‘The Seafarer’ is an Old English poem found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, one of only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. Old English was used before the Norman invasion in 1066 and has since evolved into Middle English and Contemporary/Modern English. It belongs to a group of poems that reflect on melancholy, earthly, and spiritual. While the first parts of the poem are darker and include the speaker detailing losses he’s suffered, the latter sections transition into a religious lesson. By the end, the seafarer’s journey becomes a religious one. It’s likely that this piece was composed while the Christian faith was still relatively new to the area.
Explore The Seafarer
Throughout the poem, the speaker explores his life as a seafarer and the significant ups and downs of the profession. He expresses the misery of the cold days at sea, the loneliness, and the fear of danger. While sailing, he describes how he often misses the sounds and company of his friends. He has to make do with the sound of seabirds flying around his vessel. But, despite the terrible times he often has, he takes pleasure from traveling. There’s something in his soul or his spirit that encourages him to set off and experience the world in a way that others don’t. In the end, the speaker turns to think about what happens after death and the unimportance of possessions.
In ‘The Seafarer,’ the poet engages with themes of nature, suffering, and spirituality. These all come together in his depiction of ocean travels, the pain he undergoes, and the spiritual heights it allows him to reach. He’s far more satisfied out on the sea, at least when he looks back on it than he is in the city. Throughout the poem, the speaker returns to natural images, such as those of seabirds and the surge of the water, to demonstrate his longing for his friends and the emotion of these experiences. Depending on how one interprets the end of the poem, religion is also an important theme that the anonymous poet touches on.
Structure and Form
‘The Seafarer’ by Anonymous is a 125-line poem, 111 lines in this translation, that is written from the first-person perceptive. It has been categorized as an elegy that might’ve been composed earlier than the date at which it was transcribed. The original poem was written in Old English. It has since been translated into contemporary English. The version used in this analysis was translated by Ezra Pound, the famed imagist poet.
Although this piece is translated from an old variant of the English language spoken almost 1,000 years ago, there are some interesting literary devices that readers should be aware of. It is important to note that the vast majority of these are present due to Pound’s artistic translation. For example, there are numerous examples of alliteration scattered throughout ‘The Seafarer,’ such as “Journey’s jargon” in line two and “mews” and “mead” in line twenty-two. There are almost examples in every line of the poem. This helps to create a feeling of rhyme and rhythm without it be present in the text.
Another technique readers might take note of is caesurae. These are pauses the poet inserts into the middle of lines. There are a few examples in ‘The Seafarer,’ although far fewer than existed within the original, fragmented Old English text.
Enjambment is another device that Pound uses in his translation of ‘The Seafarer.’ There are examples throughout, such as in the transition between lines two and three as well as thirty-seven and thirty-eight.
Analysis, Lines by Lines
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
In the first lines of ‘The Seafarer,’ the speaker, the seafarer, begins by saying that he can and will make a true song about his journeys over the ocean. He’s endured a great deal of hardship “in harsh days.” The speaker also recalls the cold and loneliness that assaulted him during that time. One of the most notable images in these first lines is the speaker’s description of hearing seabirds rather than the comforting sounds of the mead hall and his “kinsmen.”
Although it is impossible to derive any sense of meter or rhyme from ‘The Seafarer,’ in his translation, Pound does use some literary devices like alliteration. For example, “Weathered the winter, wretchd” in line fifteen and “land loveliest liveth” in line fourteen. The speaker also refers to his ship or at least Pound does, as “she.” This is a common way of addressing a vessel, something that connects this poem throughout the ages to the contemporary period. It’s clear in these lines that the speaker deeply misses his home on land. He isn’t taking any significant pleasure from this journey. It seems like that he’d rather end it as soon as possible.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
The heart’s thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
In contrast to the memory of his friends, their laughter, drinks, and warmth, the speaker returns to the “stone-cliffs,” storms, and ice. The speaker knows that he’s living a very different kind of life from that of a “burgher” or a city-dwelling trade person. They know nothing of the suffering he endures. Their life is “winsome” and pleasant in comparison. Several more examples of alliteration in the next lines, “Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north, / Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then / Corn of the coldest.”
These lines announce that the weather got even worse than it was at the beginning of the piece. He’s suffering, spiritually and physically from the onslaught and unshakeable loneliness of his situation.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
Where wandering them widest draweth.
The speaker emphasizes that he is at a great distance from everything and everyone he knows and loves. He’s out in a “foreign fastness” and can’t help but think about the contrasting memories in his own life and the lives of others. There are many things to envy about the life of someone who dwells only on land. They get to take a “winsome…wife” and stay safe from the dangers of the sea. They enjoy the spring season when “Bosque taketh blossom” and the beautiful berries become ripe. But, at the same time, the speaker knows that those who live on land won’t ever appreciate the world as he does. He has a unique perspective, one that can’t be challenged.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ‘mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, …
In the following lines of ‘The Seafarer’, the speaker changes his tune somewhat. He admits that within him, there’s a desire to travel. When certain natural elements come together, he knows it’s time for him to move on and continue his life on the sea. The speaker alludes to the fact that it’s his mind, more than his body, that wants to travel. There is some kind of spiritual satisfaction in it.
Moving on in a stream-of-consciousness style, the speaker adds that any earthly possessions one has, or any earthly joys they experience, will eventually disappear to disease or old age, or perhaps death by the sword. The only way one can truly live forever, he says, is the “Laud of the living,” or the laudatory words of those still alive. The speaker says that everyone, while alive, should work hard against foes and malice so that when they die, they’ll be remembered positively.
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
The following lines expand on the speaker’s vision of the world. One should work to live a good and honorable life because the physical world is not all that it used to be. The days are not durable, kingdoms and riches are collapsing. The kings, nobles, and heroes have all faded into the past. Gold and possessions make no difference, he adds, in the end.
He spends a great deal of time at the end of the poem reiterating the fact that old age comes for everyone. Friends will die, earthly experiences will be worth nothing, and all that’s left is the afterlife, and the stories told after one is dead.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Seafarer’ should also consider reading Ezra Pound’s translation of ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife’ as well as ‘The Sea is History.’ The latter, by Derek Walcott, is densely packed with various images from the Bible. There are endless explanations scattered throughout the poem and a deep religious fervor at its heart. ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife’ describes the relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and her merchant husband. It was taken from the original, written by Li Bai. Pound took some liberties with the poem as he did with ‘The Seafarer.’ Some other related poems are ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to be’ by John Keats and ‘I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched’ by Emily Dickinson.