The anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" begins by describing how the narrator feels about being separated from the company of people. He uses the word "exile" several times, but it would seem that he simply feels that way having been so long on the sea, traveling to distant lands and feeling so alone. It seems that he must be at sea, perhaps for a lifetime, for he makes no mention of desiring to go "foreigners' homes" and then returning to his homeland. His one destination seems to be the sea.
In the poem he speaks with excitement that comes with this difficult life he has chosen—and perhaps it is this feeling that draws him forever to the open water:
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.
The speaker writes a great deal about the unforgiving conditions under which he travels. They are more than harsh: the winds, the frost and the cold are severe. There are hailstorms, "roarings sea" and "freezing waves." Nature punishes him repeatedly. He is "a soul left drowning in desolation." He has experienced sorrow, fear and pain. He has suffered on a hundred ships and visited a thousand ports.
The mariner notes that he might find comfort in the beauties of the world at sea, perhaps in the birds...
The song of the swan
Might serve for pleasure,
The cry of the sea-fowl,
The death-noise of birds instead of laughter,
The mewing of gulls instead of mead.
However, we can infer that this is not enough. His loneliness is evident as he compares the death-noise of birds to laughter. For although he may find some solace as he travels, nothing can replace the laughter that is missing in his life. With the reference to mead, as in Beowulf, we can guess that he is describing the pleasure of drinking mead (a honeyed wine) in the company of others—something he sorely misses.
The seaman also mentions that his way of life is something that those on land could not imagine, especially those living in cities.
The seafarer describes in details the hard life of living on the sea. Then he begins to discuss the importance of God. The references to "fate" refer to beliefs before Christianity reached the Britons. When the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church began to arrive and teach those inhabiting the land, there was a melding of pagan and Christian beliefs (also seen in Beowulf). The sailor recalls the call of glory (something extremely important to the Anglo-Saxons) and the love of money, but then notes that these things mean nothing beyond this life.
The speaker announces…that the joys of accepting God’s will far exceed any form of wealth or earthly pleasure. Earthly wealth cannot reach heaven, nor can it transcend life.
The poet obviously knows a something about the world and its history as he speaks of the passing of great men, specifically that there are no more Caesars. The reader can find clues to other things valued by the Anglo-Saxon culture. Then, however, descriptions of his difficult life come to an end and his attention moves toward his theology—his belief in God. He declares that regardless of the work one does on earth and his achievements, everything eventually falls away. Attention must be paid to the next life, getting ready for it rather than dying suddenly, unprepared for eternity. He describes how God created the world and set the earth in motion. He describes the fear all have of God and states:
Death leaps at the fools who forget their God.
The sailor ends the poem by turning his full attention to God and praising Him.
Fate is stronger
And God mightier than any man's mind.
Our thoughts should turn to where our home is,
Consider the ways of coming there,
Then strive for sure permission for us
To rise to that eternal joy,
That life born in the love of God
And the hope of Heaven.
The speaker recognizes that there are things greater than man; and people should focus on heaven, contemplate how to get there and then work hard to fulfill the tasks before them so they will be welcomed by God one day.
Overall, the speaker is a man who loves sailing the seas regardless of how harsh and brutal a life it may be. He notes that those on land cannot appreciate the difficulty of his life, yet despite a sailor's lot, he shows no desire to live any other way—though he does sometimes miss the company of others, perhaps family and friends. He has noticed that the world is changing, but still death comes to all. He turns his attention more and more to God and setting one's priorities. Things of this world cannot be taken to the next—things of importance to men on earth mean nothing after death. To him, ignoring what he believes men owe to God is foolish, and he counsels the reader to find what he or she must do to go to heaven. He does not trivialize his life by any means, but takes his relationship with God more seriously than anything else.