Seafarer Essay Topics

Early scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature believed that “The Seafarer” represented an early pagan poem that had been adapted for Christian audiences by the insertion of pious formulas throughout and a moral at the end; accordingly, these scholars expended considerable ingenuity in attempting to excise the Christian elements to discover the “real poem” hidden beneath these composite overlays. Pound’s famous translation, in line with this emphasis, systematically removes or downplays many explicitly Christian elements of the poem and stops before the overtly homiletic conclusion, which features some dozen direct references to God and the heavens in the last twenty-five lines.

Now, however, critics seem generally to agree that the two halves of the poem are unified by a movement from earthly chaos to heavenly order and that its coherent thematic thrust is the Christian message that the afterlife is more important than life on Earth. The poem is frequently discussed in conjunction with “The Wanderer,” another Exeter Book poem that shares many themes and motifs with “The Seafarer,” including the structure in which a specific treatment of biographical subject matter—the plight of a wanderer or seafarer—is followed by a more general homiletic section that draws a religious meaning from the earlier material.

The sailor, as a man required to travel over a hostile and dangerous environment, had always seemed to Christian poets to be a naturally apt image of the believer’s life on Earth, which should be viewed as a hazardous journey to the true homeland of Heaven rather than as a destination to be valued in itself. In this poem, the speaker seems to be a religious man (or reformed sinner) who has chosen the seafaring life as much for its efficacy as a means of spiritual discipline as for any commercial gain to be derived from it. The original opposition in the poem between landsmen and seafarers gives way to the insight that all men are, or ought to think of themselves as, seafarers, in the sense that they are all exiles from their true home in Heaven. As lines 31-32 (previously quoted) establish, the land can be just as cold and forbidding as the sea, and the virtuous, at least, should hope that they will be sojourning in this harsh world for only a brief time.

True Christian “seafarers” must psychologically distance themselves from secular life, as the seafarer of this poem has done both literally and figuratively. The poet appears to encapsulate his theme at the pivotal midpoint of the poem: “therefore the joys of the Lord seem warmer to me than this dead life, fleeting on land.” This recommended ascetic withdrawal from worldly interests should enable the Christian to properly reject the comforts of life on the land as transient and seek spiritual rather than physical comforts.

The sailor begins with the reasons for his sorrow. His only home has been a ship constantly encountering indifferent forces, the sea and the cold. The prosperous man situated on land does not know the icy feeling of exile, the feeling of being cut off from one’s loved ones. The sailor’s joy has been the cry of sea birds instead of the laughter of men. On the sea, he says, there is no protector for men. Those on land, flushed with wine, are incapable of believing in his suffering.

Nonetheless, the sailor maintains that the heart’s desire is to venture forth on another journey. At the same time, he warns, there is no man so brave he can escape the anxiety that accompanies seafaring. His thoughts are not of music, riches, or women, but of his own longing. Not satisfaction, but dissatisfaction urges his heart and mind “over the stretch of seas.”

This yearning leads him to the “joys of the Lord,” which are not earthly. There are three things that are always uncertain until they come: illness, old age, and hostility, each of which entertains the possibility of death. Why then, he wonders, should one wish for earthly fame? One should rather seek fame among the angels.

The best days and their joys, he concludes, are gone, and weaklings have come to power. When a man dies, none of his former joys will have meaning. Thus it is foolish not to fear the Lord, but one is blessed who lives humbly--as presumably the seafarer has done. The poem ends with an exhortation to the reader to consider where his real home is and how to proceed there.

THE SEAFARER provides interest because it was obviously composed at a pivotal time when north European stoicism was giving way to Christian forbearance and hope. The poem has the feeling of both, and though the Christian feeling is uppermost, most readers remember the poem’s austere, impressionistic images of life at sea.

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