In "The Seafarer," why does the speaker travel so much?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Seafarer” is one of the few surviving English poems from the Anglo-Saxon period of British history. Since Britain is a relatively small nation, and since it is an island, the sea plays a very important part in the lives of its people, much more so than a nation like the United States.

The first part of the poem describes the dangerous and physically challenging ocean journeys that the speaker takes. These journeys, as we learn later in the poem, symbolically represent man's spiritual quest to turn away from worldly comforts toward God.

The speaker takes these difficult journeys of his own accord:

And yet my heart wanders away,

My soul roams with the sea.

The danger he faces are evident in these lines:

. . . the sea took me, swept me back

And forth in sorrow ands fear and pain

Showed me suffering in a hundred ships,

In a thousand ports, and in me.

Why would one be willing to experience such hardship and privation? Why does the speaker want to travel on the sea instead of enjoying the relative ease of life on land, in the arms of civilization? He has become dissatisfied with the state of the world:

The world's honor ages and shrinks,

Ben like the men who mold it.

Their faces blanch as time advances,

Their beards wither and they mourn the memory of friends.

The seafarer is experiencing what most people experience as they grow older—the world seems to move away from what they knew in their youth, and the things they valued seem to be disappearing. He wishes to remove himself from the decay of the world he has known and look for God on the open sea, where he will be alone and focused. The speaker tells the reader that he has to take these journeys repeatedly to satisfy the yearning in his soul.