“The Seafarer” was first discovered in the Exeter Book, a hand-copied manuscript containing the largest known collection of Old English poetry, which is kept at Exeter Cathedral, England. “The Seafarer” has its origins in the Old English period of English literature, 450-1100, a time when very few people knew how to read or write. Old English (the predecessor of modern English) is the name given to the Germanic tongues brought to England by the invading tribes who crossed the English channel from Northern Europe. Old English resembles German and Scandinavian languages, and one cannot read it without at least one year of intense study. Even in its translated form, “The Seafarer” provides an accurate portrait of the sense of stoic endurance, suffering, loneliness, and spiritual yearning so characteristic of Old English poetry. “The Seafarer” is divisible into two sections, the first elegiac and the second didactic. “The Seafarer” can be read as two poems on separate subjects or as one poem moving between two subjects. Moreover, the poem can be read as a dramatic monologue, the thoughts of one person, or as a dialogue between two people. The first section is a painfully personal description of the suffering and mysterious attractions of life at sea. In the second section, the speaker makes an abrupt shift to moral speculation about the fleeting nature of fame, fortune, and life itself, ending with an explicitly Christian view of God as wrathful and powerful. In this section, the speaker urges the reader to forget earthly accomplishments and anticipate God’s judgment in the afterlife. The poem addresses both pagan and Christian ideas about overcoming this sense of suffering and loneliness. For example, the speaker discusses being buried with treasure and winning glory in battle (pagan) and also fearing God’s judgment in the afterlife (Christian). Moreover, “The Seafarer” can be thought of as an allegory discussing life as a journey and the human condition as that of exile from God on the sea of life. For comparison, read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Whatever themes one finds in the poem, “The Seafarer” is a powerful account of a sensitive poet’s interaction with his environment.
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