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The Seafarer

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How does the alliteration of words beginning with w, r, and s affect the sound and meaning of lines 59–62 of "The Seafarer"?

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Alliteration using W, R, and S in lines 59–62 of "The Seafarer" affects the sound and meaning by emphasizing the movement across water and creating unity between contrasting entities and ideas. Alliteration is used in combination with consonance to create these effects.

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In the Old English poem “The Seafarer,” the speaker recounts their travels across the waters, where their primary company is whales rather than other people. The wide-ranging travels abroad are contrasted to the desire for home and security. Both alliteration and consonance are used with the W, R, and S sounds. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, while consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in any other position. The repetition in varied spots through lines 59–62 creates continuity of sound and ideas. In some cases, this repetition enforces obvious similarities, while in others, it establishes commonalities between different concepts:

My soul roams with the sea, the whales'

Home, wandering to the widest corners

Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,

Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me.

Instances of alliteration using S are: “soul,” “sea,” “solitary,” and “screaming”—four words in all. The idea of the seafarer’s lonely existence is emphasized in connecting “soul” and “solitary” in the first and last line of the group. The power of sound is greatly expanded through the combination with consonance, which includes the final S in numerous plurals: “roams,” “whales,” “widest,” “corners,” “ravenous,” “desire,” and “exciting.”

The examples of alliteration that use R are “roams,” “returning,” and “ravenous.” An instance in the first line is matched with two in a lower line, and the traveling of “roams” is contrasted with “returning.” Again, consonance expands the unity of sound, with R appearing in “wandering,” “corners,” “world,” “desire,” “solitary,” and screaming.” Notably, both S and R appear in many words.

The W sound initiates “whales,” “wandering,” “widest,” and “world.” As most of the words indicate expanse, including the whales with them creates a sense of togetherness between human and animal. For the W, consonance is not used, but again the alliterative W is often combined with consonance in the other two sounds.

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“The Seafarer” is an Old English poem by an anonymous author. Composed sometime in the Anglo-Saxon period or Early Middle Ages, it reflects the poetic style of its day in that it utilizes the sound devices of alliteration and consonance, rather than rhyme.

The lines you are referring to, 59-62, exemplify the Old English style pretty well:

My soul roams with the sea, the whales’

Home, wandering to the widest corners

Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,

Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me....

Note that we hear the “s” sound 11 times in these four lines (including the “c” in “exciting”). The “s” sound is often likened to the sound of the wind, which we can imagine the Seafarer experiencing as he travels the ocean. These “s” sounds are an example of consonance because they occur not just at the beginnings of words but also in the middle (desire) and end (whales).

This wind sound is also imitated by the “wh” blend from the word “whale,” which makes an even stronger wind sound. The word “wandering,” which we see in line 60 of our modern translation, was actually “hweorfed” in the Old English version of the poem. Although it meant basically the same thing, it was pronounced like the “wh” blend we are accustomed to. In fact, it is generally thought that the Old English “hw” was pronounced with an even greater “whooshing” sound than our modern “wh,” so the resemblance to the wind would have been more striking.  

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In addition to considering modern translations of "The Seafarer," it is worth considering the instances of alliteration in the original Anglo-Saxon text of the poem. For example, in Anglo-Saxon, the word for "soul" was in fact "mod," something closer to our modern "mind." The poet alliterates this with "mid mereflode," which means out on the sea or on the waterways. There is then alliteration on "hwaeles" (whales) with "hweorfeð" which is something close to "throughout." We do find "w" sounds and "th" sounds in these lines, too, but we don not find any significant "s" sounds, "w" sounds, or "r" sounds.

In the original Anglo-Saxon, then, we might suggest that the use of "m" emphasizes mindfulness, contemplation, and melancholy. It is a sound which suggests meditation and thought. The translator has replaced this with an "s" sound. This has something of a similar impact, but it also creates a sense of susurration, of wind and waves, so it arguably makes the feeling of the line more external and less internal. Meanwhile, the "hw" sound in the original Anglo-Saxon is a very windy, forceful sound, which suggests the wind; this is replaced by the "s" in the modern translation. At the same time, the modern translator is using the "w" sound to give a different effect, perhaps that of water and waves, because they do not have access to the Anglo-Saxon "hw" sound, which no longer really exists in modern English.

Looking at this poem and its translation is a good illustration of how important it is to translate the sound of a poem as well as its denotative and connotative meanings.

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Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound within a line of poetry. Alliteration, when used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, was used to insure the musical quality of the lyrical and elegiac poems. The poetry and epics of the Anglo-Saxon period were historically sung (by scops) given the lack of a universal written language. The alliteration helped to insure the musical quality of the poems. 

The alliteration of the w, r, and s in lines 59-62 of "The Seafarer" insured the liquid sound of the lines. Since the lines in question contain specific images of water (waterways, whale path, widely, and world), the w and r illustrate the realistic and fluid movement of water. The repetition of the letters also insures the reader's fluid movement through the lines (which, again, mirrors the movement of water). 

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Alliteration was one of the key elements used by Old English poets. Unlike many of today's poets, and especially today's students, Old English poets didn't worry too much about end-rhyme.

Poets like to alliterate because it creates a pleasant sound effect for the reader, especially when the poem is read aloud. But even when we are silently reading to ourselves, sound effects such as alliteration can have an impact on the sound we imagine we hear.

Exceptionally good poets can do something more with alliteration. They can use the repetition of initial consonant sounds to actually create or emphasize thematic meaning. Look at the lines you have specified:

My soul, roams with the sea, the whales'

Home, wandering to the widest corners

Of the world, returning ravenous with desire

Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me

Now, think about the setting in which the poem occurs—the ocean. The repetition of the “s” and “w” sounds are often associated with the sea-like sounds of the wind and the waves. By repeating these sounds in close proximity, the poet hopes to re-create that aspect of the setting.

The “r” sound in “returning ravenous with desire” has a different effect. The “r” sound is harder, more forceful, than the “s” or “w” sound. What better way to emphasize the feeling of intense yearning that the poet is thinking of here?

I would be remiss if I did not make a point here about poetic sound effects. We have been talking about alliteration, which is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. If you look closely at the “s” and “r” sounds in the above passage you will see that they are repeated not only at the beginning of words, but also in middles and/or ends of other nearby words. This is a different sound effect, called “consonance.” Alliteration, since it is restricted to the first sound in a word, is a specific kind of consonance.

Also, take note of the “c” in exciting in the last line in the passage above. Even though it is a “c” and not an “s,” it still counts as part of the “s” consonance pattern because the sound is the same. Sound devices depend on the sound we hear, not the actual letters we use.



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