This Version

Some paraphrases may possess the charm of stylish diction and idiomatic conciseness, but no scholar should succumb to stylishness and no reader be fooled by it ......... It is when the translator sets out to render the "spirit" and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author. Vladimir Nabokov; Eugen Onegin, 1964.

From Samuel Johnson; Preface to Shakespeare, 1765. Excerpt from Johnson, Prose and Poetry, selected by Mona Wilson, Rupert Hart-Davis 1957: Shakespeare is "now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it." p 499.

Hanmer (an earlier editor of Shakespeare) is "solicitous to reduce to grammar, what he could not be sure that his authour intended to be grammatical."

"Shakespeare regarded more the series of ideas than of words; and his language, not being designed for the reader's desk, was all that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning to the audience." ibid. p 516.



  In early 1994 the distinguished London publisher, David Burnett, formerly of Excellent Press, Ludlow, asked me to come up with some ideas for what he loosely outlined as a selection of Viking (sic) poetry and prose. After extracting a few passages from Njal's Saga, I thought of Pound's Seafarer, which had first been shown me by a fellow undergraduate, Peter Rawley, in about 1959, when we were both floundering in the Anglo-Saxon then mandatory, but now abolished, for our English BA degrees. Bowled over at the time, I had not looked at it for thirty years, but knew it was included in an anthology called The Knapsack, A Pocket-Book of Prose and Verse, edited by Herbert Read, published by Routledge, October 1939. The contents of this austerely produced little tome reflect its editor's preoccupation with the gathering storm in the fall of that year. It kicks off with the Hymn to Mars, Atrides Goes into Battle, and Vulcan Forges the Shield of Achilles, from Chapman's Homer. These sinew-stiffening passages are followed by Pound's Seafarer, and Scott-Moncrieff's version of Beowulf's Fight in the Enchanted Mere. In his preface Read remarks that "the love of glory, even in our materialistic age, is still the main source of virtue." ( The irony of someone like Read picking something by someone like Pound would have been unwitting in 1939. The anthology, which must have been bought in a weak moment by my father, a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy, had been lurking in my book-hoard for the ensuing 55 years.

After shuddering at the ghastly phrasing of "journey's jargon", and then admiring the precision of "nor any whit else save the wave's slash" ---- which recalled the exact sensation of sea-water beating against a small boat, broadside on ---- my instinct decided that "whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly" would make an apt rubric for the lines I had not yet selected. The closer I studied Pound's lines, however, the lower my spirit sank, until finally I felt obliged to inspect the original. Fate promptly supplied me Quirk, Adams and Davy's excellently handy Old English Literature; a practical introduction, 1975, for 1.50. After some furrowed burrowing, I concluded that no matter how bad a version I might come up with myself, it couldn't be worse than Ezra Pound's. I also resolved to utterly ignore Pound, for the duration. But this, of course, has not been possible. (See Pound Note.)

Two other factors added thrust. First, I was anticipating joining the legendary Arctic yachtsman, David Lomax, also known as "The Lion of Lime Grove", later that year at Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, otherwise "The Jagged Peaks", also known as Svalbard, "The Cool Coast". The four-person crew would be touching 80° N, at walrus-infested Moffen Island, and then making south-east for North Cape, a four day passage, before pottering down the Norwegian coast to Tromsø. This was my fourth cruise with Lomax at these latitudes, and I knew exactly the temperatures in store. Second, Peter Skinner, Kosinski's literate ghost and the founder of his celebrity, had just sent me Priscilla Meyer's Find What the Sailor Has Hidden, from New York. This is a riveting study of Nabokov's Pale Fire, a masterpiece I had been re-reading with mounting delight, at regular intervals, for exactly thirty years.

As if Priscilla's title were insufficient guidance, her book must have infused some alchemy in alerting my perception to what now seems fairly apparent; that man is a pattern-seeking animal, that thought is merely a reflection of and on random sense-data, that a mirror will bring order from or to chaos, that left can well be right, since as above so below, that nothing is anything except what it extracts from something else. And so forth. That there is a geometry, and a mathematic, possibly/probably binary or bipartite, underlying whatever is recognisable as artifice or art, and that the poet who constructed The Seafarer knew all this. Perhaps my drift will clarify further on.

After three or four concentrated weeks, by about the beginning of May 1994, my heave to pound Pound seemed more or less ready. I'd found "steels" for hweteð, and scuttled "irresistibly" for unwearnum, but had only worked over lines 1-99, since I still didn't fully grasp the poem and was probably still under Pound's cosh. Burnett, however, had parted from his mini-tycoon employer, and was setting up on his own. The "Viking" anthology was binned. I naturally assumed that no-one would ever be bothered with this radical Seafarer. En passant, the chance benefit that I was then still almost completely ignorant of all the other shots at the work, let alone the painfully voluminous scholarly exegesis it had generated for the last century and a half, would be wasted. Pound's version had been a powerful negative inspiration: was it to remain uncontested?

So (as Heaney has it), no publisher. But Fate is set more surely than any man's surmise. At just on this hour ARTES 1994 fell unbidden through my mailbox. I must have been on someone's list. "ARTES is one of the most interesting, ambitious, and enlightened magazines devoted to literature and the other arts published anywhere in the world --- and it is surely the most beautiful", noted Sontag. Marcel Duchamp (the famous chess-player), Tranströmer, Brodsky, von Sydow, Josephson, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison --- well, why not, I thought; sent the editors the verse and out of mind.

Click logo below for pertinent lecture by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. Not only does it contain an image of Nils, the wing-borne skyfarer, but a discussion of Yeats' re-representation of the vertically halved tree ("from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other green with leaves") from the Peredur of the Mabinogion. Jeffrey Gantz remarks in the introduction to his translation (Penguin 1976): "..... the green leaves symbolizing the rich and concrete beauty of the mortal world, the flames symbolizing the flickering shadowy uncertainty of the otherworld ..... " [The site may now have been removed.]

Spitzbergen proved cool and jagged. A jolly record of the complete jaunt, composed by the Captain's Mate, Judy Lomax, can be retrieved from Roving Comissions 35, the Royal Cruising Club Journal 1994. [Picture]. By the time I got back to London my literary seafaring had virtually vanished from the mental data-bank. A peculiar envelope arrived at my flat around the beginning of October. What, I thought, is this? Can such things be? As Bierce once wondered. My socks were blown off, and it was necessary to haul them back on and up. To have one's self-esteem thus endorsed was not a laughing matter. Many months later, after long additional cogitation and revision, there was The Seafarer, snug up against Heaney's 1995 acceptance speech. Hence and therefore, the proliferation of manic analysis. Pointless, but what isn't?

This version, as some will note, is a hybrid which wants it both ways: what isn't scholarship masquerades as poetry, and vice versa. Its basic premise is that it is when the translator sets out to render the "mere sense" and not the spirit of the text, that he begins to traduce his author. Vladimir's strong opinion (above) would be more valid had he substituted "scholar" for "translator". The English of his EO traduces Pushkin by failing to render his author's spirit: the product is a butterfly dismembered on a wheel, a corpse dissected. Popesmith. Spoof scholarship, to geck the earnest. "Spirit" can (no doubt) only be rendered by paraphrase, but not all paraphrases are equal, for some match their original more equally than others. Creation is proleptic, preceding its justification, but post-hoc and pre-emptive self-slaughter may spike the cannon of the critic.

Alliteration: Almost everything you could wish to know about alliteration is accessible at Paul Deane's site, [here], which also has countless links to related topics. Alliteration is the web and woof, warp and weft, the very stuff and substance of the English language, and as natural to its speakers as breath to the living. Those afflicted with a classical education struggle hard to avoid alliterating, deeming it vulgar. Vox populi vox Dei. There is no hope, however, of matching the Anglo-Saxon's mastery of alliteration, and the only rule observed in this version is that each line should contain at least one pair of front-rhyming words. The alliterated words obviously acquire stress, but of infinite gradation. Minimal stress occurs in, eg: "Though men may bury treasured pelf", which contains a faint sound, rhythm and sense allusion to "For men may come and men may go" (Tennyson; The Brook.)

Allusion: Quotes from Wayne Leman's admirable Translation Maxims: "Meaning is also often not explicitly expressed in one language, because there are cultural clues making it unnecessary to do so .... Meaning is .... found not just in the denotations of words, but also in their connotations." Moreover, there is nothing new to say about life, only new ways of saying what has always been known. Allusive poetry acknowledges and honours the labours of past poets. The cave-painters of 30,000 years ago would have nothing to learn from modern artists, since the arts do not progress, they revolve. Originality is chimerical. Any version of an allusive poem should itself be allusive, hence this version incorporates cultural clues by alluding to English verse of the last 400 years, or so. Some people call this oral-formulaicism.

Content: Try Structure, Form and Content.

Diction: Defined by Cassell's Concise as "Use of words, manner of expression, style." In Literature among the Primitives, Folklore Associates Inc, 1964, John Greenway robustly cudgels the disparate dictions essayed in the Beowulfs of Thorkelin, Whiting, Earle, Gordon, Tinker, Hall, Leonard, Morris, Spaeth, Kennedy, Gummere, Scott-Moncrieff, Garnett, and Morgan. A hearty laugh can be had by all, and Greenway on translation is a ripping read. He is mistaken, though, when he says (p.12): "Beowulf is the easiest kind of poetry to translate. It does not have to cross a cultural barrier ...."   It is screamingly obvious that Beowulf is unbelievably difficult to translate; mainly because Anglo-Saxon isn't Old English, although it looks as if it might be. My faith is that the diction of this version of The Seafarer is only about as archaic as the original. This may be no less a delusion than those the other 60 interpreters held or hold about their own efforts, since all must have believed they did their best. Inversions, if any, are sternly subdued, and the words are simple, even if "gowk", "geck", and "yare" have excited comment, not all adverse. In Is Shakespeare Dead? Part VII, 1909, Mark Twain implied that the Bard's use of "yare" in The Tempest was fake jargon. However, it has also been put to me that the seafarer poet was only a monk who'd sailed about as far as St Guthlac, but I don't buy that, myself.

Economy: Koestler once remarked that German dichten, to compose poetry, means "to compress, thicken, concentrate". Was he joking? The verb presumably really means merely to speak, cf Latin dictare, dicere. Or does "dight" connect with "tight"? Tolkien talks of "compression, the force of brevity, the packing of the pictorial and emotional colour tight within a slow sonorous metre made of short balanced word-groups", when discussing the poetic object of the Anglo-Saxon use of compounds. (On Translating Beowulf, 1940). From the outset the aim of this MV was to reproduce the essence of the AS, without omission, in as few words as possible. Brevity is the soul of wit, and pith the soul of Anglo-Saxon. A word-count of the site text's rendering of lines 1- 99 of the AS produces the pleasing result that it is in fact the shortest English version (586/649 ). The second shortest proves to be Ezra Pound's (586/690). Hansson's Swedish actually uses 15 words fewer than the Anglo-Saxon. What does this prove? Nothing much, is your response.

Etymology: "In 1815, von Schlegel quoted Voltaire as having said: 'In etymology, vowels don't signify much and consonants nothing at all.'" A remark found on Nigel Rees's Quote Unquote site: click [here: Q484]. There may be no such thing as a "false" etymology. Once the sound link is made, the sense connection follows. Confirmed by usage, or passed through the pen of, say, Joyce, its falsehood witters away. I find it hard to separate the peace of god which passeth all understanding from the piece of cod which appeared on our school dinner plates every Friday. Ichthys. A pleasant study, abandoned by clear-headed lexicographers, who restrict themselves to citing examples of recorded usage.

Form: The concept needs disentangling from "structure", but the form of The Seafarer seems to me that of an ode, defined as "a lyric poem in an elevated style, rhymed or unrhymed, of varied and often irregular metre, usually in the form of an address or invocation." Cassell's Concise English Dictionary 1989. This is the form of both AS and MV. Not very many of the other modern versions have adopted it, although it has established itself as typically English. Rhyme, or the constraint of a form such as decasyllabic blank verse, seem to me unsuited to this poem.

Grammar: To shift a grammar from one language to another would seem a desperate enterprise. Still, it must be happening all the time. A major factor effecting linguistic change has to be the use of a language by those speaking it imperfectly, and who impose on their new tongue the lexis and syntax they knew from their youth. This was pointed out to me by J.Backhouse, to whom I am greatly indebted. A major factor in the triumph of Christianity in the West was that in its beginning it was founded less on the Word than on the written word, ie The Book. The Anglo-Saxon poet was a highly literate, well-educated person who knew, spoke and read Latin, very well. Well enough to avoid transferring its grammar to his englisc, but not well enough to escape its influence --- best detectable perhaps in lines 74-80a. The impact of conventional and simplistic notions of grammar, conditioned by schooling in Greek and Latin, on the study of Anglo-Saxon and most other languages, has often caused profound misunderstandings. The reader is conditioned into clumsily interpreting the texts in ways alien to their creation; see Johnson on Hanmer, above. See also any grammar-led scholarly attempt to elucidate The Seafarer.


Meaning: Life's meaning is discernible, on reflection, says the poet. Hold the Mirror up to Nature's Chaos, and Order will appear: this is Art's function, he might have said. The first 62½ lines are reflected on in the second 62½ lines, and a solution to the thousand natural shocks that flesh inherits is offered to him that hath ears. Those who disagree with this interpretation of the poem may consult The Meaning of Meaning, by C.K.Ogden and I.A.Richards, 8th edition 1946; or The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker, The Free Press, 1971, where they might find a more satisfactory answer.

Notation: Karl Young's essay [here] will stimulate new thought on this subject. A raft of related links. (Karl Young has also translated The Seafarer, published by Tatlin Books, 1990, with carpet pages by Nancy Leavitt.) The imposition of modern notions of notation on Anglo-Saxon verse, and a great deal of English verse before the C18th, has often been misleading. The reader is directed into ways of interpreting the texts not necessarily intended by their authors; see the Cham, again, on Hanmer, above. Much editorial amendment and patronising elucidation or restoration has been self-deluded, and done more damage than it knew. The first several drafts of this version employed standard Modern English punctuation. Gradually however, as I grew increasingly familiar with the text and manuscript of the original, I more and more felt the need to eliminate as much as possible of our current notational lumber. It slowly dawned that the C19th and C20th punctuations of Anglo-Saxon texts, as applied in, eg, Gordon's Seafarer edition, or just about any edition of an AS text you care to think of, are otiose, if well-meant. Modern notation is grammar and logic led: its prosaic purpose is to reduce ambiguity. The Anglo-Saxon was conscious of no such need. His prose and, no doubt his speech, as well as his poetry, were innately eloquent. Although quite familiar with reasoned argument, his dialectic would be couched in rhetorical form: his inner thought would be aurally expressive. Presumably this is why some Seafarer scholars imagined the poem to be a sort of spoken conversation between two men of antithetical mind. No comment. The text notation as now presented has tried to reduce the stops, so that what remains can purely point the flow of reflective emotion (rather than an inappropriately unpoetic rigorous analysis), and suggest the timing of the spoken words. The same goes for the line endings, and other visual spacing. Capitalization indicates a major pause for breath, and stressed delivery. Although there is some obvious overlap with received notation, an effort has been made to supersede it. Tim Romano's study of The Wanderer [here] also touches on these matters. A sumptuous and authoritative study is Pause and Effect; Punctuation in the West, by M.B.Parkes; UCP, 1993. Sample (p.91): "....the Elocutionists ... argued the 'vast superiority' of spoken over written language...." etc.


Rhythm: Any originality in this version may perhaps sound through its rhythms. These, vaguely, resemble the waves of the sea, each stanza slightly different from the next. But there's nothing original in literature: "All poetry is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats." See next page. Nor in science: even Newton remarked he'd stood on giant's shoulders. The rhythm of a line transcends its meaning, as Pound knew. I recall reciting, for seven summer nights in 1955, 200 lines of ancient Greek verse, got entirely by rote, knowing the meaning of not above a dozen of the words.


Structure: The hope, fond but not forlorn, is that this site will have established that The Seafarer cannot be fully understood unless its bipartite construction, deliberate and self-conscious, is indisputably admitted. This basic form has been reproduced in the modern version, but the two halves have been manipulated, in that the first half, already concise, has been further compressed and the second, already more languid, has been further stretched. I can't exactly explain, yet, why I felt the need to do this. There also appears to me to be some sort of much more elusive pattern, perhaps based on deeper notions of arithmetical or geometric proportion, underlying the poem's obvious two-part division. The interest of the ancients in concepts of ratio, applied to everything within their mental orbit, but especially to the arts of music, word and form, is reasonably well-recognized. Although I have spent many hours trying to crack the code of rational harmony which I suspect embedded in the poem's Anglo-Saxon text, I have not succeeded, and, other than feeling fairly confident that there is at least a syllogistic base to the poem's argument, am reduced, for now, to suggesting that its structure resembles the images shown here [click]. Diabolical slow loading.

Structuralism: An abstruse topic which doesn't belong on this practical page, but attaches itself nolens-volens hard on the heels of "structure". Certain features of the peculiar-looking schema, below, found in Lévi-Strauss, by Edmund Leach, sometime Provost of King's, Fontana/Collins 1970, p.71, might have some bearing on the darker mythic depths beneath the seafarer's ceol, and ask for a modicum of shallow consideration, on another page:


still under construction



commentaries: one, two, three, four, five, six

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