Sullivan's Island beach was perfect this evening. The narrow ridge of black sand curved between the receding tide and a scruffy band of coastal weeds and wildflowers. Knowable and intimate, it was the perfect place to stroll barefoot along the water's edge, alternately watching two sailboats and the fishermen wrestling every so often with the small sharks that inhabit the tidal area. After a few minutes I found myself quietly humming about barges with treasures in their hold. The old Girl Scout camp song fit my dreamy mood, but eventually I felt a need to move on to something else. (In my mind, any experience, no matter how sublime, always becomes better with the right musical accompaniment. Preferably sung quietly. Your idea of ideal background music might not be mine.) The trouble was, I couldn't think of anything else. There must be hundreds of songs about the ocean, beach, and tides. Not one of them came to mind. I decided to move on to poetry. The results were a little better.
John Masefield's Sea Fever immediately came to mind. An obvious choice, but definitely appropriate. I was, after all, enjoying a "windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying." (There actually weren't any seagulls flying or crying, but the pelicans were having fun.) Crossing the Bar flowed out next. This poem has always fascinated me. My maternal grandfather, I'm told, was a short, tough, hard cussing Welshman with a real temper. I only know two more things about him, and one of them is that Crossing the Bar was read at his funeral and quoted on his tombstone. At his request. What makes a Nebraska rancher who employed and cared for men dying from black lung disease until they passed, a horse trader, the man who publicly denounced the local KKK -- what makes a man like that request that poetry be read at his funeral? How many more 'civilized' people do that today? And why would he choose this piece of poetry? Sure, it's about more than the ocean, that's merely the metaphor Masefield uses to talk about the inevitability of death with the hope of a salvation at the end. But why a poem at all? I've always associated the love of poetry with a sweet nature, a sensitive and gentle personality. Don't we all? Yet my tough ol' Granddad Richards seems to have loved poetry -- and the sea.
My Mother grew up in an age where poetry was considered necessary for an educated person, even if you did live on a ranch a 'fur piece' from anywhere. They were required to recite it often at school, and she spoke of how she and her older sister entertained themselves while washing dishes by seeing who could memorize their poem first. The one she mentioned most frequently was also her father's favorite -- The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver W. Holmes. "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul," she recited, her eyes drifting dreamily out of focus. What was she seeing, I still wonder. Was she remembering the warm kitchen, the two sisters passing dishes from one to the other, sharing poetry and secrets? Or was it the nautilus itself, lying on some sandy beach, washed gently by the flow of the tide? I never asked her.
And what of my Granddad, the man I never met. What am I to make of his love of these two poems? Statisticians would say it means nothing at all. Two pieces of anecdotal information aren't enough to allow me to draw a conclusion. But I don't have the soul, or the attention to detail, of a good statistician. Whatever type of soul I do have, there must be a little of the poet in it. And the beach comber, too. For despite the sunburn, sweat and sand, I really enjoyed splashing along the edge of the water this evening, looking at the ocean, birds and sky. Maybe I inherited it from my Grandfather. Maybe I was just born that way.
--Read Well, Friend