The first half of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” is replete with descriptions of all the awful things a man of the sea experiences. The seafarer is cold (nearly frozen, actually), lonely, and wind-swept; he is tossed by the heaving waves and often drenched by their icy water. He spends his life at the mercy of the winds and the waves, elements far beyond his control. Even worse, he says, is the fact that no one who lives on land could ever understand his life.
People who spend their lives on land do not know his hardships, but neither do they know what it is about his seafaring life which compels him to return to the sea. He explains that no one who lives on land could understand
…how often, how wearily
I put myself back on the paths of the sea.
Night would blacken; it would snow from the north;
Frost bound the earth and hail would fall,
The coldest seeds. 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.
Though he leaves the relative comfort of land reluctantly and then suffers the dark nights, snow, frost, and cold, his heart quickens at “the salt waves tossing and the towering sea!” The sea calls to him, beckons him to journey far away from home, and he is eager to cross over the horizon to foreign lands.
In a similar passage, the speaker of the poem (the seafarer) calls the sea “paths of exile” stretching “endlessly on.” But he adds those qualifying words “and yet,” and everything changes.
Who could understand,
In ignorant ease, what we others suffer
As the paths of exile stretch endlessly on?
And yet my heart wanders away,
My soul roams with the sea, the whales'
Home, wandering to the widest corners
Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,
Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me
To the open ocean, breaking oaths
On the curve of a wave.
Despite the hardships of this life he has chosen, the seafarer’s soul and heart are captured by the sea, and the place so many would never dare to go is home to him.