What makes this poem an elegy?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Seafarer," some, but not all, of the characteristics of elegy are present. Here are those elegiac characteristics:

  • There is a melancholic, mournful tone to the poem

The poem's speaker relates how the sea took his "sea-worthy soul" "in sorrow and fear and pain," showing him "suffering" and "hardship." Further, the speaker notes how he has been "wretched" as he has drifted on an "ice-cold sea," and his soul has "drown[ed] in desolation." Also, he has passed his life without a family and been subjected to all types of weather.

  • The thoughts of the speaker are formed with imagination in the first person.

In lines 11-12, he states, "Around my heart, Hunger tore/At my sear-weary soul," and in line 26, he describes his "my soul left drowning in desolation." Later, he describes in lines 29-30 "...how wearily/I put myself back on the paths of the sea."

  • Questions about destiny, fate, and justice

The first part of "The Seafarer" involves such questions about fate and destiny as the speaker reflects that he is "Wondering what Fate has willed and will do" as the ship roams the seas and wanders to far-off parts of the world. In his many journeys to sea, the sailor has never known what will happen:

No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life from his soul....

Further, the speaker reflects that those who "forget their God" suffer death, while the man who lives a humble life "has angels from Heaven" bring him courage and conviction and strength.

  • As a Christian elegy, the poem moves from grief and misery to hope and happiness since death is only a passage to eternal life.

After all the hardships of being a sailor, experiencing storms, illness, and battle, while the sword snatches life from the seafarer, his bravery is rewarded as a man of honor. His soul, released from his body, feels no pain and, instead

,,,rise[s] to that eternal joy,
That life born in the love of God
And the hope of Heaven. (ll.122-124)

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