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 a naturally apt image of the believer’s life on Earth, which should be viewed as a hazardous journey to the true homeland of Heaven rather than as a destination to be valued in itself. In this poem, the speaker seems to be a religious man (or reformed sinner) who has chosen the seafaring life as much for its efficacy as a means of spiritual discipline as for any commercial gain to be derived from it. The original opposition in the poem between landsmen and seafarers gives way to the insight that all men are, or ought to think of themselves as, seafarers, in the sense that they are all exiles from their true home in Heaven. As lines 31-32 (previously quoted) establish, the land can be just as cold and forbidding as the sea, and the virtuous, at least, should hope that they will be sojourning in this harsh world for only a brief time.
True Christian “seafarers” must psychologically distance themselves from secular life, as the seafarer of this poem has done both literally and figuratively. The poet appears to encapsulate his theme at the pivotal midpoint of the poem: “therefore the joys of the Lord seem warmer to me than this dead life, fleeting on land.” This recommended ascetic withdrawal from worldly interests should enable the Christian to properly reject the comforts of life on the land as transient and seek spiritual rather than physical comforts.