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The Seafarer

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What passages in the poem "The Seafarer" explains why the seafarer seeks the rigors of the sea rather than the delights of the land?

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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.

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The Seafarer is an old Anglo-Saxon poem that tells of the life of a seafarer on the ocean. There are two parts to the poem: the description of a journey on the sea and the story of a journey into heaven. For this question, let's focus on the first part of the poem.

In the first part of the poem, the opening lines do not make travel on the sea sound very enjoyable. The narrator describes life on the land: “he who owns the joys of life/and very little of the perilous paths, living in the cities,/proud and wine-flushed.” People who live on land couldn’t possibly understand the perils and hardships of the sea because they are proud, drunk on wine, celebratory, and laid back.

In contrast, the narrator describes himself in the next sentence: “I must often/endure on the briny ways wearied.” That description does not mean that the narrator dislikes the sea or feels compelled to give up exploration; instead, as the poem goes on, he explores why he prefers the sea.

The narrator, in the next passage, describes why the sea is better than life on land: “My mind’s desire reminds me at every moment,/my spirit to outventure, that I should seek/the homes of strange peoples far from here.” He loves the sea because he has a spirit of adventure and loves to see and meet people from strange places. It is that same spirit of adventure that makes the forsaken sea worth it to travel.

While that passage covers why he seeks life on the sea over being on the land, I will make a short note about the poem's transition into religious imagery and ideas. The poem quickly transitions from the imagery of the sea voyage into speaking about the issues of a life lived poorly. It admonishes the reader to avoid the luxuries of life and instead seek out the hardship of the ocean: “nor about anything else but the welling of waves—/he ever holds a longing, who strives out upon the streams.” The poem seems to imply, with this talk about the “welling of waves” and “strive out upon the streams,” that the imagery of the ocean is allegorical or symbolic of the life of a Christian/religious person. The experience on land is said to be filled with comfort and luxury, which is not a guarantee of life on earth, and that leads to the implication that life on land is a stand-in for an irreligious or sinful life. The pursuit of a hard seafaring life, therefore, could be chosen because the rigorous life is seen as necessary for transformation—without the journey, reaching heaven isn’t possible.

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The speaker of the poem longs for the sea...it is his heart, his soul, his very being.  No matter how much he may want to settle down and enjoy the warm comforts of land, food, drink, and female companionship, his inner being seeks the open sea.

I put myself back on the paths of the sea.

No matter how cold and uncomfortable the sea sometimes may be, he continues to return.

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.

He only feels truly free and alive when on the waves seeking foreign lands and adventure.

Nothing, only the ocean's heave;
But longing wraps itself around him.

Even when on land, safe from harm and enjoying many comforts, his heart longs for the the openness of the sea and the movement of the waves beneath him.

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 solitude (or perhaps in need of it), despite being away from earthly comforts and loved ones, his soul roams with the sea creatures and excites a passion in him that has created so strong a bond that he is unable to willingly break it.  As long as he is able, he will sail.


 

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