Seafarer, The

Seafarer, The
(10th century)
   The Seafarer is an OLD ENGLISH poem of 124 lines preserved in the 10th-century EXETER BOOK manuscript, which contains a wide assortment of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Like The WANDERER, the poem most often associated with it, The Seafarer describes the life of a wraecca, or exile, far from his home. But unlike the Wanderer, the speaker of this poem is in self-imposed exile, traveling by sea to some unspecified destination. The text of the poem has apparently become corrupted in transmission, and in any case, the language is obscure enough to make this poem one of the most difficult in the Old English canon.
   Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that the poem has three distinct divisions. In the first 33 lines, the speaker describes the adversity he has endured in his many winters at sea. In a middle section, the speaker describes a new journey he has yet to make and his apprehension with regard to that new voyage. But he then seems to reverse his previous attitude toward seafaring and to embrace the new journey. In the third part of the poem, lines 64–124, the speaker launches into a didactic meditation on human existence. The speaker laments the impermanence of human existence in this world: Lords, mead halls, gold, and brave warriors all inevitably vanish. The poem concludes with the consolation that with God, eternal life is possible. Difficult critical questions surround the poem: Why does the speaker apparently change his attitude toward his seafaring exile after line 33? What is the relationship between the first, descriptive half of the poem, and the second, meditative half? Earlier criticism suggested that there were two speakers in the poem: an old sailor and a young one. Another early suggestion was that everything after line 64 of the poem was a later addition by a monastic scribe. Neither of these suggestions is taken seriously any longer.
   Clearly the connection between the two halves of the poem comes from the traditional Christian image of life as a pilgrimage through which we must travel en route to our eternal heavenly home. With this in mind, the first 33 lines represent the difficulties of human life on that spiritual journey, while lines 33–64 show the Christian soul’s willingness to take that final step on the pilgrimage to God. The remainder of the poem is a meditation on the theme of life’s pilgrimage.
   Other scholars have suggested that the sea journey is not allegorical at all, but represents the speaker’s willingness to become a peregrinus, that is, a hermit who deliberately takes to the sea, often in a rudderless boat, to endure exile and privation for the sake of a closer relationship with God. Such pilgrim hermits were known to Anglo-Saxon society, and are described in the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE in the entry for the year 891.
   Despite the difficulties in its interpretation, The Seafarer is a powerful poem, and its description of the transience of human life is justly famous. The poem inspired Ezra Pound to make his own translation (leaving off the didactic ending), and thus it continues to speak to readers even today.
   ■ Alexander,Michael, trans. The Earliest English Poems. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.
   ■ Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. Vol. 3, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
   ■ Orton, Peter. “The Form and Structure of The Seafarer,” Studia Neophilologica 63 (1991): 37–55.
   ■ Whitelock, Dorothy. “The Interpretation of The Seafarer.” In Early Cultures of Northwest Europe, 261–272. H. M. Chadwick Memorial Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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