which we enjoyed in the Garden of Eden before man fell from the grace of God.

Earth’s Past Prime: The reference is to the state of innocence in the garden of Eden before the history of mankind began on the earth.

Line 5: Our make and making break: Hopkins is referring to the process of decay and deterioration which industrial materialism has started and which is smearing the earth with ugliness. The purpose for which we were created are breaking little by little and we are moving towards our doom.

Line 6: To man's last dust: man is heading towards death.

Drain fast towards mart’s first slime: It is mentioned in Genesis that man was originally made out of dust and he is moving rapidly towards that dust. Man is going to that original state of slime from which he emerged. Thus we are witnessing retrogression.


      The poet in this poem feels impressed by the sounds of the sea and the skylark. But he laments or mourns the fact that man, the lord and pride of creation has lost the joy and zest which belonged to him when he was in the abode of happiness and cheerfulness. Hopkins points out that man is on the process of decay and rapidly losing his vitality and energy; he will find himself moving fast towards that original state of slime from which he had emerged. Man through his activities has set in motion a reversal of the creative process which suggests a return to the primal swamp from which he came. Referring to the last lines of the poem, a critic says: “If the image seems exaggerated it nevertheless prefigures that reality of polluted towns and rivers which Hopkins was to experience later in industrial Lancashire”.

      There are two different moods in the poem. The moods of the poet in the octave is joyous such as the natural sounds of the sea and the Skylarks singing. But in the sestet the mood changes to one of gloom and despondency. The poem ends with a deep sense of loss at the thought that man is losing his identity and destroying his pattern.

      The style of the poem is excellent and perfect. The poem abounds in alliteration. The repetition of “f” and “1” sounds in the following line is striking: With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar.

      The following line contains a repetition of “c” (k) and “w” sounds:

In crisps of curl off wild winch
whirl, and pour.

      Again in the following lines we find the repetition of “r” sounds:

How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared for crown.

      Giving justification to his style Hopkins himself admitted that this sonnet “was written in my Welsh day, ........ when I was fascinated with consonant chime....Rash fresh more (it is dreadful to explain these things in cold blood) means a headlong and exciting new snatch of singing, resumption by the lark of his song, which by turns he gives over and takes up again all day long, and this goes on, the sonnet says, through all time, without ever losing its first freshness, being a thing both new and old. Repair means the same thing, renewal, resumption. The Skein and coil are lark’s song, which from his height gives the impression of something falling to the earth and vertically quite but strikingly or wavingly, something as a skein of silk ribbed by having been tightly wound on a narrow card or a notched holder or as twine or fishing tackle unwinding from a reel or winch or as pearls strung on a horse hair: the laps or folds are the notes or short measures and bars of them.

      The same is called a score in the musical sense of score and this score is writ upon a liquid sky Trembling to welcome it, only not horizontally. The lark in wild glee races the reel round, paying or dealing out and down the turns of the skein or coil right to the earth’s floor, the ground, where it lies in a heap, as it were, or rather is all wound off on to another winch, reel, bobbin or spool in Fancy’s eye by the moment the bird touches earth and so in ready for a fresh unwinding at the next flight.....Crisp means almost crisped, namely with notes....”

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