The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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