What are three images used by the poet of "The Seafarer" in the first stanza to convey a sense of isolation, with example quotations?

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kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The original Anglo-Saxon isn't broken into stanzas, but some translators break the text into stanzas of ten lines each, while at least one other translator renders the poem as prose paragraphs, with the first break at line 27. Images of isolation in lines one to ten are those of a man's isolated internal struggles: isolated (and isolating) "anxiety at heart"; lonely, isolated "hazardous night-watch"; isolated hunger and weariness of mind as "[h]unger within tore." One image speaks of geographical isolation during years at sea, "[w]ave tossed," bounded "by cliff-wall." [The ~ below indicates a caesura break, which some translators turn into a line break (e.g., line 5 in the Anglo-Saxon with caesura is this: "gecunnad in ceole     cearselda fela,").]

Bitter the breast-care ~ That I suffered,
Known at my keel ~  Many a care’s hold, ...  5
When wary night-watch ~ Found me often
There at the ship’s stem, ~ Wave-tossed, by cliff-wall. ...
Hunger within tore ~ The sea-weary soul. ....

Images of isolation in lines one to ten show (1) the isolation of anguished psychological and mental suffering, along with (2) the isolation of hazardous night-time duty on a ship in a dangerous sea in (3) an isolated and violent physical geography. Images of isolation in the first ten lines are few, because the seafarer's hardship at sea may be suffered in company with a whole crew until we know that he is alone and isolated on shipboard, which he tells us at lines 15 and 16:

Weathered winter ~ In ways of exile, 15
Bereft of my brethren, ~ Hung with ice-shards;

That his true isolation is withheld until lines 15 and 16 renders the discovery more heart-wrenching and meaningful because, until then, we harbor a questioning hope that he is not alone in the horrible seas he has been battling. Images of isolation after line 16 are more plentiful. For example, he hears no sound, including that of a human voice, "I heard nothing but the raging of the sea." For the seafarer, shared human entertainment (like a sailor's song and jig), shared human laughter and shared "mead-drinking" are replaced by the swan's song, the gannet's cry, the curlew's call and the sea-mew's singing:

There I heard nothing but the raging of the sea, the ice-cold wave. Sometimes I would take the song of the swan as my entertainment, the cry of the gannet and the call of the curlew in place of human laughter, the sea-mew's singing in place of the mead-drinking. (S.A.J. Bradley prose translation)

These images paint the picture of an isolation from human contact that is absolute. Only birds enter to share and soften his bleak, lonely existence.

There I heard naught ~ But sea roaring,
Ice-cold wave. ~ Whiles the swan’s song
Had I for pleasure; ~ Gannet’s clamour,  20
Curlew’s crying, ~ For men’s laughter;
The mew’s singing ~ For mead-drinking. ...
Sea-foam-feathered; ~ No bright companion
There to comfort ~ The careworn soul.

sullymonster's profile pic

sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In the first selection, the narrator is portrayed as a prisoner in his surroundings, alone in his personal and icy dungeon. 

My feet were cast
In icy bands, bound with frost,

In the second example, the image is of the narrator beset upon by storms, having no shelter from the dangerous conditions and no one to protect him from them.

How wretched I was, drifting through winter
On an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow,
Alone in a world blown clear of love,
Hung with icicles. The hailstorms flew.
The only sound was the roaring sea,
The freezing waves.

In this last image, readers see the narrator as surrounded only by rocky cliffs, with the screams of birds as his only company.

Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed
By icy-feathered terns and the eagle's screams;
No kinsman could offer comfort there,
To a soul left drowning in desolation.

The poet uses the weather, the cries of birds, and the unwelcoming rocky cliffs to portray the alienation felt by the Seafarer.


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