Sonnets on the Sea’s Voice

by George Sterling (1869–1926)


Thou seem’st to call to that which will not hear,
    As man to Fate.  Thine anthems uncontrolled,
    From winnowed sands and reefs reverberant
Shake as with sorrow, and the hour is near
Wherein they voice shall seem a thing of fear,
    Like to a lion’s at the trembling fold;
    And men shall waken to the midnight cold,
And feel that dawn is far, that night is drear.

Thou wert ere Life, a dim but quenchless spark,
    Found vesture in thy vastness.  Thou shalt be
When Life hath crossed the threshold of the Dark,—
    When shackling ice hath zoned at last thy
    And thy deep voice is hushed, O vanquished Sea!
        One with eternity that giveth rest.


No cloud is on the heavens, and on the sea
    No sail:  the immortal, solemn ocean lies
    Unbroken sapphire to the walling skies—
Immutable, supreme in majesty.
The billows, where the charging foam leaps free,
    Burden the winds with thunder.  Soul, arise!
    For ghostly trumpet-blasts and battle-cries
Across the tumult wake the Past for thee.

They call me to a dim, disastrous land,
    Where fallen marbles tell of mighty years,
        Heroic architraves, but where the gust
Ripples forsaken waters.  Lo! I stand
    With armies round about, and in mine ears
        The roar of harps reborn from legend’s dust.


How very still this odorous, dim space
    Amid the pines! the light is reverent,
    Pausing as one who stands with meek intent
On thresholds of an everlasting place.
A single iris waits in weary grace—
    Her countenance before the dawning bent,
    As faith might linger, husht and innocent,
With all an altar’s glory on her face.

But silence now is hateful:  I would be,
    By midnight dark and wild as Satan’s soul,
        Where the winds’ unreturning charioteers
Lash, with the hurtling scourges of the sea,
    Their frantic steeds to some tempestuous goal—
        The deep’s enormous music in their ears.


O thou unalterable sea! how vast
    Thine utterance!  What portent in thy tone,
    As here thy giant choirs, august, alone,
Roll forth their diapason to the blast!—
Great waters hurled and broken and upcast
    In timeless splendour and immeasured moan,
    As tho’ Eternity to years unknown
Bore witness of the sorrows of the Past.

Thou callest to a deep within my soul—
    Untraversed and unsounded; at thy voice
        Abysses move with phantoms unbegot.
What paeans haunt me and what pangs control!—
    Thunders wherewith the seraphim rejoice,
        And mighty hunger for I know not what.

Sterling, George.  The House of Orchids and Other Poems.  (San Francisco:  A. M. Robertson, 1911).

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