The Old English poem “The Seafarer” can be considered elegiac – that is, sorrowful in tone – in many different respects, including the following:
- The poem opens with its speaker explicitly declaring that the sea has swept him
. . . back
And forth in sorrow and fear and pain,
Showed me suffering in a hundred ships . . . (2-4)
- While the lines just quoted emphasize emotional pain, ensuing lines make it clear that the speaker has suffered much physical pain as well.
- Sometimes physical and emotional pain are united, as when the speaker declares, “Hunger tore / At my sea-weary soul” (11-12)and when he describes how he was
Alone in a world blown clear of love,
Hung with icicles. (16-17)
- The speaker feels both physically isolated and emotionally alienated; he is cut off from most sources of social pleasure and consolation. His only companions are sea birds who themselves seem to be suffering and in pain. He is distant from even from kinsmen, and no romantic companion is even mentioned.
- The speaker is not only aware of his past, present, and future sufferings at sea but is also aware that death of some kind, from some source, is inevitable, thus giving him another reason to feel sorrow:
No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life from his soul. (69-72)
- Another reason for sorrow, the speaker also soon suggests, is that the world itself has declined from what it once was. Sorrow, then, is felt not only personally by this particular speaker but is also felt more broadly, by many humans living at this time:
. . . All glory is tarnished.
The world's honor ages and shrinks,
Bent like the men who mold it. (92-94)
By the second half of the poem, it is clear that the speaker is mourning not only for his own suffering but for the suffering of all people at all times. His lamentation is mainly for the painful mutability of life on earth.
- Ultimately, however, in the second half of the poem and especially in its final lines, the attention of the speaker becomes focused increasingly on God and heaven as alternatives and answers to earthly suffering. Paradoxically, then, a poem that spends much of its phrasing engaged in elegiac lamentation ends with a tone of clear celebration of God and of the glories of the life to come. The sufferings the poem details for most of its length help make the satisfactions of eternal life in heaven with God seem all the more appealing.