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The Seafarer is an Old English poem known all over the world. Consisting of 124 lines, it tells in the first person about a man alone at sea. Recorded only in one book from the 10th century, one of the four manuscripts of Old English poetics. It is classified as an elegy. This genre is attributed to a group of Old English poems that reflect on the spirit and earthly melancholy. Given the context of the poem and its storyline, it does quite an effective job as an elegy.
The poem is told from the point of view of an old sailor thinking about his life. A sailor describes the hardships of life on the winter sea. He describes his feelings, the coldness of the sea, and compares the sea with life on earth. Indeed, in his ideas, men on earth who do not swim in the seas are surrounded by native people, free from dangers. They have prosperity, they do not know hunger and there is entertainment and wine. Time in the poem passes through the seasons from winter "it snowed from the north" to spring "the groves take on blossoms" (“The Seafarer” 31; 48). The symbolism evident throughout the poem is essentially the lament over the better life, the life on land. Even though seasons change in the poem, the sailor might not even notice for he might sail the sea for long periods of time, thus, skipping seasons along the way.
Then summer comes. The sailor then sets sail again, this time talking about taking the fast path to heaven. He argues that earthly happiness will not endure, earthly fruit cannot benefit the soul after the death of a person. The poem ends with statements about God, eternity, and self-control. The poem ends with the single word "Amen" (67; 124). Sailor’s lament over life overall and hopes for death and ascend towards heaven strongly confirms the elegy form of the poem. For the protagonist, the only thing left to crave is the afterlife, for being a sailor does not bring him any happiness but rather constant torture.
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Many scholars believe that the sailor's narration is an example in order to point out morality and convince his listeners of the truth. In 1902 W.W. Lawrence concluded that the poem was "a whole secular poem, revealing the mixed emotions of an adventurous sailor who could not help but eradicate the inappropriate fashion of the sea in the light of his knowledge of its dangers and difficulties" (Pope 222). While some adventurous moods could be sensed in the poem, the sailor and his journey are rather tragic than enthusiastic after all.
The Seafarer has attracted the attention of scholars and critics, generating a significant body of critical appraisal. Initially, the continuity and unity of the poem were discussed. One early interpretation was that the poem could be seen as a conversation between an old navigator and a young navigator excited about traveling the seas. This interpretation arises from the alternating nature of emotions in the text. Most scholars agreed that the poem is a well-unified monologue (Holton 209). Again, despite the dynamic of the mood present in the poem, its general theme still relies heavily on tragedy. The conclusion that scholars came to suggests not only the unity of the monologue but also supports the idea of the poem being an elegy.
Some scholars, however, believe that the poem can be divided into a few parts that revolve around different themes. O.S. Anderson stated that the poem could be divided into three different parts, calling the first part A1, the second part A2, and the third part B. He also suggested that it is possible that the third part was written by someone other than the author of the first two sections. In the third part, there is an impression that Christianity has a greater influence than in the previous parts. However, he also stated that lines 103-124 should be accepted as a standalone part of the poem. Moreover, Anderson divided the poem into two sections, with the first part consisting of two subsections. The first section presents the poet's life on earth, and the second tells us about his desire for a better world (Anderson 6). Even though the poem can be divided into several parts indeed, and those parts might represent different themes and moods, it still provides the ideas of suffering in life and relief in the afterlife, following the form of elegy almost perfectly.
The Seafarer is one of the perfect examples of elegy in Old English poetry. While having quite distinct parts and offering various themes and descriptions throughout, it still presents a lament of the tired sailor who expresses his sadness over the hardships of life and hopes for a better afterlife. Whenever the poem is classified as an elegy, it is classified in the most correct and precise manner, given the heavily tragic mood of the poem.
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“The Seafarer.” Translated by Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project | Rutgers University, 2022, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-seafarer/
Anderson, Olof Sigfrid. The Seafarer: An Interpretation. Gleerup, 1937.
Holton, Frederick S. "Old English Sea Imagery And The Interpretation Of 'The Seafarer'". The Yearbook Of English Studies, vol 12, 1982, p. 208. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3507407. Accessed 9 Mar 2022.
Pope, John C. “Second Thoughts on the Interpretation of The Seafarer” in O'Keeffe, Katherine O'Brien. Old English Shorter Poems. Garland, 1994, 222.
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