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.