The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)