Memory works two ways for me. Sometimes, it’s linear. I remember a specific event and its context, and I’m sure both are plain facts. Sometimes, it’s associative. I remember things connectedly, and the power of association may overcome aspects of the original history.
This poem, “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, is strongly connected in my memory with my great Aunt Nadia’s house in Rockport, MA. The house was 300+ years old in parts, and a “witch” lived in the oldest room when it was a raw wooden cabin in the woods. I wonder about her.
The room looked ordinary, by colonial standards. I remember the fireplace with the cast iron soup pot and maybe a kettle, a hearth brush, and the old wooden walls around it, and the smooth floor. It wasn’t smooth the way a modern floor is, not smooth because it was a collection of smooth wooden sheets installed together. It was smooth because it was old. Three hundred years of feet, a whole history of American shoes, had crossed and recrossed it and worn it down. It had knots and notches in it, but even they were smooth. Time-polished.
Her house was near the ocean, the wild cold ocean and the shore piled with boulders. We would visit a museum about wooden sailing ships when we were there and learn how the wood was bent into the curve and fitted to the frame. We swam until we were cold, and we took warm baths and wrapped ourselves in pajamas and ate soup. And then we sat around the hearth in the witch’s room, and my father read us stories in the lamp light. I believe he also read us this poem, but perhaps he read it in some other time and place. Perhaps it has only traveled to that sea town because it is a sea memory and belongs there more properly than in some other, more prosaic setting.
Here is the poem.
by John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.