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The Seafarer

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What do the first five stanzas mean in the poem "The Seafarer," translated by Burton Raffel?

As in the first stanza, "The Seafarer" is a mixture of a prayer and an invocation. It alludes to the Old Testament story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. The poet becomes one with the sea-- part of it, rather than outside observers as in his earlier life. He lives at sea for years on end, guiding his ship in pursuit of wealth and fame. As a result, he has suffered greatly and will be rewarded for his service to God when he is reunited with his family after death.

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First, let us clear up one crucial point: "The Seafarer" wasn't written by Burton Raffel. Raffel translated this poem from the Old English (and some translations don't provide stanza breaks, so it's possible for different readers to discuss it and confusion to result).

Now, turning to the poem, the first stanza blends a wish or oath of truthfulness with a general announcement of the poem's themes: it is about a life spent at sea.

The second stanza describes the many nights spent guiding the ship.
The third describes how the poet suffered in the cold-- ice chaining him to the deck, etc.
The fourth reflects on his distance from an anonymous man on the shore, and how that person doesn't know what he goes through.
The fifth (assuming we're dividing the stanzas the same way) returns to the physical suffering he's gone through, and the sixth again discusses his isolation, rather poetically.

Taken together, they are a meditation on how completely the sea shaped the poet's life, how he has suffered as a result, and how alone the sea makes him.

Greg

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