Full Fathom Five

 Overview

A song/poem from Shakespeare’s The Tempest telling a fictitious story of the death of Ferdinand’s father, the King of Naples, in a storm at sea. This seems to be a celebration of his death almost praising him and his worth through comparison to the ocean’s most treasured wonders.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Right, we know who the big man is, so I’ll just tell you where this poem/song comes from and put it in context in relation to the play it is taken from.

The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s later plays, performed for the first time in 1611. A tempest is a particularly nasty storm and this play revolves around one that is summoned by the spirit Ariel at the request of Prospero. Prospero was the Duke of Milan, but his brother usurped his position, and this storm has been conjured in order to drown his brother’s (Antonio’s) ship, which also happens to contain the King of Naples (who had helped Antonio to power) and his son, Ferdinand.

When the storm stops Ferdinand is stranded on the same island as Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, inhabit, while the King of Naples and Antonio are elsewhere. Ferdinand is brought before Prospero and as he arrives Ariel sings ‘Full Fathom Five’ which seems to tell the story of what has happened to Ferdinand’s father and as far as he knows this is true, but we found out later that the King of Naples and Antonio have survived.

This should set the poem in context, but just so you know everything ends happily: Prospero reclaims his dukedom, Ferdinand and Miranda end up married and everyone else is forgiven. Lovely!

 Themes

A short little poem that really only links to the theme of mortality and perhaps nature.

 Content

Okay, so the first thing you’ll be wondering is: what’s a fathom? Easy: 1.8288 metres! However, that’s not really relevant, what you need to know is that it is a unit of measurement almost exclusively used to measure the depth of water and thus the opening line tells us that the person the poem is addressing is drowned at sea.

The poem then goes on to describe how his body has almost become one with the ocean floor; his bones are now ‘coral’, his eyes are now ‘pearls’ in oysters. However, the poem is meant to comfort his son as we are not seeing him ‘fade’, but rather he just changes and remains a beautiful part of nature. Interestingly this poem/song is the origin of the term ‘sea-change’, which is a phrase now more commonly used to represent making a total change in direction in your life.

When the sea nymphs ‘ring his knell’ this conjures an image of sirens singing in mourning as opposed to funeral bells (which a knell typically refers to). When we hear that at the end we mourn the drowned father.

 Language and techniques

Not a huge amount here, but the key thing is examining the use of nature to exemplify the qualities of the deceased.

The comparison between ‘bones’ and ‘coral’ is literal, in terms of hardness and texture (there is a bone crafting treatment where they use pieces of coral apparently). However, we should also see this as his body returning to the earth where it started, ‘dust to dust’ and all that, but being magnified and celebrated through comparison to one of the ocean’s real beauties and wonders. A coral reef is a really spectacular show of colour and life and serves as a natural city to sea life.

This continues with his ‘eyes’ compared to ‘pearls’ clearly as a result of their similar pure white nature, but also the comparison elevates the deceased as he is once again a beauty and a treasure of the ocean depths. If you’re not familiar with pearls they are pretty valuable stones that form inside oysters and are often used in expensive jewellery, particularly necklaces – don’t Google pearl necklace… it will not help and your innocent mind is not ready for it!

The fact that we are seeing the positive in this death are clear from the fourth line: ‘nothing doth fade’. We are not to think of him as being gone and forgotten, but his beauty and worth will remain with us and be recognised in the natural beauty of the world. Although he is now different or ‘strange’ to us, crucially he is no less ‘rich’ to our mind and memory now he is dead.

The final three lines present a image of nymphs at sea honouring the dead with the funereal bell. Obviously this is not actually happening (although it could have in The Tempest as there is a lot of magic and mythology within the play), but it is as if the beauty of the sea is celebrating or mourning the passing of a worthy soul. A nymph, in case your wondering, is a female spirit associated with great beauty so again there interest elevates our deceased. A sea-nymph would probably best be compared to a siren, which were mythical ladies of the sea who would tempt sailors to their deaths with their beautiful song. Here, it is as if these sirens are actually using their song to recognise our deceased. The fact they ring ‘hourly’ suggests the deep significance and importance of this man once more.

 Structure

It’s an odd structure, this one. Broken into a sestet (lines) following ABABCC rhyme scheme and tercet (3 lines) with rhyme between the first and third lines (although the eighth line essentially upsets a regular pattern with its ‘ding-dong’.

I’d mention the gentle rhyme scheme with simple one or two syllable words and no half-rhymes or difficult rhymes to deal with. This lends the poem a soft and soothing feel when read and is meant to support the overall direction of the poem as something to make loved ones feel better about the deceased’s passing.

Maybe also you can mention the onomatopoeia on the ‘ding-dong’ that is also repeated to emphasise once more the significance of this passing, an idea also intensified by the fact this ‘ding-dong[ing]’ is meant to be ‘hourly’ as if informing the whole world that this man is dead.

 Tone

I think this is generally a positive tone of comforting. The singer is trying to console the deceased’s remaining loved ones that they will still be able to recognise him in the beauty and life of nature and making death seem like something natural and something not to be feared: we are returning to the earth we were born from.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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