Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In the concluding lines of this very personal elegy, the seafarer of the poem becomes an Everyman figure. As he journeys far from his home into the unknown, he is alternately filled with the exhilaration of Ulysses and the despair of Job, as he ponders the dangers of life and the finality of its conclusion. The seafarer is all men who do not understand their beginnings, whose purpose remains obscure, and whose immortality exists only in the memories of those who come after. The warrior seeks fame in great deeds, the poet perhaps in his own song, but—as the poet suggests—all may be vanity.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, the cruel hand of fate, amoral and rigid in its law, oppresses and finally sweeps everyone away into the void of nothingness. The anguish inspired by inescapable death is still felt strongly in the modern world, where many have abandoned faith. Modern humanity, the product of a technological and scientific society, searches just as anxiously for meaning in life as did any ancient counterpart. Within months of the first publication of this poem (in 1912), Pound was to question human fate still further as World War I began. A dark foreboding colors the work of many poets and writers of the early twentieth century, as diverse in character as Pound and Thomas Hardy, as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.
Ezra Pound, as one of the founders of the Imagist movement, rejected the staid metrical patterns that had dominated Victorian and early twentieth century poetry. It is clear from “The Seafarer” that he had broken the bonds of this dominance by turning to other criteria by which poetry might be judged. In rejecting rhyme and stanza and creating a line whose length was determined by the breath unit or by natural colloquial speech patterns, Pound facilitated the entry of free verse into the lexicon of poetry. The powerful sound devices and the striking imagery inherent in the original “The Seafarer” became a hallmark and technique found not only in Pound’s later work, but in twentieth century free verse generally.