The narrator describes a night on an ocean beach when the ocean waves seem to be preparing to destroy the land and its people. The shore, cliff, and continent are allied together against the threat of the oncoming storm, but the narrator doubts that they will be successful at quelling the destructive force of the ocean. Moreover, this destruction will not last a single night, but rather for an “age” - perhaps even at the direct order of a higher power.
This poem is in the traditional sonnet form of fourteen lines and corresponds to the Shakespearean rhyme scheme: AABB CCDD EEFF GG.
The poem is based on a traumatic experience from Frost’s childhood in San Francisco. During a walk along a popular ocean beach, Frost’s parents accidentally left him behind, and Frost found himself alone, facing an ominous storm suddenly coming toward land. This upsetting event was exacerbated by numerous other trips to the ocean when Frost’s father would leave him on the beach while he took long-distance swims. Frost would be convinced that his father was abandoning him and would wait in a state of heightened anxiety until his father would reappear in the waves.
Frost clearly incorporates his childhood terror of the ocean into the poem, but expands the threat by describing the destructive rage of the ocean against all of mankind. The ocean waves have a palpable consciousness that is concerned only with the destruction of anything they can touch: “Great waves…thought of doing something to the shore / That water never did to land before.” In this clash between the rising titans of water and land, it is easy to imagine a terrified little boy trapped between the two, unable to escape and doomed to destruction by one of the two forces.
The threat of the ocean is particularly palpable because of the waves’ malevolent personification. These waves are not the unconscious results of changing weather systems, but rather evil, sentient beings that intend to use all of their might to destroy anything they can touch. The “thought” of the ocean waves makes them the most terrifying because their war against humanity seems to be premeditated. Moreover, the vast ocean is an unconquerable foe; even the shore and cliffs need to be supported by the entire continent in order to face the malignant waters.
Above all, Frost makes it clear that the ocean waves are not a threat to be faced by an individual, let alone a child. He describes a fear that should be felt by all people on a universal level and provides a general warning: “Someone had better be prepared for rage.”
Frost ends the poem with a question about the source of the ocean’s destructive rage. Is it possible that the same God who ordered, “Let there be light!” could be provoking the ocean in order to destroy all of mankind? Frost leaves it to the reader to ask whether God has completely abandoned humanity and allied Himself with the angry forces of nature to destroy the unappreciative human species.