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The Seafarer

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What makes "The Seafarer" an elegy?

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What makes “The Seafarer” an elegy is that much of it is concerned with lamenting lost things. The speaker laments the loss of old friends, his younger days, and a venerable civilization that has long since vanished. That said, the poem is only partly an elegy, as the speaker goes beyond his lamentations to extol the virtues of belief in the Christian God.

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Elegies are poems lamenting the dead or lost things. An elegy can be written about a deceased loved one or about a former way of life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems have at the very least an elegiac strain in them, such as Beowulf, which presents its hero's tribe as doomed to annihilation after he dies, or "The Wife's Lament," which ends with the wife uncertain if she will ever see her exiled husband again. "The Seafarer" also has elegiac elements, even though it is not a full elegy.

The poem concerns a man experiencing harsh conditions at sea. This man is also the speaker of the poem. In addition to his physical grievances, the speaker mourns the loss of his former life as a warrior. When speaking of his past, he conjures up images related to celebration and community. So full of longing for his former way of life is he that the speaker starts projecting impressions of the past onto his current environment:

There I heard nothing except the thrumming sea,
the ice-cold waves. Sometimes the swan’s song
I kept to myself as diversion, the cry of the gannet
and the curlew’s voice for the laughter of men—
the seagull’s singing for the drinking of mead.

Laughter and mead suggest the warmth of community, which the speaker no longer has alone on the sea.

What keeps "The Seafarer" from being a full-blown elegy like "The Wife's Lament" is its theology. The speaker's Christian faith steels him against despair, since he believes the faithful will be rewarded with peace and love in heaven after death. As a result, the loss of his youth, community, and former comforts is easier to bear.

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Much, if not all, of “The Seafarer” can be regarded as an elegy, because it represents an extended lament on lost things that clearly mean so much to the speaker. And the speaker has clearly lost much. As well as old friends,= and the years of his youth, he feels that he has lost what was once a vigorous and noble civilization whose values as an Anglo-Saxon warrior he deeply cherished and venerated.

The speaker has also lost a sense of community by being forced to take to the high seas alone. His isolation out there on the often stormy seas deprives him of the human company that a man of his time and culture desperately needs. Gregariousness was highly prized in Anglo-Saxon culture, and so one can see why the speaker is lamenting over his status as a seafarer. Companionship with the many seabirds he encounters on his epic voyages simply isn’t enough.

What prevents us from regarding “The Seafarer” as an elegy in its entirety, however, is its message of Christian hope. The speaker may have much to lament, but what he's lost in terms of human companionship, he's more than gained in the fellowship of Christ.

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For the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Seafarer," some, but not all, of the characteristics of elegy are present. Here are those elegiac characteristics:

  • There is a melancholic, mournful tone to the poem

The poem's speaker relates how the sea took his "sea-worthy soul" "in sorrow and fear and pain," showing him "suffering" and "hardship." Further, the speaker notes how he has been "wretched" as he has drifted on an "ice-cold sea," and his soul has "drown[ed] in desolation." Also, he has passed his life without a family and been subjected to all types of weather.

  • The thoughts of the speaker are formed with imagination in the first person.

In lines 11-12, he states, "Around my heart, Hunger tore/At my sear-weary soul," and in line 26, he describes his "my soul left drowning in desolation." Later, he describes in lines 29-30 " wearily/I put myself back on the paths of the sea."

  • Questions about destiny, fate, and justice

The first part of "The Seafarer" involves such questions about fate and destiny as the speaker reflects that he is "Wondering what Fate has willed and will do" as the ship roams the seas and wanders to far-off parts of the world. In his many journeys to sea, the sailor has never known what will happen:

No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life from his soul....

Further, the speaker reflects that those who "forget their God" suffer death, while the man who lives a humble life "has angels from Heaven" bring him courage and conviction and strength.

  • As a Christian elegy, the poem moves from grief and misery to hope and happiness since death is only a passage to eternal life.

After all the hardships of being a sailor, experiencing storms, illness, and battle, while the sword snatches life from the seafarer, his bravery is rewarded as a man of honor. His soul, released from his body, feels no pain and, instead

,,,rise[s] to that eternal joy,
That life born in the love of God
And the hope of Heaven. (ll.122-124)

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