Most of the images at the beginning of "The Seafarer" refer to what?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" is one hundred and twenty-four lines long; the first twenty five of them are thematically linked and can therefore be considered "the beginning," as you mention in your question. In those first twenty-five lines, most of the imagery centers around the cold conditions which cause the seaman such misery. 

The deep coldness of the sea is seen over and over in the sensory imagery of this section of the poem. The sailor is "sweating in the cold" during his time at watch, his feet are "cast in icy bands" and tied down with "icy chains." The sea itself is "ice-cold," "hung with icicles" and fraught with "freezing waves."

            This tale is true, and mine. It tells 
            How the sea took me, swept me back 
            And forth in sorrow and fear and pain, 
            Showed me suffering in a hundred ships, 
5          In a thousand ports, and in me. It tells 
            Of smashing surf when I sweated in the cold 
            Of an anxious watch, perched in the bow 
            As it dashed under cliffs. My feet were cast 
            In icy bands, bound with frost, 
10        With frozen chains, and hardship groaned 
            Around my heart. Hunger tore 
            At my sea-weary soul. No man sheltered 
            On the quiet fairness of earth can feel 
            How wretched I was, drifting through winter 
15        On an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow, 
            Alone in a world blown clear of love, 
            Hung with icicles. The hailstorms flew. 
            The only sound was the roaring sea, 
            The freezing waves.

As bad as the physical cold is for him, the figurative coldness he finds from being at sea makes him feel just as wretched. This emotional freezing is shown through much pain and suffering, and the icy conditions on the outside matches the emotional numbness inside of him. He is "[a]lone in a world blown clear of love" and instead of laughter and love (friendship and camaraderie) he only hears the screams of terns and eagles. 

            ...The song of the swan 
20        Might serve for pleasure, the cry of the sea-fowl, 
            The death-noise of birds instead of laughter, 
            The mewing of gulls instead of mead. 
            Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed 
            By icy-feathered terns and the eagle’s screams; 
25        No kinsman could offer comfort there, 
            To a soul left drowning in desolation.  

The speaker of this poem leaves little doubt about the miseries of living life on the seas, as his opening lines are replete with images of physical and emotional cold and misery; however, he will soon make it clear that this life, despite its miseries, is one he loves.