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Seaweed poems & prose

The Sea of Iwami

In the Sea of Iwami
By the Cape of Kara
There amid the stones under the sea
Grows the deep sea miru weed
There along the rocky strand
Grows the sleek sea-tangle

Like the swaying sea-tangle
Unresisting would she lie beside me
My wife whom I love with a love
Deep as the miru-growing ocean
Alas she is no more, whose soul
Was bent to mine like bending seaweed

- by Manyoshu, from the first anthology of Japanese poetry compiled in 750 A.D, containing 4,500 poems over 90 of which refer to seaweed

Sea Wrack

The wrack was dark an’ shiny where it floated in the sea,
There was no-one in the brown boat but only him an’ me;
Him to cut the sea wrack, me to mind the boat,
An’ not a word between us the hours we were afloat.

The wet wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack was strong to cut.

We laid it on the gray rocks to wither in the sun,
An’ what should call my lad, to sail from Cushendeen
With a low moon, a full tide, a swell upon the deep,
Him to sail the old boat, me to fall asleep.

The dry wrack,
The sea wreck,
The wrack was dead so soon.

There’ a fire low upon the rocks to burn the wrack to kelp,
There’ a boat gone down upon the Moyle, an’ sorra’ one to help!
Him beneath the salt sea, me upon the shore,
By sunlight or moonlight we’ll lift the wrack no more.

The dark wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack may drift ashore.

- by Moira O’Neill, Ireland, probably mid-19th century


Yellow man

Did you treat your Mary Ann
To the Dulse and the yellow man
At the Old Lammas Fair
In Ballycastle O?

 - old Irish folk song

The ‘yellow man’ was as popular as toffee today; it was part of the staple diet of country people living in coastal areas.  Caragheen was widely eaten flavoured with lemon, sugar and spices and Scots on the Hebridean Islands ate it with nothing but cream.  Children in the Orkney Isles chewed stems of another kind of edible seaweed called ‘tangles’ as they might chew sweets today.  Laver, a silky, almost transparent seaweed was named by the Romans (from their word for bread) during their occupation of Britain.  It is still popular in Wales and ireland especially as ‘laver bread’ and as a breakfast patty.  Washed and cooked overnight it turns to a slimy mass similar to spinach purée.  This is mixed with oats until stiff, sprinkled with grated orange zest and juice, shaped into round patties and fried in hot oil.  It is usually served with bacon and eggs and often with cockles, a small Atlantic shellfish.

Buain duilisg

Seal ag buain duilisg do charraig
seal ag aclaidh
seal ag tabhairt bhidh do bhoctaibh
seal i gcaracair.

A while gathering dillisk from the rock
a while fishing
a while giving food to the poor
a while in my cell.

 - stanza of a poem written by an anonymous 12th century Irish monk and the earliest known record of seaweed harvesting for food (Ó Madagáin, 1994)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
from The Poetical Works of, published in London by Routledge, Warne, and Routledge
1862 - pp204-205

When descends on the Atlantic
The gigantic
Storm-wind of the equinox,
Landward in his wrath he scourges
The toiling surges,
Laden with seaweed from the rocks:

From Bermuda’s reefs; from edges
Of sunken ledges,
In some far-off, bright Azore;
From Bahama, and the dashing,
Surges of San Salvador;

From the tumbling surf, that buries
The Orkneyan skerries,
Answering the hoarse Hebrides;
And from the wrecks of ships, and drifting
Spars, uplifting
On the desolate, rainy seas; -

Ever drifting, drifting, drifting
On the shifting
Currents of the restless main;
Till in sheltered coves, and reaches
Of sandy beaches,
All have found repose again.

So when storms of wild emotion
Strike the ocean
Of the poet’s soul, ere long
From each cave and rocky fastness,
In its vastness,
Floats some fragment of a song:

From the far-off isles enchanted,
Heaven has planted
With the golden fruit of Truth;
From the flashing surf, whose vision
Gleams Elysian
In the tropic clime of Youth;
From the strong Will, and the Endeavour
That for ever
Wrestles with the tides of Fate;
From the wreck of Hopes far-scattered,
Floating waste and desolate; -

Ever drifting, drifting, drifting
On the shifting
Currents of the restless heart;
Till at length in books recorded,
They, like hoarded
Household words, no more depart.

'Highland Woman'
Has Thou seen her, great Jew,
who art called the One Son of God?
Hast Thou, on Thy way, seen the like of her
labouring in the distant vineyard?
The load of fruits on her back,
a bitter sweat on brow and cheek;
and the clay basin heavy on the back
of her bent, poor, wretched head.
Thou hast not seen her, Son of the carpenter,
who art called the King of Glory,
among the rugged western shores
in the sweat of her food's creel.
This spring and last
and every twenty springs from the beginning
she has carried the cold seaweed
for her children's food and the castle's reward.
And every twenty autumns that have gone
she has lost the golden summer of her bloom;
and the black-labour has ploughed the furrow
across the white smoothness of her forehead.
And Thy gentle Church has spoken
of the lost state of her miserable soul;
and the unremitting toil has lowered
her body to a black peace in a grave.
And her time has gone like a black sludge
seeping through the thatch of a poor dwelling:
The hard black-labour was her inheritance;
grey is her sleep tonight.
- a poem by Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean), Scotland's finest Gaelic poet, contributed by Malcolm Macrae and Martin Macleod, Hebridean Seaweed Company Ltd, 2008