The Manner in which Language Informs The Seafarer
If every artistic act is ultimately a social act, then poems as verbal artifacts cannot be removed from their social milieu, the totality of ambient conditions and circumstances existing among poet and audience at the time of the poems’ creation and reception.
In other words, poems as socially and temporally conditioned expressions of meaning can only be decoded from within psycho-social and intellectual perspectives of the era in which they were written and first read. But if this is so, we may well ask whether any poem like “The Seafarer” could ever be understood on its own merits by a modern reader without a full critical and historical commentary supplying any defect in information that reader might have. Is it then possible for modern readers to engage “The Seafarer” as they would any other poem from any other era using a kind of reader’s response to help craft its meaning for themselves? Perhaps this dichotomy is false. Maybe the fact that artistic acts are social acts also means that modern readers actually constitute an extension of the original poem’s audience. However, the problem is not just how modern readers can join that audience but how the structure of the poem itself conveys its meaning to readers who sometimes must eavesdrop as a class of cultural and temporal tourists.
In the case of “The Seafarer”, the first consideration is that of language. Unless readers invest a lot of time studying Old English, they cannot read the poem in its original form because the divergence between the Englishes of the poem’s writer and today’s readers actually constitutes two different languages. Readers must then depend upon the skills of translators to render the poem’s actual meaning, if not its prosodic music. The problem with this compromise, however, is that the original poem depends upon structural relationships that only exist within the original language. Replicating such verbal effects in translation is nigh unto impossible because of the different syntactical dynamics that exist in the original and the receiving languages. Still, despite these difficulties, one can yet discern rhetorical and poetic features that structure the meaning of the poem even in translation. Realizing that what the poem means really resides in how the poem works as a vehicle of meaning, readers can approach interpreting “The Seafarer” confident of understanding and appreciating a poem whose cultural as well as linguistic particularities are so unlike their own.
Adopting a realistic, matter-of-fact approach towards discovering meaning within the poem’s rhetorical structure prevents readers from falling into further false dichotomies, like asking whether “The Seafarer” should be read literally or allegorically. Accepting the inherent ambiguity of the poem without a specific need to resolve all thematic disparities allows readers to reconcile the interrelated themes of isolation, loneliness, human and divine comfort, the desire for earthly and heavenly glory, and the ultimate emptiness of all earthly endeavors within the poem’s inherent metaphysical presumptions about the nature of reality.
First, it must be said that out of all the cultural threads woven together in this poem, the pagan, both Germanic and Celtic, the heroic, the elegiac, the lay, and the Christian, the Christian thread holds the whole together. The poet who wrote “The Seafarer” (most likely a monk) brought together all the cultural riches at his disposal at the time to craft an ultimately Christian poem. This poem uses image, metaphor, irony, and allusion to craft its tale, just as any modern poem would, but it also employs a specifically medieval device: a moral. The moral of the poem can only be approached from within polar opposition. For, after all, the moral of the poem is that all opposites find resolution in God, the ultimate reality.
At its very beginning, the poem presents its first polar opposition: the deprivations of a life at sea with...
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