Reading for better writing 2

In my first post about Reading for better writing I talked about reading systematically to become more aware of what strategies writers use to create their texts. We looked at a more formal text, but it might help to take a look at a literary text to show how a writer can use strategies other than description to get across an idea.

Let’s take a look at a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), a writer who lived in Victorian times. The poem is called “The Sea” and is actually an extract from an extremely long poem he wrote called “The Triumph of Time”. Here are the first two lines:

I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea.

Swinburne could have formulated this in many ways. He could have said that there is this man standing by the seaside feeling sad, so he wants to go into the sea. He feels so strongly drawn to the sea that he describes her as his ‘sweet mother’ and even describes her as a lover. Swinburne could have said that. But he didn’t. Instead the way he puts it gives the text power and emotion. How does that work?

The first answer lies in who is speaking, who is being spoken to and what is being spoken about. Swinburne’s first strategy is to let the man speak himself, so immediately it becomes intensely personal.  At this point we do not know who he is speaking to, but this is hinted at later. And as the title suggests, the subject seems to be the sea.

Swinburne’s next strategy consists in having the speaker not just compare the sea to a mother but designate her so. Then he does something unusual – he puts the mother image in close connection with the image of a lover, blending two archetypal roles that women are assigned in society and literature. We subconsciously associate all kinds of emotions and images with these two figures, but we don’t normally think of them together. So this can create a flutter of conflicting feelings.

Wow, he has done quite a lot in just two lines! But there is more. The speaker says, “I will go back”. What does this imply? Combined with the mother image, a sense of his seeing the sea as his origin is evoked, the sea is for him the source of life, of birth. And yet he also says she is the “lover of men”. What can that mean? If she takes men as her lovers, it can only be in death, because they must drown to be with her. What is he saying?

At this point we could start suspecting that the theme is not just the sea but the speaker’s longing to leave this life. And yet he does not seem to be full of gloom and despair, there is a sense of something comforting there. First of all, because he uses positive images of “mother”, “lover”, and a desire to return to something. And something else plays a role. Read the lines again, aloud. What do you notice? Can you feel the rhythm? ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three – like a waltz, like the comforting rocking of the waves of a mild-tempered sea. In formal terms, this rhythm is called a dactyl, but even if you don’t know the fancy words for it, you can feel it and understand its effect.[1]

So this brief example has shown us that in addition to using what the words say, the writer can play with the words in a special way to make us respond to them beyond the level of just their conventional meanings. This is what it means to be a good writer – to have the skill to make the words shape thought into a tangible form and evoke a response in the reader. When you look at the poem further you will see other strategies he has used to capture our thoughts, for instance, playing with the sounds and the rhyme.

Here is the rest of the poem for you to enjoy and reflect on. The full version of “The Triumph of Time” can be found at And in case you are wondering why he feels this way, in the second half of the third stanza he talks about a different “she” – a woman he wants to forget.

 The Sea
(An extract from “The Triumph of Time”)
By Algernon Charles Swinburne

 I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea.
I will go down to her, I and none other,
Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me;
Cling to her, strive with her, hold her fast:
O fair white mother, in days long past
Born without sister, born without brother,
Set free my soul as thy soul is free.

O fair green-girdled mother of mine,
Sea, that art clothed with the sun and the rain,
Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine,
Thy large embraces are keen like pain.
Save me and hide me with all thy waves,
Find me one grave of thy thousand graves,
Those pure cold populous graves of thine
Wrought without hand in a world without stain.

I shall sleep, and move with the moving ships,
Change as the winds change, veer in the tide;
My lips will feast on the foam of thy lips,
I shall rise with thy rising, with thee subside;
Sleep, and not know if she be, if she were,
Filled full with life to the eyes and hair,
As a rose is fulfilled to the roseleaf tips
With splendid summer and perfume and pride.

This woven raiment of nights and days,
Were it once cast off and unwound from me,
Naked and glad would I walk in thy ways,
Alive and aware of thy ways and thee;
Clear of the whole world, hidden at home,
Clothed with the green and crowned with the foam,
A pulse of the life of thy straits and bays,
A vein in the heart of the streams of the sea.

[1] If you are wondering about some of the other formal terms that might be used in this discussion, here is a list: poet, speaker, addressee, metaphor, personification, imagery, connotation, association, dactylic tetrameter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and more.

© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012


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