The unique copy of “The Seafarer” is found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript anthology of Old English poetry assembled about 975 c.e., although many of the poems, including “The Seafarer,” may have circulated in oral versions before being written down in the form in which they now exist. The poem’s Christian message would seem to rule out any date earlier than the seventh century, when the Anglo-Saxons were converted; at the other extreme, it may have been composed, at least in the form in which it survives, around the time that the scribe copied it into the book in the second half of the tenth century. The 124-line poem is untitled in the manuscript, and its author is unknown. The best-known translation is that of Ezra Pound, whose rendering of the first ninety-nine lines has been widely admired on its own merits by readers with no knowledge of the original.
“The Seafarer,” like most Old English poetry, is characterized by textual problems, abrupt transitions, and apparent inconsistencies in tone and structure that combine to render any modern interpretation tentative and subject to revision. Earlier scholars frequently read the poem as a dialogue between an experienced sailor and a young man who has not yet been to sea, dividing the text into alternating speeches (though with little agreement as to where these speeches begin and end). More recently, the critical consensus has come around to the view that the poem is a monologue by a single speaker, a religious man who has spent a life on the sea and is now meditating on his experience of life on Earth and contemplating the afterlife in Heaven.
The poem begins with the speaker’s remembrance of the hardships of his past life on the sea, focusing especially on scenes of solitary voyages undertaken in harsh winter weather. He contrasts his lonely and difficult seafaring existence with that of the dwellers on land, who enjoy the comforts and pleasures of social life. At about line 33 of the poem, the seafarer resolves to return to the sea for another voyage, evidently to a distant land. He then shifts from personal experience to more general remarks in the third person about how seafaring men are different from landsmen, drawn more strongly to wander than to share in an admitted prosperity and the beauty of the land, especially in spring and summer. The seafarer then briefly returns to his personal thoughts about the voyage he is planning.
At about the midpoint of the poem, he explicitly makes the point that life on the land is sterile, fleeting, and insubstantial. In the second half of the poem, he moves away from the autobiographical discussion of his experiences and concentrates on the revelation to which they have led him. He develops at length the argument that worldly goods and honors are transient and insubstantial and that wise people will therefore turn their minds entirely to the eternal life in the heavenly kingdom, considering not how to enjoy themselves on Earth but how to prepare themselves for Heaven, which offers the only true home for humankind.