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The Seafarer

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In the Old English poem "The Seafarer," what is a person most likely to be remembered for after death: kindness, faith in God, family, or bravery?

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In the Old English poem “The Seafarer,” faith in God is the crucial value, leading not only to good earthly fame after death but also to something much more important: eternal existence in heaven. Physical bravery is emphasized in the opening lines of the poem and is obviously a respected trait (1-38). Without such bravery, the seafarer might never have endured the harsh physical trials he faced. Nevertheles, when the speaker of the poem finally begins to discuss the issue of death and of what follows death, even his presentation of earthly fame is deeply tinged with a strong Christian coloring:

The praise the living pour on the dead

Flowers from reputation: plant

An earthly life of profit reaped

Even from hatred and rancor, of bravery

Flung in the devil's face, and death

Can only bring you earthly praise

And a song to celebrate a place

With the angels, life eternally blessed

In the hosts of Heaven. (73-81; emphasis added)

If the first half of the poem had emphasized physical bravery and courage, these lines emphasize spiritual courage, “bravery / Flung in the devil’s face” (76-77). Even the songs of celebration sung on earth in remembrance of a brave man celebrate his eternal life in heaven.

As ensuing lines in the poem make clear, earthly fame may not last. Mutability – constant change – is the fate of all earthly things, including reputation: “All glory is tarnished” (90). This phrase, of course, refers to earthly, worldly glory. The glory of life in God with heaven is, by definition, a glory that can never be tarnished, which is why such glory was especially prized. As the speaker memorably puts it,

The world's honor ages and shrinks,

Bent like the men who mold it.

By referring to “The world’s honor,” he implicitly reminds us that the only honor that really matters – and that really lasts – is the eternal honor bestowed by God.

As the poem moves toward its conclusion, its emphasis on faith in God becomes more and more explicit and emphatic, until the work finally concludes as a fervent prayer:

Our thoughts should turn to where our home is,

Consider the ways of coming there,

Then strive for sure permission for us

To rise to that eternal joy,

That life born in the love of God

And the hope of Heaven. Praise the Holy

Grace of Him who honored us,

Eternal, unchanging creator of earth. Amen.

All other values (the poem implies) pale in significance when compared with the crucial value of faith in God. Indeed, all other values depend on that faith for their beginnings, strength, and sustenance. Without faith in God, physical bravery might fail. Without faith in God, commitment to family might weaken. Without faith in God, kindness to others might be merely ephemeral and inconsistent.  Only by being loyal to God, the speaker suggests, can any other value be sustained. Only faith in God leads to the kind of remembrance that matters most: being remembered and rewarded by God himself.



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