How does the first stanza of the Old English poem "The Seafarer" compare to the following three stanzas?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Seafarer," which is found in the Exeter Book and was most likely composed around 925 A. D., is a sailor's lament for his harsh life on the sea and, perhaps more important, his exile from friends and family.  And although he concludes his lament with a nod to Christianity and "joy in the heavens" at the end of life, the poem is centered on pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon themes.

The first stanza sets up the lament by articulating the seafarer's general situation:

I can make a true song about myself,/how I often endured days of struggle,/troublesome times. . . . (ll.1-3)

Here, the seafarer introduces his harsh life in very abstract terms--there is nothing visually stimulating in "days of struggle" or "troublesome times," but the first stanza is designed to set the tone only and prepare the listeners for a visceral real world experience to follow.

The seafarer's "days of struggle" become concrete in the second stanza:

. . . the terrible tossing of the waves,/where the anxious night watch/often took me/at the ship's prow . . . Fettered by cold were my feet, bound by frost in cold clasps. (ll.6-9)

These images would have transported the audience from the abstract opening few lines to the real world of the seafarer and all its discomforts.  Most of the audience, for example, would clearly understand the imagery and the discomfort that imagery describes because they understood the nature of sea voyages.  In other words, they knew how it felt to have feet "bound by frost."

In the third stanza, the seafarer moves from the harshness of the external world to the despair within his soul:

. . . where cares seethed hot about my heart--/a hunger tears from within my sea-weary soul. (ll. 10-11)

If the seafarer is to give this lament it full meaning, he has to describe not only the physical harshness of his life at sea but also what that life does to the soul.  His audience begins to understand that the seafarer's suffering is both physical and spiritual.

The theme of exile, which is perhaps the poem's most powerful statement about the seafarer's life at sea, begins to unfold in the fourth stanza:

. . . in the paths of exile,/bereft of friendly kinsmen . . . There I heard nothing but the roaring sea. (ll.16-17)

The exile theme is particularly important in the context of Anglo-Saxon society.  Among other things, this society was almost always at war, and survival of individuals depended to large extent on the protection of an individual's family and friends.  By telling his audiences that he is "bereft of friendly kinsmen," he is clearly telling them that he has no help in this world.  The term "exile" is not just a figure of speech in this case; it describes a man who is no longer a part of a protective society.  The audience would understand that the seafarer is not just lonely, but completely alone.

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