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Wave after wave: reflecting on the role of water in our literature, lifestyles, imagination and experience 

Updated: Feb 15

I put off writing this article for a long time, afraid that there could be nothing original left to say about waves, water, or why we are drawn to it – so long contemplated, and regularly committed to literary interpretation have these concepts been. However, appropriately, one of the most compelling and reassuring features of waves is their timeless, fluid, perpetuity, and yet, even in their unfailing recurrence, no two are ever the same. This realised, the following article comprises an exploration into our long relationship with waves, the beneficial qualities they confer to our health, happiness and wellbeing, and the entirely unparalleled effect they have on our imaginations: the latest wave in an ever rising tide of literature on the subject. 

Indeed, there are as many oceanic metaphors, odes and elegies, as there are seashores – if not more! From Homer to Melville and Genesis to Woolf, writers since time immemorial have been moved to describe the trajectory of human history through reference to, or metaphorically by, the motion of water. We are also in something of a renaissance in the genre of meta commentary on the role of water in literature. Building on the tradition, perhaps initiated by Charles Sprawson in Haunts of the Black Masseur (1992), we can now look to Laing, Lee, Landreth, Tsui for examples of how the historic, the literary and the personal become inextricably linked when connected to bodies of water. (I would particularly recommend Tsui’s Why We Swim (2020): in this non-fiction/ memoir/love-letter to swimming, she explores the elements of survival, wellbeing, community, competition and flow that, together, explain our age-old addiction.) 

It is the paradoxical nature of waves – their fluid constancy and constant fluidity – I think, that renders them both elusive, and so deeply appealing to, artists and poets. The contradiction, between waves’ perennial dependability and unpredictability that makes them so powerful an allegory for the fluid states of the human experience and psyche, that similarly defy easy confinement or description.

We are gripped by ‘waves’ of grief/hysteria/joy/anxiety. Relief and relaxation wash over us ‘like waves’. Our vision is ‘flooded’ with light, and our minds with memories. Similarly, recollections are called from the ‘depths’ of our minds, and we are regularly ‘immersed’ in a given task or ‘inundated’ by work. In our motion too we find ourselves ‘going with the flow’, or ‘floating’ through life when things are fine, and struggling to ‘keep afloat’ or ‘our heads above water’, when they are not. And in our marking of time, we speak of ‘new waves’ and ‘changing tides’. In our thoughts, movement and perception of time itself, we speak in aquatic analogy. In such small descriptors we encompass a vast history and shared experience of both the violent and calm extremes of the motion of water. Water is, on earth, after all a universal human language. Across time and cultures this is evidenced by tales of voyages and their disruption (Odysseus’), floods (Noah’s), and parting seas (Moses’), to name but a few. And beyond tales and legends, our very history as a species is punctuated by periods of mass migration across waves. Today, even the most land-based among us, use the language of swimming, water and waves to explain the more enigmatic and intimate movements of our mental states. Perhaps this is because, since we have walked on earth, ocean to oasis, we have lived with, and because of, water, and in this universally understood language of waves and fluidity, we can most effectively convey sentiments incommunicable by any element less ubiquitous or essential. 

Waves are not just the subject of our ancient and contemporary imaginations, however, they also frequently represent the source. Several of the most acclaimed thinkers in literature and history, from Lord Byron, to Iris Murdoch and Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein, relied on immersion, or travel across and through waves, to find inspiration for their work. Oliver Sacks CBE, the neurologist, historian, writer, explained that “[t]here is something about being in water and swimming which alters the writer’s mood, gets his thoughts going, as nothing else can. Theories and stories would construct themselves in [my] mind as [I] swam to and fro, or round and round…” (Sacks, 1997). So much did his swims inspire him, that he frequently had to stop and come to shore to write down the “[s]entences and paragraphs [which] would write themselves in his mind” (ibid). Einstein (who probably needs no introduction), though he could not swim, also wrote to a friend: “A cruise in the sea, is an excellent opportunity for maximum calm and reflection on ideas from a different perspective” (Einstein, 1922/3). Both these experiences have been shared by countless others. Why? I wonder. Is immersion or voyage necessarily always a catalyst for deep thought? Or is it the isolated suspension from the present via the liminality of a water journey – between two places and uncontactable by others at either of these – that generates a state of mind so free as to be conducive to revelation? Perhaps it is the mental liberation and vulnerability that arises from surrender to an ineffable ocean, or the fact that swimming, or deep connection with waves, can feel like falling “into some other world, adjacent to our own”, a place perhaps, where creativity thrives? (Laing, 2011) This last thought is echoed by Tsui, who suggests that, “each pool is in fact a potential portal”, and “when we immerse ourselves, something is awakened…a vital new sense discovered’ (Tsui, 2020). This vital sense, I argue, whether one of peace or inspiration, is fundamental to our collective drive to create, and explains why, as the tides rise and fall, we come back, relentlessly, to the waves. 

Beyond its power as catalyst and amplifier of creativity, water also confers a whole host of other mental, spiritual and physical benefits. There is a reason why swimming is the most popular sport in England today (Tsui, 2020) and there is a reason why millions of people listen to wave and deep ocean playlists on Spotify everyday, while they work, practice mindfulness, or try to sleep. Indeed, we have relied on water-based cures for our ails, physical or not, since ancient times, with Ancient Egyptian royalty bathing in essential oils and the promotion of thermal springs for good health in Ancient China and Japan. Euripides’ wrote that “the sea restores the maladies of man” in the 5th century BC. As Tsui has observed, even though throughout most of history people weren’t sure why being immersed in water made them feel better, they did know it helped (Tsui, 2020). Today the miracles of modern science can enlighten us as to why this might be. Besides the obvious benefits of swimming as a sport – being low impact and highly exacting – the very pressure of water on the body is good for physical health. When we are immersed in water, it pushes blood away from the extremities and towards your heart and lungs; this temporarily elevates your blood pressure and makes your heart and lungs work harder” (Tsui, 2020), and over time builds cardiovascular endurance so that your blood pressure actually gets lower in the long term. Dr Hirofumi Tanaka is a leading professional on the subject of how our bodies move, and age, and is a keen promoter of swimming for health. He has observed how, as well as surpassing the rates of diminishing blood pressure for walking and cycling, swimming is also the best sport for those living with chronic pain or diseases like arthritis since “it stimulates mobility - without pain – and circulation” (Alkatan, 2016). 

In body and mind alike then, waves promote mobility, fluidity, flow. There is undeniably a deeply therapeutic and almost meditative power in connection to waves. As Williams, journalist and environment author, has identified, “[o]ur nervous systems are built to resonate with set points in the environment” (Williams, 2017 ) and perhaps nowhere is this more tangible than between tide and breath - the ceaseless ins and outs, that define both life and ocean. In water, “the rhythm of how we breathe…changes us. Deep breathing research is in its infancy, but we know that this pace of breath is soothing” (Tsui, 2020). And on land, this alignment is recognised in the yogic practice of ocean, or ujjayi, breath, thousands of years old, and through which even our vicarious imitation of wave motion and sounds, is effective in reducing anxiety, quieting the mind, strengthening the nervous system and stabilising blood pressure, among a myriad of other benefits. Even proximity to water is calming, healing. Whether it is simply feeling better after a walk by the river, or the fact that, miraculously, “patients recovering from heart surgery have been found to need less pain medication when there are nature scenes at the foot of their beds; an image that includes water [being] even more effective than an image of an enclosed forest in reducing anxiety during the postoperative period” (Tsui 2020). It seems obvious then that, as Williams suggests, working to increase public “blue spaces”, as well as “green spaces” in urban areas should be an imperative, not merely an ideal (Williams, 2017). Waves enrich, inspire, describe, elongate and improve our lives. Upon discovering the exhilarating joy of open water swimming, the protagonist of The J. M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society exclaims, “You need to keep this a secret! Or tell the whole world! I’m not sure which.” To conclude, I think we need to do the latter. I can’t wait to go for a swim.

Bibliography (and some reading recommendations!) 


Assorted authors, At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, 2019. 

Bonnie Tsui, Why we Swim, 2020. (a favourite!!) 

Callum Roberts, Reef Life, 2019. 

Charles Sprawson, Haunts of the Black Masseur, 1992. 

Florence Williams, The Nature Fix, 2017. 

Jessica J. Lee, Turning: Lessons from swimming Berlin’s lakes, 2017. 

Olivia Laing, To the River, 2017. (a favourite!!) 

Tristan Gooley, How to read water: Clues & Patterns from puddles to the sea, 2016. 

Yusra Mardini, Butterfly. From Refugee to Olypmian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph, 2018.

It’s true – the sound of nature helps us relax - BSMS

What is Oceanic Breath? - Definition from Yogapedi


Barbara J. Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, 2012. 

Chloe Lane, the swimmers, 2020. 

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding,1962. 

Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea, 1978. 

Julia Otsuka, The Swimmers, 2022. 

nina mingya powles, small bodies of water,2021. 

Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the dark, 2020. 

Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931. 


About the author:

Lizzie says, "I'm an East London based writer and creative, deeply in love with Mother Earth and currently trying to reorient my art work away from what frustrates me and towards that which inspires, and brings joy to me."

This article was first published on July 13, 2022 in Journal d’Ambrosie

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