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 common in Old English.


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]


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 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.[citation needed]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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[18]

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".[19] 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.[20]

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".[21]


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.

Word choice[edit]

John C. Pope and Stanley Greenfield have specifically debated the meaning of the word sylf in the poem and whether the seafarer’s earlier voyages were voluntary or involuntary.[15][page needed]


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”.[22]

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.[23] 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.


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”[24] 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.[25] 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".[26] 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.[23]

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.[27]

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”.[28] 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”.[24]

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.[29] Ida L. Gordon produced the first modern scholarly edition focused The Seafarer in 1960.[30] Later, Anne L. Klinck included the poem in her compendium edition of Old English elegies in 1992.[31]

The Seafarer has been translated many times by numerous scholars, poets, and other writers, starting with Benjamin Thorpe in 1842. Between 1842 and 2000 over 60 different versions, in eight languages, have been recorded. The translations can be categorized as tending either to the scholarly or the poetic.

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.[32] 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 New Age on November 30, 1911, and subsequently in his Ripostes in 1912.

See also[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. ^ Anderson, O.S. (1937). "The Seafarer: An Interpretation". K.Humanistiska Vetensskapssamfundets i Lunds Årsberättelse (1): 6. 
  17. ^ Anderson, 12
  18. ^ Anderson, 5
  19. ^ Anderson, 34
  20. ^ Arngart, O.S. (1979). "The Seafarer: A Postscript". English Studies 60 (3). 
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ 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. 
  23. ^ a b Marsden, Richard (2004). The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. p. 221. ISBN 978-0521456128. 
  24. ^ 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. 
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Williams, Douglas (1989). "The Seafarer as an Evangelical Poem". Lore & Language 8 (1). ISSN 0307-7144. [page needed]
  27. ^ 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. 
  28. ^ Calder, Daniel G. (1971). "Setting and Mode in The Seafarer and The Wanderer". Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72: 268. 
  29. ^ Krapp, George P.; Dobbie, Elliot V.K., eds. (1936). The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3. Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0231087675. 
  30. ^ Gordon, I.L., ed. (1979). The Seafarer. Old and Middle English Texts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-0778-1. 
  31. ^ Klinck, Anne L., ed. (1992). The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP. ISBN 978-0773522411. 
  32. ^ Pound, Ezra (1998). Lancashire, Ian, ed. "The Seafarer". Representative Poetry Online. U of Toronto Libraries. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  • 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.
  • Greenfield, Stanley B. “Sylf, Seasons, Structure and Genre in The Seafarer.” Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. New York: Garland, 1994. 251-279.
  • 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 <>.
  • 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
  • “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.

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