How does "The Seafarer" reveal the Anglo-Saxon ideal of loyalty and tragedy of separation or exile from one's lord?

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Both "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer," both of which are found in the Exeter Book (ca. 725 CE), are dramatic monologues in which the speakers describe their experience of hardship, the loss of their past, and their hope for a better "life" after death in accord with their...

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Both "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer," both of which are found in the Exeter Book (ca. 725 CE), are dramatic monologues in which the speakers describe their experience of hardship, the loss of their past, and their hope for a better "life" after death in accord with their new Christian belief system. "The Seafarer," however, is fundamentally different from "The Wanderer" in that the seafarer seems to have chosen his exile, the cause of which he never explains, and even though he clearly misses his prior life of companionship, loyalty, and power, he ultimately rejects the past and focuses on the promises of his new Christian belief system.

In dramatic imagery, the seafarer describes the hardship of his exile at sea:

Fettered by cold were my feet,
bound by frost in cold clasps...
how I wretched and sorrowful
on the ice-cold sea dwelt for a winter. (2.12–15)

His exile from his kinsmen and the land, then, is neither permanent nor long, but even this relatively short experience leads the seafarer to disclose that he sails "the paths of exile." Even more important, he describes himself as "bereft of friendly kinsmen" (2.15–16). Although the seafarer never discloses the reasons of his exile, we can infer that his decision to go to sea is not voluntary—he has either committed a crime so serious as to be exiled, perhaps murder, or he has been defeated in battle along with his tribe, and without his kinsmen to provide protection, he has exiled himself.

That he seeks to find another homeland is clear when he says,

the wish of my heart urges all the time
my spirit to go forth, that I, far from here,
should seek the homeland of a foreign people— (2.36–38)

Part of his desire to find a homeland stems from his earlier comment that a seafaring life is full of danger and that every sailor must worry "as to what his Lord will do to him" (2.43). The poem uses the word Dryhten for Lord, so it can be construed to reference the ship's lord, to reference the captain, or to be a Christian reference to God. Given what follows later, a Christian reference is likely, but the point of these lines is that the seafarer's goal is to end his exile by finding another home on land. The fact that he seeks a "foreign people" implies that his people are either dead or that they have cast him out.

Like the speaker in "The Wanderer," the seafarer speaks about the loss of past glories: loyalty to a leader, fame, a life of companionship.

The days are gone of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth, there are not now kings...nor givers of gold as there once were...
All that old guard is gone and the revels are over—
the weaker ones now dwell and hold the world. (2.80–87)

The seafarer's tone here is elegiac, common in poems like Beowulf, "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," and "Deor," a lament for what was once a glorious and fulfilling life of companionship, loyalty, generosity, and power. The jarring statement, though, of the last line—"the weaker ones now dwell and hold the world"—signals that, even in this "Christian" poem, tension still exists between the poem's pagan foundation and the speaker's Christian belief system.

The strength, however, of the seafarer's new belief system is made clear in the poem's conclusion, in which the lament for glories is replaced by a conventional Christian belief that God now controls the seafarer's life:

A fool is the one who does not fear his Lord
—death comes to him unprepared.
Blessed is he who lives humbly—to him comes forgiveness from heaven. (2.106–107)

The seafarer concludes his monologue with essentially a rejection of his pagan past, but the rejection is couched in very conventional terms that he would have recited somewhat mechanically but politely rather than from his heart—as he did about his exile on the sea and his loss of companionship.

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"The Seafarer" is one of several Anglo-Saxon laments which revolve around the theme of exile and separation from one's lord. This was a preoccupation for the Anglo-Saxons—compare "The Wanderer," "Deor," and "The Wife's Lament."

In "The Seafarer," the speaker is a man who finds himself doomed to travel the waves, his life filled with cold that seems to "fetter" him. He expounds upon the fact that the non-exiled, who remain with their communities, cannot understand how wretched it is to tread the "paths of exile." He specifies that he is "winemaegum bidroren," or deprived of kinsmen. Instead of the singing and laughter of other people, he hears only the cries of the gulls. He itemizes the elements of his society—mead, friendship, and the joys of life—he misses now that he no longer has them.

Lines 44–48 linger particularly on the various trappings of Anglo-Saxon society which are now outside of the seafarer's reach, such as the giving of rings, which demonstrates vassalage between a man and his lord. The seafarer does not explain why he has been exiled, nor does he speak about a particular lord, but he notes that those he has fought with are now dead, leaving him yearning for the solace of death, where he will at least be together with a different Lord in heaven.

It is sometimes inferred that the seafarer's crime is that he did not die in the battle which took from him his lord and his kinsmen; thus, he has no honor within his society.

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Though the seafarer has made his life one of adventures on the high seas, he still ruminates on what he is missing from his life on shore. One of the aspects of life at home that he rues missing is his life with his lord at home. He writes, "Indeed there is not so proud-spirited/a man in the world . . . that he never in his seafaring/has a worry,/as to what his Lord/will do to him." The seafarer, brave and honorable though he is, misses everyday Anglo-Saxon life, which is shaped by feudalism. He refers to missing the sound of the harp, the giving of rings, and the pleasure of women. When this poem was written, life in England was ruled by lords, and the seafarer shows loyalty to his lord at home. At the end of the poem, he also shows loyalty to a greater lord, God, as he thanks God, whom he refers to as "the eternal Lord." He feels that his life is ultimately dedicated to the glory of the eternal Lord.

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This is an excellent question.  The seafarer isn't quite like other Anglo-Saxon literature like Beowulf where there is a definite king and a warrior willing to give his life to protect the king.  However, the key ideas of loyalty and separation do apply when you think of the sea as the seafarer's lord.  The sea is his life--his heart.  When on the sea, the seafarer is his happiest, regardless of the cold, the wind, the icy bands, and the harsh weather that cause his body to age prematurely.  When he is on land, all he can think of is getting back to the sea.  He should be his happiest on land...the comforts of home, the fire, the food, drink, the company of women, but his heart aches for the sea, and he can't wait to get back to it.  Part of the separation anxiety he must feel is the realization that his body will give out eventually, and his separation from the sea will be permanent at some point in the future.  All that having been said, he is most at home on the water and would just as soon give his life at sea than to spend it comfortably on land mourning his love from afar.

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