Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Most of the commentary on “The Seafarer” centers around the Christian messages and rhetoric in the second half of the poem and tries to argue whether a submerged paganism may be found beneath the Christian ideas. Some critics believe the second half of the poem was added later by a Christian scribe who found or heard an earlier Germanic or Celtic narrative poem. Critics are also interested in deciding how many speakers are present in the poem. Dorothy Whitelock argues in Early Cultures in North-West Europe that the poem should be read as a monologue. Whitelock posits that the speaker is a religious person who deliberately chose a life of wandering as a means of taming his senses in preparation for the joys and rewards of the afterlife. Whitelock demonstrates the prevalence of such views in Anglo-Saxon literature and writes that the seafarer would see no contradiction between his ascetic life being tossed on icy waves and his abstract yearning for God in the second half. I. L. Gordon in The Review of English Studies agrees, suggesting that despite apparent structural discrepancies and transitions, the poem should be accepted as the work of one person. The poem’s tension between dramatic and moralistic tendencies is part of the poet’s exploration of the theme of suffering, transience, and isolation. However, Gordon believes it is the elegiac background of the poem—not the Christian message—that gives “The Seafarer” its real uniqueness.

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W. A. Davenport in Papers on Language and Literature argues that the modern reader is most attracted to the personal voice of suffering and the sympathetic evocation of pain in the first part. Davenport believes that the voice of “a distant poet speaking directly across the centuries about passion and longing” contradicts the second half and its impersonal, religious views. Thus the poem must be read as imperfect and corrupted by the later additions. The modern reader cannot accept both parts as the work of one poet; readers end up seeing it as the expression of two minds, therefore as an antithetical and ironic poem. C. L. Wrenn in A Study of Old English Literature also focuses on the poem as a dialogue of inner voices depicting the Anglo-Saxon love of the sea and its alternate pains and turmoil. Wrenn describes “The Seafarer” as the most poetic of all Old English elegies; perhaps this is why several modern poets such as Ezra Pound have translated it. Wrenn believes the poem’s catalogue of various ways of death (line 71) must have been borrowed from a Latin tradition . Also, “The Seafarer”’s idea of penance, pilgrimage, and deliberate exile from ties with human society is especially Irish in its nature, perhaps inherited by the Anglo-Saxon poet from the influence of Irish Christianity.

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