illustration of a bald, bearded man's face superimposed upon a stormy ocean

The Seafarer

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The Seafarer Summary

"The Seafarer" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem in which the elderly seafarer reminisces about his life spent sailing on the open ocean. He describes the hardships of life on the sea, the beauty of nature, and the glory of god.

  • The speaker describes the often dreary and lonely life of a seafarer. He contrasts this with the relatively easy life of land dwellers.

  • Season change, and the seafarer's tone changes from one of loneliness to adventure. He loves sailing, and despite the hardships, he enjoys his life.

  • The sea imagery recedes, and the seafarer speaks entirely of God, Heaven, and the soul.

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Lines 1-5:
The elegiac, personal tone is established from the beginning. The speaker pleads to his audience about his honesty and his personal self-revelation to come. He tells of the limitless suffering, sorrow, and pain and his long experience in various ships and ports. The speaker never explains exactly why he is driven to take to the ocean.

Lines 6-11:
Here, the speaker conveys intense, concrete images of cold, anxiety, stormy seas, and rugged shorelines. The comparisons relating to imprisonment are many, combining to drag the speaker into his prolonged state of anguish. The adverse conditions affect both his physical body (his feet) and his spiritual sense of worth (his heart).

Lines 12-16:
The loneliness and isolation of the speaker’s ocean wanderings are emphasized in these lines. The speaker highlights the opposition between the comfortable landlubber and the anguished, lonely, frozen mariner. Alone physically and without a sense of connection to the rest of the human race, the seafarer pushes on in his suffering.

Lines 17-19:
The speaker returns to depicting his adverse environment and the inclement weather conditions of hail, high waves, cold, and wind.

Lines 20-26:
The first of several catalogues, or lists of items using similar grammatical structures, appears in these lines; here the speaker invokes the names of four specific sea-birds that serve as his sole companions. The birds’ plaintive cries only emphasize the distance from land and from other people. The speaker says that the swan’s song might serve for pleasure, but in his case it will not. The swans, gulls, terns, and eagles only increase the mariner’s sense of abandonment and illumine the lack of warm, human compassion in his stormy ocean wandering. The speaker metaphorically drowns in his loneliness.

Lines 27-30:
The speaker constructs another opposition, one between himself and the comfortable city dweller who puffs himself up with pride and drink. This city person cannot possibly know of the seafarer’s suffering. The wilderness experience of the speaker cannot be translated for the sheltered urban inhabitant. The landlocked man cannot possibly understand the seafarer’s motives; however, like all people, he will eventually be held accountable for his choice of lifestyle. This theme becomes predominant in the poem’s second half.

Lines 31-38:
The speaker again describes the changes in weather. As day turns to night, and snow and hail rain down from black skies, the speaker says that he is once again drawn to his inexplicable wandering. The speaker cannot find words to say why he is magically pulled towards suffering and into foreign seaports. The phrase “seeking foreigners’ homes” is a paradox, because, while he searches for the shelter of homes, the seafarer is isolated from the values represented by home: warmth, safety, compassion, friendship, and love.

Lines 39-43:
These lines introduce the central theme of the poem. The speaker displays his second catalogue, a list of earthy human virtues: pride, greatness, boldness, youth, seriousness, and grace. The speaker emphasizes that these virtues will all disappear, melting away in the presence of Fate. Even the person blessed with all these virtues feels fear at the onset of a journey on the sea. Thus, the speaker shows the possible allegorical reading that life itself is a journey on the raging sea; the seafarer may represent every person who must learn to rely on God’s mercy and fear God’s judgment.

Lines 44-46:
These lines continue the catalogue of worldly pleasures begun in line 39. The traveller on the stormy sea will never be comforted by harps, rewards, or the love of women, because he needs to wander and to face what Fate has in store for him. Readers should note that the concept of Fate, often described as a spinning wheel of fortune in Middle English poetry, is at odds with the Christian concept of divine providence or God’s predestined plan.

Lines 47-57:
The speaker shifts away from deprivation and winter to fulfillment and summer. The imagery of orchards, flowers, and cities in bloom stands in stark contrast to that of icy winter winds and storms. The cuckoo, a bird of happiness and summer, contrasts with the earlier lists of winter ocean birds. The point is that these pleasant summer thoughts also bring the seafarer’s wanderlust back again. The comfortable person mourns but does not understand the reason why he is called to abandon city life and search the frozen, stormy seas. Suffering and exile are not lessons well learned in good weather with city comforts; thus, the speaker implies that everyone must experience deprivation at sea to learn life’s most important lesson—reliance on God.

Lines 58-64:
In this conclusion of the first major section, the seafarer says that his mind and heart constantly seek to roam the sea because that is acceptance of life itself. The paradox of the seafarer’s excitement at beginning the journey shows his acceptance of suffering to come. Despite knowing of the isolation and deprivation, the speaker still is driven to resume his life at sea. Breaking his ties with humanity, the speaker expresses his thrill at returning to his tortuous wandering.

Lines 65-68:
The speaker announces the theme of the second section: 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. This section grows less personal and becomes mostly theological and didactic in nature.

Lines 69-72:
Describing three ways of death, the speaker says that no man is certain how life will end. The violent nature of Anglo-Saxon society is described by the possibility of death by an enemy’s sword.

Lines 73-81:
The speaker writes that one wins a reputation through battle and bravery, that only earthly praise comes to warriors who take risks and perform great feats in battle. In this section, one imagines the creation of funeral fires, songs, and shrines in honor of the great warriors.

Lines 82-88:
The speaker says the days of glory and honor have passed. Another catalogue laments the lack of rulers, emperors, gold-givers, and lords. The power of the nobles and aristocrats has vanished; glory must be sought in other ways than through bravery in battle.

Lines 89-95:
The theme of lost glory is continued. The speaker uses the simile of faded glory being like old men who remember their former youth. The old men turn white, their beards grow thin, and they mourn the memory of departed companions. The sons of nobles who formerly fought to win glory in battle are now dust on the ground.

Lines 96-98:
The speaker focuses on the spiritual aspect of life after death and how the soul knows no earthly comforts; the soul removed from the body feels nothing and cares nothing for fame.

Lines 99-101:
The metaphor of a brother placing gold coins on his kinsman’s coffin shows the uselessness of wealth and reputation to the dead. The speaker writes that all earthly wealth and fame are meaningless in the next world. God’s anger against a sinful person cannot be reduced at any price; thus, the speaker urges all to heed the warning not to get taken in by wealth and fame.

Lines 102-107:
The speaker shifts to the final, concluding section of the poem, the most religious part of “The Seafarer.” The speaker writes that all fear God because He created the earth and the heavens. God moves everything on earth and in the skies, according to the speaker.

Lines 108-116:
The speaker presents his final catalogue, a list of lessons or commandments to be learned by the humble person who fears his judgment day. According to the seafarer, each wise person must be humble, strong, courageous, chaste, firm with his friends, and never resort to violence even if enemies seek to burn and destroy him. The man who thinks about God will be comforted by angels.

Lines 117-124:
The speaker admonishes that God and Fate are more powerful than any person’s will. According to the seafarer, people should always consider God’s purpose and think of their final resting place in heaven, their home. Here, the speaker talks of the joys, love, and hope that he feels await the faithful in heaven.

Lines 124-126:
The poem ends in a prayer of praise to God, the eternal creator of earth and its life. The traditional ending “Amen” raises the question about how, if at all, the concluding section connects or fails to connect with the more passionate, emotional song of the forsaken seafarer adrift on the inhospitable waves in the first section.

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