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.
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.
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).
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.
The speaker returns to depicting his adverse environment and the inclement weather conditions of hail, high waves, cold, and wind.
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.
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.
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.
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 entire section is 1,434 words.)