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The Seafarer is thought to have originated between A.D. 970 and 990. It is contained in the Exeter Book which was presented to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric (who died in A.D. 1071).
The poem of some 194 lines reveals the mind a a Viking who raided a partly Christianized England as part of what Trevelyan called "The Second Nordic Invasion." In his "A Shortened History of England" George Macaulay Trevelyan wrote about this period thusly:
"Yet before a hundred years were out, the Scandinavian invasions were seen to have greatly strengthened the forces of progress. For the Vikings were of a stock kindred to the Saxon, but even more full of energy, hardihood, and independence of character, and with no less aptitude for poetry and learning. They brought back to the island those seafaring habits which the Saxons had lost in their sojourn on up-country farms, and it was due to them that a vigorous town life revived in England for the first time since the departure of the Romans. Had it not been for the Scandinavian blood infused into our race by the catastrophes of the Ninth Century, less would have been heard in days to come of British maritime and commercial enterprise"(Trevelyan, 70).
Synopsis and Analysis of The Seafarer
In a personal tale that is true, The Seafarer tells a story of "times of trouble" breathing the breath "of bitterest woe." His education was a long one aboard a ship that dared "the terrible toss of waves" where he traveled even by night "with anxious care" along the rocky walls of dangerous cliffs. It was so cold that his hands were "held captive with hoar-frost" and his hot heart's sorrow matched the "hungry demand" of his "sea-weary soul in the quest of a goal."
Thus, we have a Viking sailor accustomed to the harsh difficulties of the sea upon a quest. It is the classic "night-sea" journey of a searching soul.
He feels like an exile because the "pleasing pace of a life on land" is not for him. He longs for home because he is alone and "bereft of kinsman keen and bold." He finds some small pleasure in the sound of the sea-birds, but is resigned to "the test of the sea." He is a Seafarer: "no man proud of spirit inhabits the earth." No matter how much a man might gain by living on land, he still must face an inevitable inner battle -- "his own sorrow's sea." Nothing is really gained by music, or gold, or women, or "worldly delight." Nothing can ease man's longing "save the surge of the sea in its might."
Thus, the Seafarer is on the right course, even though it is bitter and lonely. The pleasures of the earth are as nothing compared to the struggle with the great ocean -- the sea he travels upon and the greater sea within.
The summer's beauty on land is pleasant, yet he feels drawn back to the sea "to sail as the sea-muse unfettered and freed." It is a force that is strong, one that he passionately feels within "the bonds of my breast-hord." The call of the sea comes to him with "its ravenous need." The call is a spiritual one to him and "dearer to me than the fleeting enchantment the earth may contain."
Thus, the great sea calls the Seafarer to itself as a force of nature and as a spiritual force as well. What is peace to another man on earth is to him something "I cannot believe/nor in spirit endure." He must be thrust out into the "ocean's relentless unreadable rack."
Then, in a definitely Christian turn, The Seafarer turns upon his tradition of valor and glorious deeds and declares them but satan's net and "dross remains." Rather than eternal renown and praise in Valhalla, the Viking's "glory is gone and the days are dead." Those Viking star snatchers are gone. They are all dying off, "the favored friend that once he knew." They can no longer even move their hands,"taste sweet no more/ nor think with purpose in his brain."
Thus, the old Viking influenced by Christianity has tasted the bitterness of the loss of his old ways of Seafaring. His friends are
dying away, and he can't even think any more.
The Seafarer cannot even bury his friends with "golden goblets by his head" because a Christian god does not see the value of the old ways. He is caught in "God's eternal grip."
The Seafarer ends in a pious prayer beginning "Great is our God in glory and might." It is an angry Christian god who loves the meek in spirit, one who governs his hate. The eye of God judges all from his position above. This heaven is not Valhalla, but a place of quiet, eternal bliss.
Thus, the old Viking is overcome by Christianity. I read this poem as a composition in two parts. Part one ends with an almost Miltonic Satan-Seafarer bravely saying "I cannot believe/nor in spirit endure/ a peace which must pass for another so pure (lines 80-81). Then comes the oddly Christian section that begins " Ever one of three biddings before his remove must give a man cause to consider his fate."
Thus, what began as a great Viking cry from the heart for the raging sea and the eternal spirit of the sea itself becomes swallowed up by a Christian Jonah's whale of a pious credo attached to the end. I would have preferred The Seafarer's quest completed by a return to the bosom of the deep where he may have set his sail firmly and passionately against the cold, unreasoning dark. But alas, it is not to be.
In all, this is a marvelous composite of the clashing of two powerful cultures. The pagan Vikings were indeed eventually overcome by Christianity, but the rugged spirit of The Seafarer comes through with force and conviction that leaves the pious Christian sermon at the end a weaker vessel than the heaving ship of the old man of the sea.July 21, 2001Thanks to George McWhorter who allowed me the pleasure of reading his entire translation of this poem. Thanks for the chance to nail up these grand spiritual lines in my own heart:
"while hot from my heart welled a sorrow to meet
that innermost hungry demand
of a sea-weary soul in the quest of a goal
no reason may understand."
George T. McWhorter Burroughs Biblio-Pro-Phile Biography
POETRY ACROSS A MILLENNIUM
A Review of The McWhorter Translation of The Seafarer
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