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YEAR Undated.
(<1050 A.D.)



The Wanderer


The Sea-Farer


The poem translated below, has been interpreted as a dialogue between a weather-beaten old sailor and a youth eager to go to sea. The parts are not assigned in the original MS., and the only warrant for our dialogue form lies in the structure of the poem itself.

The Old Sailor:

True is the tale that I tell of my travels,
Sing of my sea-faring sorrows and woes;
Hunger and hardship’s heaviest burdens,
Tempest and terrible toil of the deep,
5 Daily I’ve borne on the deck of my boat.
Fearful the welter of waves that encompassed me,
Watching at night on the narrow bow,
As she drove by the rocks, and drenched me with spray.
Fast to the deck my feet were frozen,
69 10 Gripped by the cold, while care’s hot surges
My heart o’erwhelmed, and hunger’s pangs
Sapped the strenghth of my sea-weary spirit.

Little he know whose lot is happy.,
Who lives at ease in the lap of the earth,
15 How, sick at heart, o’er icy seas.
Wretched I ranged the winter through,
Bare of joys, and banished from friends,
Hung with icicles, stung by hail-stones.
Nought I heard but the hollow boom
20 Of wintry waves, or the wild swan’s whoop.
For singing I had the solan’s scream;
For peals of laughter, the yelp of the sea;
The sea-mew’s cry, for the mirth of the mead-hall.
Shrill through the roar of the shrieking gale
25 Lashing along the sea-cliff’s edge,
Pierces the ice-plumed petrel’s defiance,
And the wet-winged eagle’s answering scream.

Little he dreams that drinks life’s pleasure,
By danger untouched in the shelter of towns
30 Insolent and wine-proud, how utterly weary
Oft I wintered on open seas.
Night fell black, from the north it snowed
Harvest of hail.

The Youth:

                         Oh wildly my heart
35 Beats in my bosom and bids me to try
The tumble and surge of seas tumultuous,
Breeze and brine and the breakers’ roar.
Daily hourly drives me my spirit
Outward to sail, far countries to see.
40 Liveth no man so large in his soul,
So gracious in giving, so gay in his youth,
70 In deeds so daring, so dear to his lord,
But frets his soul for his sea-adventure,
Fain to try what fortune shall send
45 Harping he heeds not, nor hoarding of treasure;
Nor woman can win him, nor joys of the world.
Nothing doth please but the plunging billows;
Ever he longs, who is lured by the sea.
Woods are abloom, the wide world awakens,
50 These are but warnings, that haste on his journey
Him whose heart is hungry to taste
The perils and pleasures of the pathless deep.

The Old Sailor:

Hearest the cuckoo mournfully calling?
55 The summer’s watchman sorrow forbodes.
What does the landsman that wantons in luxury,
What does he reck of the rough sea’s woe,
The cares of the exile, whose keel has explored
The uttermost parts of the Ocean-ways!

The Youth:

60 Sudden my soul starts from her prison-house,
Soareth afar o’er the sounding main;
Hovers on high, o’er the home of the whale’
Back to me darts the bird-sprite and beckons,
Winging her way o’er woodlands and plain,
65 Hungry to roam, and bring me where glisten
Glorious tracts of glimmering foam.
This life on land is lingering death to me,
[66] Give me the gladness of God’s great sea.



The Seafarer is a poem of 124 lines, of unknown date and authorship, preserved in the Exeter Book. It probably belongs to the eighth century. The first part, ll. 1-64, describes the joys and hardships of the seafaring life, and is filled with high poetry. The second part contains practical exhortations, echoed from the gnomic verses, and is full of dreary prose. This second part, omitted in the translation, is almost certainly a later addition, made by one or more monkish scribes. The German scholar Rieger first interpreted the Seafarer as a dialogue between an old sailor and a youth eager to o to sea. For the literature on the subject, and the divisions suggested by other critics, see W. W. Lawrence, Journal of Germanic Philology, 1902, Vol. IV, p. 461. The assignment of parts as given in our translation differs slightly from that of Rieger. Professor Lawrence agrees with Kluge that the latter portion, ll. 64b-124, is a pious appendix, but he tires to prove the first part the “lyric utterance of one man.” It is clear that we have in the Seafarer the interplay of different and mutually exclusive lyric moods, suggested by life at sea. It is also clear that the same poet felt and expressed both moods, and that one mood is chiefly retrospective, based on experience, and the other perspective, based on anticipation. Whether the poet consciously dramatized these moods into an objective dialogue between an old sailor and a young man is a minor question. When a critic (Boer) says he cannot determine “whether the dialogue is carried on by two persons or whether a single man is talking with himself,” we realize how perilously near to vain hair-splitting such a discussion may carry us. The main point is that the poem is lyric, not dramatic; it presents the interplay of lyric moods, and not the conflict of dramatic characters. The main, and perhaps the only justification for printing the poem in dialogue form is that so far from doing violence to ist essential meaning and poetic values, it rather brings these into relief. For a precisely analogous dialogue of moods, compare Walt Whitman’s “Give me the Splendid Silent Sun,” where the mood inspired by life in the country alternates and conflicts with that inspired by life in the city.

Recerntly Ehrisman (Beiträge, 1909, Vol. 35, p. 212) has argued for a didactic unity for the whole poem. According to this interpretation, the pictures of the seafarer’s life, with their contrasts of joy and sorrow, are introduced merely as a symbol of the Christian’s life on earth, followed by the joys of heaven. It must be admitted that there is much in Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry to encourage such a view, and I have no doubt that the author of the religious appendix understood the earlier sea-poem in this sense, and appropriated it to his symbolic Christian-mystical purposes, but this is far from proving the unimaginative, unoriginal, unemotional, homiletic addition to have been part of the original fine sea-piece, and in fact its raison d’etre and final purpose. Browning’s sea-piece Amphibian is a good example of a genuine blending of the real and the symbolic-mystical, in a uniform poetic key.

68. — 1. True is the tale, etc. This line has more alliterations than the strict rule permits.

69. — 11. Hunger’s pangs, etc. Literally “Hunger from within bit to shreds the courage of me sea-wearied.” Cf. Job, xviii: 12, “His strength shall be hunger-bitten.” — 28. Little he dreams, etc. The translation omits the preceding line and a half, where there is an evident break or fault in transcription. — 36. The tumble and surge of seas tumultuous, etc. This and the following lines are an expansion of the original “hean streamas, sealtyþa gelac,” the high seas, and the play of the salt billows.

70. — 68. Give me the gladness of God’s great sea. I have frankly taken a liberty with the original text here, and the literalist will call my version perversion. Peccavi fortiter! 423 At this point the homiletic addition is welded on to the genuine poem, and it is done in the following fashion: “As for me the joys of the Lord are more pleasing than this life-in-death, that passeth away on land.” From here on to the end, the depth of poetic feeling shoals rapidly, and the rhythm breaks. The sympathetic translator who has felt the heave and lift of the ground-swell under him thus far is tempted to answer the pious homilist with his “dryhtnes dreamas,” in Kipling’s words:

“Must we sing forever more
On the windless glassy floor
Take back your golden fiddles, and we’’ beat to open sea.”

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