What is the significance of the last stanza of "The Seafarer"?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with the better-known Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which combines elements of the Anglo-Saxon's culture's pagan and Christian religion, "The Seafarer," probably composed between 900-1000 AD, reflects much of the traditional Anglo-Saxon pagan belief system:

And so it is for each man/the praise of the living/ . . ./that is is best epitaph,/that he should work/before he must be gone/bravery in the world/ . . . /daring deeds/against the fiend. (ll. 72-77)

There is constant poetic tension is the poem between the seafarer who battles the sea as an exile--perhaps a voluntary exile--and show his society that he is brave, one of the goals of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, and, at the same time, indicate his desire for conventional Christian rewards:

and his fame afterwards/will live with angels/for ever and ever/the glory of eternal life,/Joy with the Hosts. (ll. 78-79)

"The Seafarer" poet, like the poet of Beowulf, is writing at a time when the pagan belief system of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian world was slowly, sometimes reluctantly, adopting Christianity, so these poems alternate between Christian motifs that appear alongside pagan imagery.

The last stanza, which in some versions of "The Seafarer" begins with line 104a, clearly becomes completely Christian in its references.  It is as if  the poet finally commits to one belief system (Christianity) over his traditional pagan beliefs and imagery:

He established the firm foundations,/the corners of the world and the high foundations . . . Blessed is he who lives humbly/--to him comes forgiveness from heaven.  God set that spirit within him,/Because he believed in His might. (ll. 104-108)

As we can see, the seafarer, who earlier in the poem says that "bravery in the world" is the goal of life, now acknowledges that Christian humility, rather than bravery, will earn him God's forgiveness.  The poem's last stanza ends with a very conventional Christian acknowledgement of God's grace:

Let there be thanks to God/that he adored us,/the Father of Glory,the Eternal Lord,/for all time. Amen. (ll. 122-124)

Gone are the hardships, gone is the loneliness of exile, gone are the references to kinsman--the seafarer realizes that his sufferings are nothing compared to the joy of being with "the Father of Glory."

Even though "The Seafarer" tells us much about the pagan Anglo-Saxon view of life, the poem, because it reflects the transition to Christianity, sheds light on a culture that is making a fundamental shift in its world view--from the harsh man-centered life and afterlife to the Christian conception of a loving, gentle God who rewards gentleness and humility.

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