the eye cannot see itself
hence the need for reflection



"Elegy" is not precisely the right term for The Seafarer. It is philosophical, admonitory, and stoic, not essentially lachrymose. It is intended as an evangelical, oral address to an audience. It is a sermon. An "elegy" is defined, in e.g. The Cassell Concise English Dictionery, last revised in 1962, as "a lyrical poem or a song of lamentation; a poem of a plaintive, meditative kind". Because the poem ends on a positive, constructive note, I believe that Douglas Williams, in "The Seafarer" as an Evangelical Poem, published in Lore and Language, 1989, is on the right track when he says, countering Dorothy Whitelock's interpretation, that: "Through re-examining "The Seafarer" within the context of Old English literature and its concerns, I would like to suggest that another figure more completely fits its narrator: The evangelist".

The text, as found, contains no "interpolations", unless it is contended that Shakespeare "interpolated" the substance of his play Hamlet into a ninth century poem by Snæbjörn, preserved in Snorre's Edda. On the other hand, it is possibly very slightly corrupted, in one instance: but who is to say whether, a thousand years hence, some scholar of Old American will not decide that Pound's Seafarer must be totally corrupted.

There is nothing heathen whatsoever in the Anglo-Saxon text; unless you were to contend that the Milton of Paradise Lost, or the Shakespeare of King Lear, or any other English authors steeped in native literary tradition and classical literature, are more heathen than Christian.

It seems incorrect to call it unequivocally Christian, since it contains nothing of what I conceive to be the defining messages of the Christian gospel: love thy neighbour, and turn the other cheek. It is, in fact, resentful, and resigned, though belligerent. On the other hand, it is also indubitably monotheistic.

Almost everything anyone needs to read in order to understand The Seafarer is contained in essays written by two unusually perceptive scholars. G.V.Smithers wrote "The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer", published in Medium Ævum No.26 (1957) Pt.1, pp.137-153; and No.28 (1959) Pt.1, pp.1-22; with an Appendix in No.28 Pt.2, pp.99-104. O.S.Anderson, who later changed his name to Arngart, wrote "The Seafarer: An Interpretation", Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet i Lunds Årsberättelse 1, Gleerups Lund 1937; pp.1-49; and followed it with "The Seafarer: A Postcript", English Studies, No 60, Amsterdam: 1979; pp.249-253. Nearly all other studies are either half barmy, or highly misleading; and that goes for the most popular, especially in America.

Anglo-Saxon studies, in the sense of getting closer to the truth of Anglo-Saxon life and thought, are extremely unlikely to advance so long as this academic discipline is dominated by Anglo-American academe, and so long as the deep-rooted Scandinavian and Friesian origins of Anglo-Saxon England continue to be side-lined. While the language continues to be called "Old English" there is no hope of any change for the better. In top-heavy bureaucracies it is immaterial what is said --- all that matters is who says it. Those with the sway to say what's what are not those whose prime concern is for truth, but those with the sharpest elbows, the biggest mouths, and the most ferocious dedication to self-promotion.

No child acquires its speech by learning the grammar of the language of its peers and parents. Grammatical rules are the construct of post-literate pedantry. A child learns to speak by absorbing and imitating the oral usage of its environment. Its capacity for instinctive assimilation of a language lasts until it is well into its teens, and thereafter gradually fades.

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no... Death is not. Death isn't. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no... What you've been is not on boats.


A Seafarer


bird ship sun sea

previous page

Alchemical Ark: from Marvell & Alchemy; L.Abraham

other maritime excursions

william blake
flota famiheals fugle gelicost

Beowulf and his men set sail

            ……..             flota wæs on yðum
bat under beorge       beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon       streamas wundon
sund wið sande       secgas bæron
on bearm nacan       beorhte frætwe
guðsearo geatolic       guman ut scufon
weras on wilsið       wudu dundenne
gewat þa ofer wægholm       winde gefysed
flota famiheals       fugle gelicost
oð þæt ymb antid       oþres dogores
wundenstefna       gewaden hæfde
þæt ða liðende       land gesawon
brimclifu blican       beorgas steape
side sænæssas       þa wæs sund liden
eoletes æt ende

Beowulf 750 ?

            ……..             the floater was on the waves
the boat under the mountain;       the ready warriors
on the prow stept;       the streams roll'd
the sea against the sand;       the warriors bare,
into the bark's bosom       bright arms
a sumptuous war-equipment:       the men shov'd out
the people, on the welcome voyage,       the bound wood.
Departed then o'er the wavy sea,   by the wind impell'd
the floater foamy-neck'd,       to a bird most like
till that about an hour       of the second day
the twisted prow       had sail'd,
so that the voyagers       saw land
the ocean-shores shine,       mountains steep
spacious sea-nesses.       Then was the sea-sailer
at the end of its watery way.

B.Thorpe 1875

                        ……..                         i öppen sjö
låg båten vid klippbranten.            -----
Krigsmännen stego       ombord full rustade;
bränningen slog       mot strandens sand
Stridsmännen buro       ombord på båten
de blanka vapen       sirade järnkläder ---
hjältarna sköto       ut på önskefärd
ädelformad båt.       Eggad av vinden
ilar bland vågor       skumhalsad farkost
Då allt intill ottan       det andra dygnet
högstavad skuta       har skurit vattnet
börja nu sjömannen       skönja en kust ---
branta bergstup       blänkande klippor,
mäktiga uddar:       målet är nått,
resan tillryggalagd.

B.Collinder 1954

            ……..             she rode the waves now
hard in by headland. Harnessed warriors
stepped on her stern; setting tide churned
sea with sand, soldiers carried
bright mail-coats to the mast's foot
war-gear well-wrought;
                            willingly they shoved her out,
thorough-braced craft, on the craved voyage.
Away she went over a wavy ocean
boat like a bird, breaking seas,
wind-whetted, white-throated,
till the curved prow had ploughed so far
- the sun standing right on the second day -
that they might see land loom on the skyline,
then the shimmer of cliffs, sheer fells behind,
reaching capes. The crossing was at an end;

M.Alexander 1973

            ……..           das Floss war auf der See
Das Boot geborgen;     die Biedern eilten
Den Steven zu besteigen:     die Strömung schwoll
Ans Ufer zurück.     Die Edlinge trugen
In der Barke Busen     die blinkenden Zierden,
Die kostbare Kriegswehr.    Als die Kielmänner nun
Zur Wunschfahrt trieben     das wohlgebundene Holz
Da flog über Flut,     einem Vogel vergleichbar,
Das schaumhalsge Schiff,     geschoben vom Winde,
Bis dass zur Ebenzeit     des andern Tages
So weit der gewundene     Steven gewatet war,
Dass Land ersahen     die Seefahrenden.
Die Brandungsklippen blinkten,     die Berge ragten
Hinten langen Höhen.     Da war der Lauf vollbracht,
Dass Meer durchmessen.

K.Simrock 1859

            ……..           Set on the surf,
the sea-craft rode below the crag.
The well-armed warriors embarked,
and ripples swirled the sand about
as they bore their gleaming war-gear
and bright armour to the boat's bosom.
They fended off her timbered frame,
ardent for adventure; and the breeze blew
her foam-throat bows through billows
like a bird. By next break of day
the curve-prowed craft had come so far
the voyagers could view the shore;
the shining cliffs and the sheer fells,
the jutting spits. Their journey then
across the sound was over.

CHW 1997

Didn't notice until setting these versions out in parallel how nearly and quite unconsciously I'd echoed Alexander's wording.
The best version is the German by Simrock: the transfer is most convincing.
Provocative that Simrock, in his first introductory sentence, 1859, claims Beowulf to be "doch seiner Grundlage nach ein deutsches Gedicht".
Hardly arguable. Must have really annoyed English Anglo-Saxonists --- or Old Englishmen.

the sea-meads gleam

The prospect that beckoned Beowulf.    From Landscape of Desire, facing p 50. Photo by Randolph Swearer.
How can holm possibly mean "sea" or "water" ? (Klaeber).

In Landscape of Desire, 1994, a highly recommended account by Overing and Osborn, a virtually conclusive case is made out for the homeland of Beowulf, and the Weder-Geatas, close by what is now called Väderöararna (click), in what is today the top north-western corner of coastal Sweden --- Västra Götaland, or Wester Geatland. (Latitude: 58° 34' 0 N, Longitude: 11° 3' 0 E).

"Väderöarna ligger där Sverige tar slut i väster. Som en sista utpost inför tusen mil av hav, nordsjö och atlant eller - om man inte kommer därifrån - som en inbjudande välkomstkommitté, finns här några hundra öar utspridda i havet. De flesta pyttesmå, men två så stora att de haft bofast befolkning och en egen kultur att berätta." One of Sweden's "warmest and windiest" places. "A few hundred, mostly tiny islands; but two big enough to have had settled populations, with their own cultures and tales to tell".

See also right: map of the Pre-Roman Iron Age cultures associated with Proto-Germanic, c. 500-50 BC. Click on map for source, courtesy Wiglaf. And it's good to know he's alive and kicking and still with us.

bat under beorge: Fjällbacka, mainland adjacent to the Väder Islands, Bohuslän, Sweden
backdrop from svenska turistföreningens årsskrift: Bohuslän

oþre bat under beorge

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

modern version   main index
essays and papers

Death by Water: William Hogarth & John Tenniel