Is the narrator of "The Seafarer" better off now, or before when he sailed the ocean?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The unnamed narrator is both happy and sad that his life on the ocean is over. In the first part of the poem, he describes the hardships of the ocean, the cold night, bitter weather, and constant fear of death. His descriptive language gives insight and powerful imagery into the difficult life of a seafarer; while the rewards may be great, and the journey requires specific men with skill and prowess, that does not mean that those men are overjoyed to be on the ocean, constantly moving and wet and afraid. The narrator contrasts the isolation of his life with the lives of men on land, who are always warm, fed, and surrounded by friends. However, this sedentary life does not entirely agree with him:

And yet my heart wanders away,
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
To the open ocean, breaking oaths
On the curve of a wave.
Thus the joys of God
Are fervent with life, where life itself
Fades quickly into the earth.
("The Seafarer," eNotes eText)

He may be more comfortable, wealthy from his travels and ready to live out his days in relative happiness with other people, but a part of him is still on the ocean, on the rolling plains of water that hide a world of life underneath. The power of his experiences changed him forever, giving him joy in his life and appreciation both of his abilities and of the grandeur of the natural world. Compared to that shifting landscape with its endless creatures, what can the land offer but boring sameness day after day? The seafarer recognizes that one era of his life is finished, but he remembers it not for the pain and the fear, but for the thrill, the exhilaration that allowed him to survive and continue where others would have failed.