Yesterday, in spite of intermittent rain, I was able to make a trip to the Pacific coast.  Just above the pounding waves at a coastal town called Depoe Bay, there was a standing stone monument inset with two brass plaques.  The first recorded the death of two fisherman lost at sea on a rescue mission in 1936.  Just below it was inset another:


It is not true.  Life is not slain by death.
The vast, immortal sea shall have her own,
Shall garner to her this expiring breath,
Shall reap where she has sown.

The poem has no attribution, and I do not know who wrote it.

The vast, immortal sea” –When one reads those words below a memorial to the drowned, and within only feet of waves pounding into spray against the dark rocks, one obviously thinks first of the physical sea — the ocean beyond the memorial.  But I think it also has a deeper meaning.  It is the Universe, it is the Sea of Eternity out of which we all come and to which we all return.  It is what the Chinese called the Dao, the nameless origin of all things.

We find confirmation of that, I think, in these lines by the English poet William Wordsworth, excerpted from his Ode: Intimations of Immortality.  I have put the most relevant part into bold type:

Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It is the same metaphor as on the brass plaque:  we come out of the Sea of Eternity, and to it we return.  Fortunate are those who, though “inland far,” nonetheless perceive behind the noise and bustle of modern life “the mighty waters rolling evermore.”


3 thoughts on “THE VAST, IMMORTAL SEA

  1. David Counter

    Here is the full poem, by a former Oregon poet laureate:

    To A Sea Bird Dying
    by Ben Hur Lampman

    Here where the tide has cast it lies this wrack,
    White as the crest that bore it to the land,
    And swart of pinion as the storm is black,
    And very pitiful beneath the hand.
    Now death has touched it, though its eye is brave,
    The dark beak lifted as to strike the foe,
    While in its glance the wildness of the wave
    Ebbs as the head droops low.

    For you our mother ocean beats no more;
    No sea-glint summons where the far sail veers.
    Nor any surge shall smite the hollow shore,
    Nor sundown beckon where the great whale steers;
    This gathering grayness is not driven mist
    Fleet as winged winds that flee;
    It is no fog of pearl and amethyst
    Risen from out the sea.

    All motionless is the suspended tide,
    The viewless thunder thins and fades….is still;
    And the sun’s self is quenched in all his pride.
    And pallid grown and chill.
    So death comes, wild one, and an end of flight;
    An end of mother ocean and her ways,
    Of rock and dune, and dawn and noon, and night.

    It is not true. Life is not slain by death.
    The vast, immortal sea shall have her own,
    Shall garner to her this expiring breath,
    Shall reap where she has sown.
    And with her you shall be, in her delight;
    Her winds your flight, her wildness your desire;
    Her whiteness yours as these your plumes are white,
    Bright wings that never tire!

    I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you!

    And many thanks to you for solving the mystery of authorship and for providing the context.

  2. William Darby

    I saw this poem on the plaque maybe 35 years ago and memorized it because it was so wonderful. It fit the location and the context and spoke to me. I live in Hawaii now. Yesterday, a huge sea turtle crawled out of the water and came almost up to where I sat, looking right at me. I judged him to be about my age and felt almost blessed by a god. He was totally at peace and maybe passed some of it to me.

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