Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Early scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature believed that “The Seafarer” represented an early pagan poem that had been adapted for Christian audiences by the insertion of pious formulas throughout and a moral at the end; accordingly, these scholars expended considerable ingenuity in attempting to excise the Christian elements to discover the “real poem” hidden beneath these composite overlays. Pound’s famous translation, in line with this emphasis, systematically removes or downplays many explicitly Christian elements of the poem and stops before the overtly homiletic conclusion, which features some dozen direct references to God and the heavens in the last twenty-five lines.
Now, however, critics seem generally to agree that the two halves of the poem are unified by a movement from earthly chaos to heavenly order and that its coherent thematic thrust is the Christian message that the afterlife is more important than life on Earth. The poem is frequently discussed in conjunction with “The Wanderer,” another Exeter Book poem that shares many themes and motifs with “The Seafarer,” including the structure in which a specific treatment of biographical subject matter—the plight of a wanderer or seafarer—is followed by a more general homiletic section that draws a religious meaning from the earlier material.
The sailor, as a man required to travel over a hostile and dangerous environment, had always seemed to Christian poets to be...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
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