The Seafarer (poem)

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The Seafarer is an Old English poem giving a first-person account of a man alone on the sea. The poem consists of 124 lines, followed by the single word "Amen" and is recorded only in the Exeter Book, one of the four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. It has most often been categorised as an elegy, a poetic genre commonly assigned to Old English poetry.

Summary[edit]

Much scholarship suggests that the poem is told from the point of view of an old seafarer, who is reminiscing and evaluating his life as he has lived it. The seafarer describes the desolate hardships of life on the wintry sea.[1] He describes the anxious feelings, cold-wetness, and solitude of the sea voyage in contrast to life on land where men are surrounded by kinsmen, free from dangers, and full on food and wine. The climate on land then begins to resemble that of the wintry sea, and the speaker shifts his tone from the dreariness of the winter voyage and begins to describe his yearning for the sea.[2] Time passes through the seasons from winter — “it snowed from the north”[3] — to spring — “groves assume blossoms”[4] — and to summer — “the cuckoo forebodes, or forewarns”.[5]

Then the speaker again shifts, this time not in tone, but in subject matter. The sea is no longer explicitly mentioned; instead the speaker preaches about steering a steadfast path to heaven. He asserts that “earthly happiness will not endure",[6] that men must oppose “the devil with brave deeds”,[7] and that earthly wealth cannot travel to the afterlife nor can it benefit the soul after a man's death.[8]

The poem ends with a series of gnomic statements about God,[9] eternity,[10] and self-control.[11] The poem then ends with the single word "Amen".[12]

Structure[edit]

Many scholars think of the seafarer's narration of his experiences as an exemplum, used to make a moral point and to persuade his hearers of the truth of his words.[13] It has been proposed that this poem demonstrates the fundamental Anglo-Saxon belief that life is shaped by fate.[citation needed] Another understanding was offered in the Cambridge Old English Reader, namely that the poem is essentially concerned to state: "Let us (good Christians, that is) remind ourselves where our true home lies and concentrate on getting there"[14]

As early as 1902 W.W. Lawrence had concluded that the poem was a “wholly secular poem revealing the mixed emotions of an adventurous seaman who could not but yield to the irresistible fascination for the sea in spite of his knowledge of its perils and hardships”.[15]

The Seafarer has attracted the attention of scholars and critics, creating a substantial amount of critical assessment. Many of these studies initially debated the continuity and unity of the poem. One early interpretation, also discussed by W. W. Lawrence was that the poem could be thought of as a conversation between an old seafarer, weary of the ocean, and a young seafarer, excited to travel the high seas. This interpretation arose because of the arguably alternating nature of the emotions in the text.[16]

Another argument, in "The Seafarer: An Interpretation", 1937, was proposed by O.S. Anderson, who plainly stated:

A careful study of the text has led me to the conclusion that the two different sections of The Seafarer must belong together, and that, as it stands, it must be regarded as in all essentials genuine and the work of one hand: according to the reading I propose, it would not be possible to omit any part of the text without obscuring the sequence.[17]

He nevertheless also suggested that the poem can be split into three different parts, naming the first part A1, the second part A2, and the third part B, and conjectured that it was possible that the third part had been written by someone other than the author of the first two sections. The third part may give an impression of being more influenced by Christianity than the previous parts.[18] However, he also stated that

the only way to find the true meaning of The Seafarer is to approach it with an open mind, and to concentrate on the actual wording, making a determined effort to penetrate to what lies beneath the verbal surface[19]

and added, to counter suggestions that there had been interpolations, that: "personally I believe that [lines 103-124] are to be accepted as a genuine portion of the poem".[20] Moreover, in "The Seafarer; A Postscript", published in 1979, writing as O.S. Arngart, he simply divided the poem into two sections. The first section represents the poet's life on earth, and the second tells us of his longing to voyage to a better world, to Heaven.[21]

In most later assessments, scholars have agreed with Anderson/Arngart in arguing that the work is a well-unified monologue. In 1975 David Howlett published a textual analysis which suggested that both The Wanderer and The Seafarer are "coherent poems with structures unimpaired by interpolators"; and concluded that a variety of "indications of rational thematic development and balanced structure imply that The Wanderer and The Seafarer have been transmitted from the pens of literate poets without serious corruption." With particular reference to The Seafarer, Howlett further added that "The argument of the entire poem is compressed into" lines 58-63, and explained that "Ideas in the five lines which precede the centre" (line 63) "are reflected in the five lines which follow it". By 1982 Frederick S. Holton had amplified this finding by pointing out that "it has long been recognized that The Seafarer is a unified whole and that it is possible to interpret the first sixty-three-and-a-half lines in a way that is consonant with, and leads up to, the moralizing conclusion".[22]

Themes[edit]

Scholars have focused on the poem in a variety of ways. In the arguments assuming the unity of The Seafarer, scholars have debated the interpretation and translations of words, the intent and effect of the poem, whether the poem is allegorical, and, if so, the meaning of the supposed allegory.

Sylf[edit]

John C. Pope and Stanley Greenfield have specifically debated the meaning of the word sylf (modern English: self, very, own),[23] which appears in the first line of the poem.[24][25] They also debate whether the seafarer’s earlier voyages were voluntary or involuntary.[15][page needed]

Wisdom[edit]

Thomas D. Hill in 1998 argues that the content of the poem also links it with the sapiential books, or wisdom literature, a category particularly used in biblical studies that mainly consists of proverbs and maxims. Hill argues that The Seafarer has “significant sapiential material concerning the definition of wise men, the ages of the world, and the necessity for patience in adversity”.[26]

In his account of the poem in the Cambridge Old English Reader, published in 2004, Richard Marsden writes, “It is an exhortatory and didactic poem, in which the miseries of winter seafaring are used as a metaphor for the challenge faced by the committed Christian.[27] If this interpretation of the poem, as providing a metaphor for the challenges of life, can be generally agreed upon, then one may say that it is a contemplative poem that teaches Christians to be faithful and to maintain their beliefs.

Religion[edit]

An early trend in Old English studies insisted on separating the poem into two parts - secular and religious - which continues to impact on scholarship and translations to this day.

Sweet's An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), pp. 171-174, (p. 174), ends the poem at line 108 of 124. In their Old English Poems, C Faust and S Thompson note that:

up to line 65 this is one of the finest specimens of Anglo-Saxon poetry… From line 65 to the end the poem consists of a very tedious homily that must surely be a later edition.[28]

Their translation ends with ‘My soul unceasingly to sail o’er the whale-path / Over the waves of the sea’, with a note below ‘at this point the dull homiletic passage begins. Much of it is quite untranslatable.’ Subsequent translators, including Ezra Pound, have based their interpretations of the poem on this belief.

As already mentioned, scholars have often commented on religion in the structure of The Seafarer. Critics who argue against structural unity specifically perceive newer interpolations, which are religious in nature.[15]

John F. Vickrey disagrees with Pope and Whitelock, who identify the seafarer as a penitential exile, arguing that if the Seafarer were a religious exile, then the speaker would have related the “joys of the spirit”[29] and not his miseries to the reader. This reading has received further support from Sebastian Sobecki, who argues that Whitelock's interpretation of religious pilgrimage does not conform to known pilgrimage patterns at the time. Instead, he proposes the vantage point of a fisherman.[30] However, the text contains no mention, or indication of any sort, of fishes or fishing; and it is arguable that the composition is written from the vantage point of a fisher of men; that is, an evangelist. Douglas Williams suggested in 1989: "I would like to suggest that another figure more completely fits its narrator: The Evangelist".[31] Marsden points out that although at times this poem may seem depressing, there is a sense of hope throughout it, centered on eternal life in Heaven.[27]

Literal view[edit]

Dorothy Whitelock claimed that the poem is a literal description of the voyages with no figurative meaning, concluding that the poem is about a literal penitential exile.[32]

Allegorical view[edit]

Pope believes the poem describes a journey not literally but through allegorical layers.[15] Greenfield, however, believes that the seafarer’s first voyages are not the voluntary actions of a penitent but rather imposed by a confessor on the sinful seaman.[page needed]

Daniel G. Calder argues that the poem is an allegory for the representation of the mind, where the elements of the voyages are objective symbols of an “exilic” state of mind. Contrasted to the setting of the sea is the setting of the land, a state of mind that contains former joys. When the sea and land are joined through the wintry symbols, Calder argues the speaker’s psychological mindset changes. He explains that is when “something informs him that all life on earth is like death. The land the seafarer seeks on this new and outward ocean voyage is one that will not be subject to the mutability of the land and sea as he has known”.[33] John F. Vickrey continues Calder’s analysis of The Seafarer as a psychological allegory. Vickrey argued that the poem is an allegory for the life of a sinner through the metaphor of “the boat of the mind,” a metaphor used “to describe, through the imagery of a ship at sea, a person’s state of mind”.[29]

Editions and translations[edit]

George P. Krapp and Elliot V.K. Dobbie produced an edition of the Exeter Book, containing The Seafarer, in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records in 1936.[34] Ida L. Gordon produced the first modern scholarly in 1960.[35] Later, Anne L. Klinck included the poem in her compendium edition of Old English elegies in 1992.[36]

The Seafarer has been translated many times by numerous scholars, poets, and other writers, with the first English translation by Benjamin Thorpe in 1842. Between 1842 and 2000 over 60 different versions, in eight languages, have been recorded. The translations fall along a scale between scholarly and poetic, best described by John Dryden as noted in The Word Exchange anthology of Old English poetry: ‘metaphrase’, or a crib; ‘paraphrase’, or ‘translation with latitude’, allowing the author to keep the author in view while altering words, but not sense; and ‘imitation’, which 'departs from words and sense, sometimes writing as the author would have done had she lived in the time and place of the reader’.[37]

List of translations[edit]

Creative adaptations and interpretations[edit]

Ezra Pound, 1911[edit]

American expatriate poet Ezra Pound produced a well-known interpretation of The Seafarer, and his version varies from the original in theme and content. It all but eliminates the religious element of the poem, and addresses only the first 99 lines.[38] However, Pound mimics the style of the original through the extensive use of alliteration, which is a common device in Anglo-Saxon poetry. His interpretation was first published in The New Age on November 30, 1911, in a column titled 'I Gather the Limbs of Osiris', in his Ripostes in 1912, and was most recently re-published in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 2005.

Jila Peacock, 1999[edit]

Painter and printmaker Jila Peacock created a series of monoprints in response to the poem in 1999.[39] She went on to collaborate with composer Sally Beamish to produce the multi-media project 'The Seafarer Piano trio', which premiered at the Alderton Arts festival in 2002. Her prints have subsequently been brought together with a translation of the poem by Amy Kate Riach, published by Sylph Editions in 2010.[40]

Sally Beamish, 2001[edit]

Composer Sally Beamish has written several works inspired by the Seafarer since 2001. Her 'Viola Concerto no.2' was jointly commissioned by the Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestras, and first performed by Tabea Zimmermann with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, at the City halls, Glasgow, in January 2002.[41] Another piece, 'The Seafarer trio' was recorded and released in 2014 by Orchid Classics.[42][43]

Sylph Editions with Amy Kate Riach and Jila Peacock, 2010[edit]

Independent publishers Sylph Editions have released two versions of 'The Seafarer', with a translation by Amy Kate Riach and Jila Peacock's monoprints. A large format book was released in, 2010, with a smaller edition in 2014.[44]

Caroline Bergvall, 2014[edit]

Caroline Bergvall's multi-media work 'Drift', was produced as a video, voice, and music performance by Penned in the Margins in the UK in 2014,[45] and published as text and prints by Nightboat Books (2014). 'Drift' reinterprets the themes and language of 'The Seafarer' to reimagine stories of refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea, and, according to a review in Publishers Weekly May 2014, 'toys with the ancient and unfamiliar English'.[46]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ lines 1-33a
  2. ^ lines 33b-66a
  3. ^ line 31b
  4. ^ line 48a
  5. ^ line 53a
  6. ^ line 67
  7. ^ line 76
  8. ^ lines 97-102
  9. ^ lines 101-108, 115-116, 121-124
  10. ^ lines 106-7, 117-122a
  11. ^ lines 106-112, 118-120
  12. ^ line 125
  13. ^ Rosteutscher and Ehrismann, cited in Gordon, I. L. (1954-01-01). "Traditional Themes in The Wanderer and The Seafarer". The Review of English Studies. New Series. 5 (17): 11. 
  14. ^ Marsden, p. 222
  15. ^ a b c d Pope, John C. (1994). "Second Thoughts on the Interpretation of The Seafarer". In O'Brien O'Keefe, Katherine. Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. New York: Garland. p. 222. ISBN 978-0815300977. 
  16. ^ Lawrence, William Witherle (1902). "The Wanderer and the Seafarer". The Journal of Germanic Philology. 4 (4). Retrieved 29 July 2016 – via JSTOR. 
  17. ^ Anderson, O.S. (1937). "The Seafarer: An Interpretation". K.Humanistiska Vetensskapssamfundets i Lunds Årsberättelse (1): 6. 
  18. ^ Anderson, 12
  19. ^ Anderson, 5
  20. ^ Anderson, 34
  21. ^ Arngart, O.S. (1979). "The Seafarer: A Postscript". English Studies. 60 (3). 
  22. ^ Holton, Frederick S. (1982). "Old English Sea Imagery and the Interpretation of The Seafarer". The Yearbook of English Studies. 12: 208. ISSN 0306-2473. JSTOR 3507407. 
  23. ^ "Self". Bosworth–Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Retrieved 12 August 2016. 
  24. ^ Greenfield, Stanley B. (1969). ""Mīn", "Sylf", and "Dramatic Voices in "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer"". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 68 (2): 212–220. JSTOR 27705678. 
  25. ^ Greenfield, Stanley B. (1980). "Sylf, seasons, structure and genre in The Seafarer". Anglo-Saxon England. 9: 199–211. doi:10.1017/S0263675100001174. 
  26. ^ Hill, Thomas D. (1998). "Wisdom (Sapiential) Literature". In Szarmach, Paul E.; Tavormina, M. Teresa; Roesenthal, Joel T. Medieval England: an Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. p. 806. ISBN 978-0824057862. 
  27. ^ a b Marsden, Richard (2004). The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. p. 221. ISBN 978-0521456128. 
  28. ^ Faust, C (1918). Old English Poems. Philadelphia: Folcroft. pp. pp. 68–71. 
  29. ^ a b Vickrey, John F. (1994). "Some Hypotheses Concerning The Seafarer". In O'Brien O'Keefe, Katherine. Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. New York: Garland. pp. 251–279. ISBN 978-0815300977. 
  30. ^ Sobecki, Sebastian I. (2008). "The Interpretation of The Seafarer: A Re-examination of the Pilgrimage Theory". Neophilologus. 92 (1): 127–139. doi:10.1007/s11061-007-9043-2. 
  31. ^ Williams, Douglas (1989). "The Seafarer as an Evangelical Poem". Lore & Language. 8 (1). ISSN 0307-7144. [page needed]
  32. ^ Whitelock, Dorothy (1968). "The Interpretation of The Seafarer". In Bessinger, Jess. B., Jr.; Kahrl, Stanley J. Essential Articles: Old English Poetry. Hamden: Shoe String Press. pp. 442–457. ISBN 978-0208001535. 
  33. ^ Calder, Daniel G. (1971). "Setting and Mode in The Seafarer and The Wanderer". Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 72: 268. 
  34. ^ Krapp, George P.; Dobbie, Elliot V.K., eds. (1936). The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 3. Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0231087675. 
  35. ^ Gordon, I.L., ed. (1979). The Seafarer. Old and Middle English Texts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-0778-1. 
  36. ^ Klinck, Anne L., ed. (1992). The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP. ISBN 978-0773522411. 
  37. ^ Delanty, Greg (2010). The Word Exchange. W W Norton. 
  38. ^ Pound, Ezra (1998). Lancashire, Ian, ed. "The Seafarer". Representative Poetry Online. U of Toronto Libraries. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  39. ^ "Publications | Jila Peacock". www.jilapeacock.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-07-29. 
  40. ^ "Sylph Editions | The Seafarer". www.sylpheditions.com. Retrieved 2016-07-29. 
  41. ^ Beamish, Sally (January 2014). "'The Seafarer', Concerto for Viola No 2". Retrieved 17 August 2016. 
  42. ^ Beamish, Sally (2015). "Sally Beamish Discography". Retrieved 17 August 2016. 
  43. ^ Trio Apaches (October 2014). The Seafarer (CD). Orchid Classics. 
  44. ^ "Sylph Editions | The Seafarer/Art Monographs". www.sylpheditions.com. Retrieved 2016-07-29. 
  45. ^ Chivers, Tom. "Penned in the Margins | Caroline Bergvall: Drift". www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-07-29. 
  46. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Drift by Caroline Bergvall. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-937658-20-5". Retrieved 2016-07-29. 
  • Brown, Phyllis R. "The Seafarer.” Medieval England: an Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Roesenthal. New York: Garland, 1998.
  • The Exeter Book Part Two. (EETS Original Series.) London: Oxford University Press, 1933.
  • Cameron, Angus. “Anglo-Saxon Literature.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. Vol. 1 New York: Scribner, 1982. 274-288.
  • Greenfield, Stanley B. “Attitudes and Values in The Seafarer.” Studies in Philology; 51 (1954): 15-20.
  • Howlett, David R. “The Structures of The Wanderer and The Seafarer.” Studia Neophilologica. 1975. Vol 47:2. 313-317.
  • Kennedy, Charles W., trans. Early English Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1961.
  • Klinck, Anne L. “Seafarer.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1991. 413.
  • Miller, Sean. "The Seafarer." Anglo Saxons. 1997. 20 Nov 2007 <http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=Sfr>.
  • Orton, P. “The Form and Structure of The Seafarer.” Studia Neophilologica; 63 (1991): 37-55.
  • Rumble, Alexander R. “Exeter Book.” Medieval England: an Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Roesenthal. New York: Garland, 1998. 285-286.
  • Smithers, G.V. "The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer". Medium Ævum XXVI, No 3, 1957; and Medium Ævum XXVIII, Nos 1 & 2, 1959
  • The Seafarer: an Italian translation http://ilmiolibro.it/libro.asp?id=18484
  • “The Seafarer.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. & ed. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Dent, 1982. 329-335
  • “The Seafarer.” Old and Middle English c. 890-c. 1400: an Anthology. Ed. Elaine Treharne. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 48-53.

External links[edit]