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The ship went on with solemn face;
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
for parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.
The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o’er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!
Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll afar
The hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.
And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stolèd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God’s Spirit shall give comfort.
He who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.
He shall assist me to look higher,
He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,
An endless endless sabbath morning,
An endless sabbath morning,
And on that sea commixed with fire,
On that sea commixed with fire,
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
To the full Godhead’s burning.
The full Godhead’s burning.
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sabbath Morning at Sea first published in The Amaranth (1839), revised 1850.
Today Elizabeth Barrett Browning has emerged as the equal of her husband Robert by every measure of poetical genius. But for a modern audience, this may still be one of the less approachable of her major poems. It seems a typical example of Victorian religious sentimentality–the theme is the approach of death, and on All Saints Day, the narrator finds herself on a ship at sea. The ship is an ancient image for the church (“chanting congregation” and “stolèd minister”) bearing the subject across to an afterlife in the presence of God. The attitude is one of resolution at the end of an exhausting ordeal of life (“I bowed down weary in the place”), a sense of shared communion coupled with firm expectations about afterlife. Religion is thus presented as personal, but also socializing and uplifting, reflecting deeply held convictions of the Victorian Age which are nevertheless threads of the universal.
Listen to Dame Janet Baker sing Sabbath Morning at Sea set to music from Sir Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899), Sir John Barbirolli conducts the London Symphony Orchestra:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”