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A translation is faithful when it conveys the meaning, not merely the words, of its source.

 

 

The Seafarer

from the Anglo-Saxon


 


MAY my words spell the truth

                                        of the ways I've toiled

distraught, for days on end

enduring cares and bitter bale

within my breast, my keel cleaving

endless halls of heaving waves

 

I would often at the bark's bows wake

the strait night through, steering

her clear of clashing cliffs

 

Cold fetters froze my feet

and hunger seared my heart

with sore sea-weariness

 

That man lolling on fair land

has no earthly inkling of how I

a wretched wreck on ice-cold seas

weathered each winter

exiled from kith and kin

 

Hail scoured my skin, and hoar

hung heavy

 

All I ever heard along the ice-way

was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty

whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull

were all my gaming, mead and mirth

At tempest-tested granite crags

the ice-winged tern would taunt

spray-feathered ospreys overhead

would soar and scream

 

No kinsman near to fend off need

no one to comfort or console

 

That fine fellow, carefree in his cups

set snugly up in town, cannot conceive

the load I hauled along the sea-lanes

 

The dark night deepens, northern snow

hardens the soil and hail hits earth

like cold corn

 

Yet my heart hammers now, yearning anew

wanting the steep salt-water road

longing with lust to roam rough seas, alone

to seek out some far foreign shore

 

The mood to wander mills within my mind

 

But none on earth may be so proud

so prodigal or yare in youth

nor so express in action

nor smiled on by so mild a master

that he embark with unconcern

what end for him the Master may intend

 

He will not heed the harp though

and is not gladdened by gold rings

nor woman's winning ways

and wants no worldly joys

only the rolling oceans urge him on

the wave play pulls him and impels

 

Then blossom decks the bower's bough

the bothie blooms, the sea meads gleam

the wide world racks the restless mind

of him who on the full flood tide

determines to depart

 

And heralding his summer hoard of pain

the gowk repeats his plaintive geck

foreboding bitterness of breast

 

Soft-bedded bloods cannot conceive

what some men suffer as abroad

they travel tracks of exile

 

Reckless of that, my thought is thrown

beyond my heart's cage now. My mind is cast

upon the sea swell, over the whale's world

widely to course creation's coast:

a closing rapture keenly calls

 


 

THE summons wails above on wing

it steels the unarmed soul to start

across the waters where the whale sways

 

God's visions are to me more vivid

than this dead life loaned out on land

I know its leasehold will not last

 

Still three things twist man's mind

until the day his doom is sealed

age, illness or some stroke of hate

will seize sense from him

 

So any noble spirit will aspire to earn

an everlasting epitaph of praise

for good deeds done on earth, bold blows

dealt at the Devil and against fell foe

before his passing, that posterity

delights enjoyed for ever by the brave

among the angels may perpetuate

 

The days of glory have decayed

the earth has spilled its splendour

there are no captains now, no kings

gold givers such as once there were

the lords who lived to purchase fame

and utmost laud among their peers

 

Virtue is fallen, visions are faded

the weak are left to hold this world

worn low. The flower of the field is old

the leaf is withered and the laurel sere

Throughout this middle isthmus man

meets age hoar-headed, bleak of face

by former friends forsaken, grieving over

scions of lineage long since gone

 

Life ebbs, the flesh feels less

and fails to savour sweet or sour

is frail of hand, feeble of mind

Though men may bury treasured pelf

beside their brother's born remains

and sow his grave with golden goods

he goes where gold is worthless

 

Nor can his sinful soul, quaking before his God

call hoarded gold or mortal glory to his aid

that Architect is awesome

Whose might moves the world

Whose hand has fixed the firmament

earth's vaults and vapours

 

Dull is the man that does not dread the Lord

on him will death's descent be sudden

blissful the man that meekly lives

on him will heaven benisons bestow

 

A mind was given man by God to glory in his might

 

A man should steer a steadfast course

be constant, clean and just in judgement

a man should curb his love or loathing

though flame consume his comrade

and fire the funeral pyre

for fate is set more surely

God more great, than any man surmise

 

Come, consider where we have a home, how

we can travel to it, how our travail here

will lead us to the living well-head

and heaven haven of our Lord's love

 

Thus let us thank His hallowed name

that He has granted us His grace

Dominion enduring, the Ancient of Days

for all time

Amen

 

The author of this work is unknown. The Anglo-Saxon manuscript, untitled and unique, was inscribed in about 975 AD and survives on four pages of the Exeter Anthology, a codex bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral, England, by Archbishop Leofric, who died in 1072 AD. This Modern English interpretation has been revised and completed from the version published in ARTES International, Stockholm and New York, in 1996. It is much indebted to the generous advice of Jonathan Backhouse, Pamela Church Gibson, Laura and Franklin Reeve.

Wayne Leman: "Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning from it which the original text had."         Click for fidelity, integrity and truth.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2000, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2014

all rights reserved

 

An edition was published June 2005, limited to 125 copies: ISBN 0-9550 126-0-0
The published text has since been slightly revised

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