The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

“The Seafarer” is a poem in free verse consisting of some one hundred lines or half-lines, as dictated by the fragmentary nature of the original Anglo-Saxon poem (c. 800). Since the poem is a nearly literal translation, it cannot be analyzed in terms of modern prosody, such as stanzas, rhymes,...

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“The Seafarer” is a poem in free verse consisting of some one hundred lines or half-lines, as dictated by the fragmentary nature of the original Anglo-Saxon poem (c. 800). Since the poem is a nearly literal translation, it cannot be analyzed in terms of modern prosody, such as stanzas, rhymes, and meter. Indeed, in the original, spellings vary and punctuation is nonexistent. The poem has, however, a well-modulated movement that derives from a central feeling of isolation, fearfulness, and somber reflection on the human condition and man’s fate.

Writing in the first person, Ezra Pound assumes the persona of the anonymous original poet, and therefore, as translator, achieves an immediacy of mood that transcends time and place and speaks with immediacy to his present-day reader.

Pound begins as does the original poet, with an address to the reader: “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon.” This directness bears witness to the oral tradition of the poem and the poet’s intimate approach to his reader, and earlier, his audience. I shall tell you the truth, he says, as I have known it. He continues with a descriptive scene of chilling bitterness, both figurative and literal, in which he pictures the harsh realities of the seafaring life. He dramatically elicits the terror evoked on “Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head/ While she tossed close to cliffs.” The passage—of some considerable length, and indicating the importance that the seafarer places upon such a harrowing recollection—concludes with a vivid image of the miserable cold in which the air “hung with hard ice-flakes,” and indicates his own isolation. The staccato cries of the birds of the sea and air offer but a meager companionship, and prove a poor substitute, with their “sea-fowls’ loudness,” for the laughter he has once known; the “gannet’s clamour” serves for his games, the “mews’ singing,” for the comradeship of the hall. Above this desolate scene, the seafarer relates, “the eagle screamed/ With spray on his pinion.”

In the stream of consciousness that follows, other memories provide a wrenching contrast to the seafarer’s present situation. He envies the life of the land-dweller, who will never know his hardship but will also never appreciate the beauties of the earth as does he: the joys of spring when “Bosque taketh blossom,” and even the homelier joys of a “winsome wife.” The call of the sea, however, is strong. The “lone-flyer,” the very bird whose scream he found distressing, becomes the bird who calls him back, and “Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly.”

The final movements of the poem are, in both style and content, traditional elegiac passages such as those found in many Anglo-Saxon poems. Within these lines are expressed the universal fears and griefs of all people—the passage of time, the loss of old friends, and the futility of life, which must end with death. The world shall be as if the seafarer had never been; even the deeds of warrior and poet cannot forestall death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

Although Pound does not adhere strictly to the accentual pattern (four strong beats to the line) that was obligatory for an Anglo-Saxon poet, he does maintain, since it is “from the Anglo-Saxon,” many features and characteristics of the earlier prosody. The sea dominates the Anglo-Saxon worldview, and nowhere is it more vivid than in the imagery of “The Seafarer,” where it is shown in all its turbulence and power to inspire terror in those who dare to venture into its unknown regions. Despite the sea’s omnipresence in the Anglo-Saxon consciousness, the poet is constricted by the limitations of the language. His vocabulary is spare (there are only two denotative words for sea: see and meres), and he must therefore contrive, for the sake of variety, metaphors and similes—that is, comparisons that will adequately express his mood. The earlier poet uses kennings, which are combinations of familiar words. The skill of the poet is judged by his imaginative use of this device. In “The Seafarer,” for example, the technique is richly evident in such substitutions for sea as “the whale’s acre,” “the whale-path,” and “the salt-wavy tumult.” Similarly, ice is transformed into “ice-flakes,” hail into “corn of the coldest.”

If Pound fully utilizes the vitality of the diction of the earlier poet, he also fully employs another of the conventions of the original, the use of alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds within a given line). For example, “Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries” fairly bursts with the ripeness of the season, whereas the contrary mood of old age is echoed in “Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions.” The line nearly creaks and wobbles under the burden of its message.

Although these prosodic features are common in the verse of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, and in Pound’s translation they are not the only features. The commonality is also struck in the recurrent motifs—that is, the recurrent patterns of events or moods and feelings. The traditional ubi sunt and sic transit motifs are used with great effectiveness to close the poem. In the first of these (ubi sunt, or “Where are?”) passages, lyric in character, the poet looks about him, remembers the joys of the past with his companions, and, in a desolate tone, realizes that not only has all changed, but he has also been deprived by death of many he has loved. This theme is frequently followed, as it is in “The Seafarer,” by a related theme—the sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”) theme—in which the poet notes the brief span allotted to humankind from eternity’s store of time. Whether by misadventure or old age, everyone, rich or poor, king or peasant, must meet death at the end of the final voyage.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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