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The Seafarer

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What attractive power does the sea hold for "The Seafarer"?

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At a basic level, the power of the sea is that the seafarer is drawn to it despite the hardships it brings. While in the beginning of the poem the speaker talks of the sea as incredibly harsh and almost like a prison, it is clear that the seafarer feels deeply connected to it. Over the course of the poem, we learn that the seafarer has made some kind of peace with the sea and come to appreciate it. As he talks of the "lone-flier," the poem gives a sense of the freedom the seafarer feels at sea.

As the poem nears its end, the content shifts to a spiritual reflection that works at two levels. First, it seems that the hardships of the sea have led the seafarer to a strong faith in God. It is easy to imagine how extended periods of loneliness and frequent close encounters with death might lead to the kind of reflections that push people towards greater spirituality. Second, the entirety of the seafarers journey can be read as a metaphor for a Christian's faith. Faith is depicted as leaving the world behind and undertaking a harsh journey of discipline and self-sacrifice that initially seems far worse than the world but which many come to love dearly over time.

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Though the seafarer freely acknowledges the harshness of life at sea, after a sustained period of contemplation he comes to be at peace with himself in his exile out there on the ocean waves. Over the course of his lengthy voyage, the seafarer comes to realize that what really matters is to live a life of humility according to God's law instead of pursuing worldly riches and satisfying a lust for glory like most Anglo-Saxon warriors.

It is only the sea that can provide a catalyst for such a remarkable transformation. Far away from the mead-hall and the battlefield, the natural habitat of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, the seafarer has been removed from his comfort zone. Inevitably, this makes him feel incredibly lonely and isolated as he navigates his ship through icy waters.

But his exile at sea has the upside of giving him time to take stock of his life and realize just how shallow and superficial his worldly existence back on dry land really was. His journey at sea has become a metaphor for a spiritual journey, a journey that has taken him from a fleeting, transient world to a state of eternal blessedness.

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The Seafarer” is an Old English poem by an anonymous poet. The speaker in the poem tells of the difficulties of being adrift in the sea, then compares it to the relatively easy life of the city dwellers, and then finishes with the exhortation that men should devote themselves to God.

When the poem begins, it seems that the seafarer is suffering at sea, possibly even against his will, as he refers to himself as an “exile.” However, after awhile the reader sees that life on the sea, although dangerous, lonely, demanding, and harsh, has become more preferable to the seafarer than a life of warmth and safety among other people.

At one point, roughly midway through the poem, he speaks of the lure of the sea on him:

And now my spirit

Twists out of my breast

My spirit out in the waterways,

Over the whale’s path

It soars widely

Through all the corners of the world—

It comes back to me

Eager and unsated;

The lone flier screams,

Urges on to the whale-road

The unresisting heart

Across the waves of the sea.

By the time the poem is over, a perceptive reader can see that the poet isn’t really as concerned about the challenges of the sea as he is the challenges of living a pure, God-centered life. The word “spirit,” used twice in the passage above, is a good indication of the speaker’s deeper message. The speaker’s spirit is metaphorically linked to the eagle and other birds that he has encountered on the sea earlier in the poem. He and his spirit have become the “lone flier.” It’s difficult and lonely to put God ahead of man and spiritual fulfillment ahead of physical comfort, but the speaker cannot ignore the call of the sea, which is really the call of God to his heart.

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