The Sound of the Sea Summary by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This poem summary focuses on the poem ‘The Sound of the Sea’ by H. W. Longfellow. Longfellow was a lover of nature, and he is best-known for the nature descriptions in his poetry. Nature for him encapsulates everything that human life ought to be. He believes that man should follow the rhythms of nature if he is to lead a happy and fulfilling life. This attitude of his is also evident in ‘The Sound of the Sea’.

‘The Sound of the Sea’ is a sonnet, that is, it consists of fourteen lines. Usually the fourteen lines are divided into two parts – an octave, and a sestet. The octave and the sestet can either be written together as a single stanza (as is the case in ‘The Sound of the Sea’), or separately as two stanzas. The octave consists of the first eight lines of the sonnet, and the sestet consists of the remaining six lines. In ‘The Sound of the Sea’, the speaker speaks in the first person and can be equated with Longfellow himself.

In the octave, Longfellow describes how the sea was calm and seemed to be asleep, but then once midnight struck, it seemed to wake up all of a sudden from its peaceful slumber. Longfellow was a witness to how the first wave of the sea rose up to its greatest height under the influence of the imminent high tide. This wave was not only high, but also wide. Without any interruption in between, the entire width of the wave washed over the beach, which was filled with innumerable pebbles. The poet is sure that every single pebble felt the force of the water in that very first wave, and that it was only a premonition of how rough the sea would get in a short while from then. However, it is not the sight of the wave that impresses Longfellow, but its sound. The sight is overwhelming, that is certain; but the sound is in a class apart. He describes it saying that it seemed to be a voice rising out of the depths of the water – the depths where he knows that there is no one to chatter or create noise, the depths where only silence reigns. As if this wasn’t already awe-inspiring, the sound is not static, but is constantly being multiplied. How this exponential increase in the sound occurs is a mystery to Longfellow. To give a fuller account of how loud the sound of the sea was, he compares it with that of a cataract coming down from the slope of a mountain. A cataract or a waterfall consists of water coming down from a great height, so in the course of its movement it gathers speed and momentum. As a result, a rising crescendo of sound if formed when the water of a cataract finally reaches the ground. Longfellow says that the sound of the sea is like this rising crescendo. Longfellow also compares the sound of the waves with the roar of winds through a forest. As a wind passes through many trees, its rushing sound is joined by the sound of the leaves as they are blown about. This intensifies the overall auditory effect, and Longfellow thinks that the sound of the sea is also similarly intensifies at high tide.

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In the sestet, Longfellow compares our innermost thoughts to the high tide of the sea as well, and says that they rise out of our souls in the same manner, suddenly and accompanied by a magnified sound. This sudden rush of emotions has its origin in a part of our being that is normally locked to us, and that we cannot easily access, except when we are completely alone and meditative. We may consider these thoughts as our own sense of being inspired from within. However, Longfellow believes that such thoughts are sent to us by God, and they predict things which will happen without our being able to control them.