In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a minor classic of Anglo-Saxon poetry
‘The Seafarer’ is one of the earliest poems in English literature. Its ‘plot’ can be summarised easily enough: an elderly sailor speaks to us about his alienation from the world. The 124-line poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old man looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships. As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side. But it presents a number of difficulties to the literary critic and translator, and has been variously viewed as a moral poem about how to face up to your own fate, a wholly religious poem, and as a great secular poem.
Ezra Pound produced a loose translation of ‘The Seafarer’ in the early twentieth century, and chose to eschew the religious aspects of the poem, or at least play them down – choosing, for instance, to translate a word meaning ‘angels’ as one meaning ‘Angles’ (in a sort of inversion of Gregory the Great’s famous line). Pound also left out a reference to the Devil, and what he regarded as ‘the dignified but platitudinous address to the Deity’ which concludes the poem. (I am indebted to Michael Alexander’s excellent History of Old English Literature (Broadview Literary Texts) for this information.)
Like so much Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘The Seafarer’ was almost lost forever. I’ve previously remarked on this, but it’s a sobering thought that all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that has survived is found in just four manuscripts which escaped the ravages of time, the pillaging of the Vikings, and the censorship of the Church: the Cotton manuscript (which is our sole source for the long heroic narrative poem Beowulf), the Vercelli book, a collection of manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Exeter Book. Of these, the Anglo-Saxon poetry found in half of these, the Vercelli and Bodleian manuscripts, is exclusively religious: indeed, it’s little more than dramatic paraphrases of Old Testament stories or of Saints’ lives, as Michael Alexander notes in his informative introduction to his translation of Anglo-Saxon verse, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics). That leaves the Cotton manuscript (whose Anglo-Saxon poetry comprises Beowulf and nothing more) and the Exeter Book. And it’s the Exeter Book that yields a whole host of smaller masterpieces of Old English verse, from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ to ‘The Ruin’ to ‘The Wanderer’ and the celebrated riddles.
Like the companion-poem ‘The Wanderer’, which is found alongside it in the Exeter Book, ‘The Seafarer’ is spoken by a lone individual. Both the Wanderer and the Seafarer in these two poems are outcasts who are no longer part of their tribe or family; this explains the status of both poems as elegies.
In summary, ‘The Seafarer’ opens with an avowal that the story that follows is autobiographical. The seafarer then tells us about the hardships he has endured at sea, the cold, the frost, the winters. Men who have never known hardship would be unlikely to believe the seafarer’s description of the difficulties of life at sea. The seafarer is without a lord, without wine or the company of women: all he has are the waves surrounding him. No man undertaking such a life could fail to fear, at least a little, what the Lord (Jesus) might have in store for him at the end – i.e., what his fate might be. This leads the seafarer to muse upon what the future might bring, and what might happen after his death. The seafarer tells us that he does not believe ‘earthly estate is everlasting’. But fame can ensure a man immortality, as ‘livers-on’ and ‘after-speakers’ praise him after his death. All the gold in the world cannot outweigh the sin that weighs down a soul. ‘The Seafarer’ ends with the ‘platitudinous address to the Deity’ which Pound found unnecessary for his translation: the seafarer tells us that God is fearsome and mighty, and God’s will overrides anything man wants.
Critics have puzzled over what seem like some abrupt shifts in ‘The Seafarer’, but perhaps the simplest way to analyse the disparate parts of the poem is to see it as, like one of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues (‘Ulysses’ springs to mind), an ageing man’s meditation on what will last of him. There are two answers here, but they are not mutually exclusive: a man should strive to do brave and honest deeds because his fellow men will praise him after he has died, but also because God is watching over everything and will presumably punish sin. That reference to ‘the Devil’s spite’ which Pound decided to cut is absolutely necessary in this regard, as is the closing reference to God as the ‘Prince of Glory’: both earthly and godly glory are important to the Anglo-Saxon man, and ‘The Seafarer’ praises the merits of living a brave and sin-free life so that one’s name will endure after death and one’s soul will be taken care of by God. The seafarer may be without a liege-lord, but he addresses those whose duty is to both lord and Lord (Jesus): like an Anglo-Saxon kenning which brings together two images to describe something else, ‘The Seafarer’ is a poem that brings together the secular and religious and shows what they have in common.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.