The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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...
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The Seafarer (Magill Book Reviews)
The sailor begins with the reasons for his sorrow. His only home has been a ship constantly encountering indifferent forces, the sea and the cold. The prosperous man situated on land does not know the icy feeling of exile, the feeling of being cut off from one’s loved ones. The sailor’s joy has been the cry of sea birds instead of the laughter of men. On the sea, he says, there is no protector for men. Those on land, flushed with wine, are incapable of believing in his suffering.
Nonetheless, the sailor maintains that the heart’s desire is to venture forth on another journey. At the same time, he warns, there is no man so brave he can escape the anxiety that accompanies seafaring. His thoughts are not of music, riches, or women, but of his own longing. Not satisfaction, but dissatisfaction urges his heart and mind “over the stretch of seas.”
This yearning leads him to the “joys of the Lord,” which are not earthly. There are three things that are always uncertain until they come: illness, old age, and hostility, each of which entertains the possibility of death. Why then, he wonders, should one wish for earthly fame? One should rather seek fame among the angels.
The best days and their joys, he concludes, are gone, and weaklings have come to power. When a man dies, none of his former joys will have meaning. Thus it is foolish not to fear the Lord, but one is blessed who lives humbly--as presumably the seafarer has done. The poem ends with an exhortation to the reader to consider where his real home is and how to proceed there.
THE SEAFARER provides interest because it was obviously composed at a pivotal time when north European stoicism was giving way to Christian forbearance and hope. The poem has the feeling of both, and though the Christian feeling is uppermost, most readers remember the poem’s austere, impressionistic images of life at sea.
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Old English poetry is alliterative, relying on repetition of the initial sounds of stressed syllables rather than on rhymes at the ends of lines as its structural principle. The details of this alliterative practice can be quite complicated, but the most typical form is illustrated by lines 31-32 of “The Seafarer,” which appear thus in the original Old English: “Nap niht-scua, nor an sniwde,/ hrim hrusan band, hægl feoll on eor an” (“Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,/ Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then”). Each line is divided into two half lines (separated by editorially provided commas in these examples), and the alliterating letters for each line (n and h) must occur in both halves. Each half line usually has two stressed syllables, and while either or (more often) both may alliterate in the first half line (the “a” line), in the second half line (the “b” line), the first stressed syllable must alliterate and the second must not.
While there are many threads of imagery throughout the poem, including those of cold, barrenness, and the progression of the seasons, the central metaphor is surely that of the ship at sea, which was used throughout classical and medieval literature in a variety of permutations to symbolize human life. The specifically Christian version of the image used in this poem typically identifies the waves and salinity of the sea with the uncertainty and bitterness of postlapsarian...
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