It is a ship struggling during a terrible storm at sea, a metaphor for depression — a mind struggling to right itself. The imagery is incredible, and it’s a beautifully written sonnet. Rhyme scheme is ABBA ACCA DEED FF. One analysis I read (linked below) said this poem was about a man who had rejected God, and this battery at sea was the consequence (because, of course, God controls the sea and the weather). It also said the author was contemplating suicide as the only way out of this misery.
The word choices are violent and emotional: sharp seas mine enemy steereth with cruelness rain of tears cloud of dark disdain despairing of the port One line (“every oar a thought in readiness”) is beautiful to me because of the way the analysis below described it: That the author was trying to think his way out of this turmoil, like oars trying to right the ship, and yet he could not. Anyone who has ever been depressed or experienced hopelessness knows that trying to get oneself out of it using logical thought is useless.
The end of the poem indicates that the author doesn’t even remember why he’s experiencing this trauma, and also that he has no guide (like the stars) for getting him to safety. My galley charged with forgetfulness Through sharp seas in winter nights doth pass ‘Twene rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas That is my lord, steerth with cruelness And every oar a thought in readiness As though that death were light in such a case; An endless wind doth tear the sail apace Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain
Hath done the wearied cords great hindrance Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance. The stars be hid that led me to this pain, Drowned is reason that should me comfort, And I remain despairing of the port. …. Wyatt is talking about despair, and probably means religious despair (the ‘sin’ of losing your faith in God). He uses the common metaphor of a ship in trouble at sea (remember that England is a seafaring island nation, so a lost ship is a powerful metaphor for the English). My galley charged with forgetfulness Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Twene rock and rock; Wyatt’s ship [his life] is weighed down [charged] with forgetfulness [he cannot remember what the point of life is, he cannot remember what it feels like to know God]; it is adrift on a stormy sea, at night, between rocks (and is therefore in great danger). and eke mine enemy, alas That is my lord, steerth with cruelness Wyatt feels that God is master of the ship, and that God has deliberately withdrawn Himself from Wyatt; God is steering the ship cruelly (God is deliberately hurting Wyatt) and has become Wyatt’s enemy, as well as being his Lord.
And every oar a thought in readiness As though that death were light in such a case; A sailing ship which can no longer rely on the wind (when there is no wind, or the wind is blowing the wrong way) will sometimes use oars as an emergency solution. Wyatt is trying to think himself out of his despair (using the oars of his thought), but he is in such despair that when he thinks he only thinks of suicide as an escape from his misery (as though that death were light :: as if death was not a problem). An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain Hath done the wearied cords great hindrance Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance. Wyatt thinks of his own moaning and tears (because he is so unhappy) as the winds that are driving his ship toward the rocks (of suicide). His tears are the rain beating on the ship, and his despair and lethargy are loosening the rigging which holds the sails in place (heavy rain could loosen rigging on a sailing ship; then the sails would become loose, and a bad problem would become much worse)
The stars be hid that led me to this pain, Drowned is reason that should me comfort, And I remain despairing of the port. Wyatt says he cannot see the stars (he cannot remember the reasons that once led him to believe in God), so his boat does not know where it is going to (at night a sailing boat travels by reference to the stars). Reason (Wyatt’s ability to understand the world he lives in) is drowned (dead; the world makes no sense to Wyatt now). And Wyatt just can’t see the way out of this. The poem leaves us unsatisfied, confused, directionless; like Wyatt is.