Drawing comfort from the sea

Coming across Simon Armitage’s poem, Sea Sketch, for which he drew on the diary and war time nursing experiences of Edie Appleton, I was reminded about the comfort Captain Harold Joel drew from the sea in the summer before his death, during  a short break from the trenches to undergo training on the French coast.

From her sketches, and in her diaries and letters, comes a sense of the restorative value of the sea and Armitage conveys this and Edie’s unflinching courage in the face of appalling injuries in his poem.

It is one of seven poems which the BBC commissioned from Armitage for a Culture Show Special, produced to commemorate those lost in the Great War. [1]   It opens:

Dear Mother, I have come to the sea
         to wash my eyes
in its purples, blues, indigos, greens,

to enter its world and emerge cleansed…

Described in his obituary as ‘reticent about religious things’, Harold’s writings included a similar response to the healing nature of a marine vista [2]:

“I sat upon the margin of the sea.  The summer air was still, only the importunate kisses of the tide upon the unyielding shore, the cold soul-cry of a single gull.

There were no clouds to give perspective to the blue sky-deeps; no sail, no sign of any ship to break the solitude of the sea.

Where the coy world curved away, where the heavens stooped to meet it, and the sky kissed the even flood, there stretched the horizon.

My thoughts were led across the sandy sea-levels, beyond the grey blue of the water, into the grey blue of the haze-heavy heavens.  And it came to me, that were my eyes given the power, then should my gaze travel to the Infinite; and it came also to me that then my thoughts could not follow; for that is the limitation for man, without which he would be even as the angels.”

You can read about  Edie, and hear her great nephew, Dick Robinson,  read Simon’s poem here.  You might also like to read more about Harold Walter Joel on my Petersham blog.


[1] BBC Two, The Great War—an Elegy, first shown 8 November 2014.

[2] From The Richmond and Twickenham Times, 16 June 1917, page 5