The speaker in "The Seafarer" is a sailor with a deep and abiding love for the sea. While the land might call out to him to settle down and leave his seafaring lifestyle behind, always the ocean successfully beckoned him back.
And who could believe, knowing but
The passion of cities, swelled proud with wine
And no taste of misfortune, how often, how wearily
I put myself back on the paths of the sea.
The narrator speaks of the horrors of a life at sea. He mourns the lack of laughter or a shared draught of mead, hearing instead the "death-noise of birds" or the cry of seagulls. He faces harsh weather with a bone-deep chilling from snow and ice. There seems little pleasure in sailing for this man. However, he finds no peace or abiding comfort on land.
And how my heart
Would begin to beat, knowing once more
The salt waves tossing and the towering sea!
The time for journeys would come and my soul
Called me eagerly out, sent me over
The horizon, seeking foreigners’ homes.
The sailor states that his heart would start beating once he was on the sea—when he "knew" or once again experienced the tossing of the salty waters and the heaving ocean waves. However, he goes on to note that even when he was on land, he knew when it was time for another trip. He would feel his soul calling him out onto the waves to travel to distant lands and the homes of people across the world at a different and unfamiliar port.
In reading this poem, we understand that while being a seaman is a harsh life with few comforts or rewards, that once the call is in one's blood, nothing can stop a man from returning to the "ocean's heave." Women won't change his mind or any other earthly pleasures. He will always have a longing for life at sea, and ever heed the water's call.
In the poem, the Seafarer's heart beats and his soul longs for the open sea. Even though life at sea is hard and at times is unbearably cold and harsh, it is what he absolutely loves. When he is home on land, there are comforts such as good food, warm homes, and women, but all the while he yearns to be back on board a ship sailing the seas.
He is most at home on a ship where he can think, admire the birds and fish, and be closer to God. Although he seems to be unhappy in the beginning of the poem, he is leading up to the prayer at the end which gives new hope as long as he is able to sail. He is dreading the time when he will be too old to physically endure the daily torture of chains, ropes, sun, wind, and aching muscles that a sailor must take.