Return to my translation of the Seafarer.

Notes on The Seafarer

Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn


Not allegorical but symbolic: “The poetic genre to which the poem belongs is one in which the meaning of human situations is developed and exploited in the form of reflective dramatic monologue, and the most plausible explanation of the form and theme of The Seafarer is that it is an imaginative evocation of physical and emotional experiences that are used to illuminate a symbolic spiritual truth” (I. L. Gordon 10). Homeless wanderer: (1) literal seafarer, (2) “real” Christian peregrinus, (3) exile from Paradise.

As bleak or perhaps bleaker in its tone and imagery than The Wanderer, the Seafarer is decidedly more homiletic after its “composition of place” than is the former poem. It falls abruptly into two parts: (1) the symbol and (2) an application of the symbol. The relationship between the two parts is not simple nor always clear. One can almost see the poem as one of Christian recklessness, as if one said, “Since life on land is no safer in the long run than seafaring, I’ll go to sea.” And perhaps the doctrinal point is that earthly life is dangerous seafaring, “so let’s get on with it.” And see Romans 8:18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”


  1. Sea journeys recalled (1-57)

    The narrator focuses primarily on the wildness of the seaman’s life (cold, waves, crying birds, anxiety) and on its incomprehensibility to the landsman.

    Þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
    iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song
    dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
    ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
    mæw singende fore medodrince.
    Stormas þær stanclifu beotan, þær him stearn oncwæð,
    isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
    urigfeþra; nænig hleomæga
    feasceaftig ferð freran meahte. (18-26)

    [I heard nothing there but the sea’s sounding,
    ice-cold wave. At times the swan’s song
    served me for merriment, gannet’s crying
    and curlew’s sound instead of men’s laughter,
    mewís singing in place of mead-drink.
    Storms there beat stone-cliffs, where starn, icy-feathered,
    answered and called to them; often the eagle screamed,
    dew-feathered fowl: no sheltering kinsman
    brought consolation to a destitute life.]

  2. Transitional section (58-66a)

    The narrator’s hyge ‘thought’ contemplates a new sea journey, urged on by the anfloga ‘lone-flyer’ (probably the cuckoo; possibly his own soul); the journey is now explicitly one aimed toward eternal life:

    . . . hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
    ofer holma gelagu, for þon me hatran sind
    dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif
    læne on londe. (63-66a)

    [whets on the whale-way spirit quite suddenly
    over the holm’s deep: hotter to me are
    delights of the Lord than this dead life,
    loaned on the land.]

  3. “Homily” on þis deade lif ‘this dead life’ (66b-116)
    1. Læne lif ‘loaned/transitory life’
      1. Transitory nature of eorðwela ‘earthly weal’ (67)
      2. Lament for a golden age (Dagas sind gewitene . . . ‘days are/have departed,’ 80b)
      3. Uselessness of treasure after death
    2. Gnomic Lines: exhortation to virtue, including trust in God and mensura ‘measure, moderation’
  4. Conclusion (117-24)

    Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen,
    ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen;
    ond we þonne eac tilien þæt we to moten . . .

    [Let us consider where our true home is;
    and then let us think how to come thither;
    and then also strive that we indeed come there . . .]