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The Seafarer is an Old English poem recorded in the Exeter Book, one of the four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. It consists of 124 lines, followed by the single word "Amen". In the past it has been frequently referred to as an elegy, a poem that mourns a loss, or has the more general meaning of a simply sorrowful piece of writing. Some scholars, however, have argued that the content of the poem also links it with Sapiential Books, or Wisdom Literature. This category of literature mainly consists of proverbs and maxims and is used with reference to Old Testament books. The Seafarer has “significant sapiential material concerning the definition of wise men, the ages of the world, and the necessity for patience in adversity” (Hill 806). Wisdom Literature may also apply to The Seafarer from a Christian viewpoint.
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…” (221). 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.
It is told from the point of view of an old seafarer, who is reminiscing and evaluating his life as he has lived it. In lines 1–33a, the seafarer describes the desolate hardships of life on the wintry sea. 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 in lines 33b-66a, the speaker shifts his tone from the dreariness of the winter voyage and begins to describe his yearning for the sea. Time passes through the seasons from winter — “it snowed from the north” (31b) — to spring — “groves assume blossoms” (48a) — and to summer — “the cuckoo forebodes, or forewarns” (53a).
Marsden points out that although at times this poem may seem depressing, there is a sense of hope throughout it. That hope is centered on eternal life in Heaven (221). The poem begins as a narrative of a man’s life at sea and then changes to become a praise of God, thus giving the reader hope. At line 66b, 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" (line 67), that men must oppose “the devil with brave deeds” (line 76), and that earthly wealth cannot travel to the afterlife nor can it benefit the soul after a man's death (lines 97-102).
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."
In view of the structure and content, as outlined above, it is helpful to 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. It has been proposed that this poem demonstrates the fundamental Anglo-Saxon belief that life is shaped by fate. 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"
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. (Conway).
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 30th, 1911, and subsequently in his Ripostes in 1912.
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. It can seem as if one moment the writer is tired of sea-life, while the next moment he is pining for the salt waves and the open water (2-3). Another argument, in The Seafarer: An Interpretation, by O.S. Anderson, suggested that the poem can be split into three different parts. He names the first part A1, the second part A2, and the third part B. It is possible that the third part was 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 (12). 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” (Pope, 222).
In later assessments, however, scholars have shifted their viewpoints and have argued that the work is a well-unified monologue. In the arguments for the unity of The Seafarer, scholars have debated the interpretation and translations of words, whether the poem is allegorical, and the meaning of the supposed allegory. 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. In contrast to Dorothy Whitelock’s claim that the poem is a literal description of the voyages with no figurative meaning, both scholars believe the poem is an allegory. Many scholars, including Whitelock and Pope, have concluded that the poem is about a penitential exile, though Pope believes the poem shows this through allegorical layers and Whitelock through literal description. 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.
Though many scholars have commented on the literal and allegorical levels of the poem, some scholars view The Seafarer as more allegorical than literal. In 1971, Daniel G. Calder presented an argument in which The Seafarer is an allegorical poem for the representation of the mind and the elements of the voyages are objective symbols of one in an “exile” 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” (268).
In 1982, John F. Vickrey continued 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” (251). His arguments disagree with those of Pope and Whitelock, which identify the seafarer as a penitential exile. He argues that if he were a religious exile, then the speaker would have related the “joys of the spirit” (254) and not his miseries to the reader. This reading has received further support from Sebastian Sobecki in 2008, 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. 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.
In 1999 Corey Owen produced a comprehensive on-line state-of-the-art critical summary of earlier scholarship, entitled "The Seafarer: A Hypertext Edition". In Dr Owen's own words: "In this edition, I offer the reader as much information as possible while staying within the boundaries of a master’s thesis. Although many parts of this edition remain incomplete, it still contains a close and careful representation of the poem's critical history and a reading edition which allows the reader to choose between a thoroughly edited edition or a transcribed diplomatic text which follows the manuscript lineation."
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