What attractive power does the sea have on the seafarer in "The Seafarer" ?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Seafarer” is an Old English poem by an anonymous poet. The speaker in the poem tells of the difficulties of being adrift in the sea, then compares it to the relatively easy life of the city dwellers, and then finishes with the exhortation that men should devote themselves to God.

When the poem begins, it seems that the seafarer is suffering at sea, possibly even against his will, as he refers to himself as an “exile.” However, after awhile the reader sees that life on the sea, although dangerous, lonely, demanding, and harsh, has become more preferable to the seafarer than a life of warmth and safety among other people.

At one point, roughly midway through the poem, he speaks of the lure of the sea on him:

And now my spirit

Twists out of my breast

My spirit out in the waterways,

Over the whale’s path

It soars widely

Through all the corners of the world—

It comes back to me

Eager and unsated;

The lone flier screams,

Urges on to the whale-road

The unresisting heart

Across the waves of the sea.

By the time the poem is over, a perceptive reader can see that the poet isn’t really as concerned about the challenges of the sea as he is the challenges of living a pure, God-centered life. The word “spirit,” used twice in the passage above, is a good indication of the speaker’s deeper message. The speaker’s spirit is metaphorically linked to the eagle and other birds that he has encountered on the sea earlier in the poem. He and his spirit have become the “lone flier.” It’s difficult and lonely to put God ahead of man and spiritual fulfillment ahead of physical comfort, but the speaker cannot ignore the call of the sea, which is really the call of God to his heart.