800px-I. E. C. Rasmussen - Sommernat under den Grønlandske Kyst circa Aar 1000

Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000, by Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Seafarer is an Old English poem recorded in the Exeter Book, one of the four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. It contains 124 lines and has been commonly 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 places it into the category of Sapiential, or Wisdom, Literature. This kind of literature mainly consists of proverbs and maxims and is named in references 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).


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. 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 urges” (53a). It is here that the speaker’s soul flies out over the sea in search of heaven and comes back eager and ready to depart.

Though this poem begins as a narrative of a man’s life at sea, it becomes a praise of God. At line 66b, the speaker again shifts, this time not in tone, but in subject matter. The sea is no longer mentioned; instead the speaker preaches about the 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 will it determine the wealth of the soul (lines 97-102). Next the speaker provides the reader with maxims and proverbs and then calls to men to consider where they want to spend the afterlife and “then reflect upon how we could come there” (line 118). Heaven is a goal for man to reach by living a good, honourable life. This is a reward to man for faith, as well as a reward for God who “has honoured us for all time” (124). The poem is ended with thanks to the Lord.

Translations Edit

The Seafarer has been translated numerous times by many scholars such as Dr. Sean Miller, who offers a clear copy of the original text as well as his own translation.[1]

American expatriate poet Ezra Pound also offered his own interpretation of The Seafarer. Pound’s translation varies much from the original in theme and content. It all but eliminates the religious element of the poem, and translates only the first 99 lines (Conway). However, it mimics the style of the original through the extensive use of alliteration, which is a common device in Anglo-Saxon poetry. This was first published in New Age on November 30th, 1911, and subsequently in Pound's Ripostes in 1912.[2]

Scholarship and criticism Edit

The Seafarer has attracted the attention of scholars and critics, creating a fair amount of critical assessments. A majority of these assessments have debated the continuity and unity of the poem. Early critics like Rieger in 1896 argued that the first half of the poem has two speakers, an old man reflecting on the hardships and sorrows of the sea and a young man eager to set forth on a voyage. Additionally, some scholars have argued that the second half of the poem—the homiletic portion—is not an original part of the poem but a later addition. Based on this argument, in 1902 W.W. Lawrence 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 formulated arguments that point to 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 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 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 mind set 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 described, through the imagery of a ship at sea, a person’s state of mind” (251). His arguments disagree with those of Pope and Whitelock that 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.

It has been asserted that this poem demonstrates the fundamental Anglo-Saxon belief that life is shaped by fate. Another understanding was proposed by the Cambridge Old English Reader in 2004, 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"

See also Edit


  • Brown, Phyllis R. "The Seafarer.” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. 1998.
  • The Exeter Book Part Two. Original Series. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.
  • Conway, David. "Ezra Pound." Wikipedia. 2006. 20 Nov 2007 <>.
  • Lancashire, Ian. "Ezra Loomis Pound: The Seafarer." Representative Poetry Online. 2005. University of Toronto Libraries. 20 Nov 2007 <>.
  • Miller, Sean. "The Seafarer." Anglo Saxons. 1997. 20 Nov 2007 <>.
  • Sobecki, Sebastian. "The Interpretation of The Seafarer: A Re-examination of the Pilgrimage Theory." <>
  • The Seafarer: an Italian translation
  • Calder, Daniel G. “Setting and Mode in The Seafarer and The Wanderer.” Neuphilologishe Mitteilugen 72 (1971): 264- 275.
  • 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.
  • Hill, Thomas D. “Wisdom (Sapiential) Literature.” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresea Tavormina, Joel T. Roesnthal. New York: Garland, 1998. 805-807.
  • 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.
  • Orton, P. “The Form and Structure of The Seafarer.” Sudia Neophiologica 63 (1991): 37-55.
  • Pope, John C. “Second Thoughts on the Interpretation of The Seafarer.” Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. New York: Garland, 1994. 213-229.
  • Rumble, Alexander R. “Exeter Book.” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresea Tavormina, Joel T. Roesnthal. New York: Garland, 1998. 285-286.
  • “The Seafarer.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. & Ed. S.A.J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 329-335
  • “The Seafarer.” Old and Middle English c. 890-c. 1400: An Anthology. Ed. Elaine Treharne. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 48-53.
  • Vickery, John F. “Some Hypothese Concerning The Seafarer.” Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. New York: Garland, 1994. 251-279.
  • Whitelock Dorothy. “The Interpretation of The Seafarer.” Essential Articles: Old English Poetry. Ed. Jess. B. Bessinger, Jr. and Stanley J. Kahrl. Hamden: Shoe String Press, Inc., 1968.442-457.
  • Marsden, Richard. "The Cambridge Old English Reader", Cambridge University Press, UK, 2004


  1. Original text, which is quite different from modern English, can be seen [1].
  2. "RPO -- Ezra Loomis Pound : The Seafarer". Retrieved 4 October 2010. 

External links Edit


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