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The Seafarer: A Modern English Translation by Michael R. Burch

"The Seafarer" is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem. The original Anglo-Saxon poem appears on the left. My admittedly "loose" translations appears on the right. I have attempted to "grok" (i.e., to understand as intimately and profoundly as possible) what the original poet was trying to communicate. But in some places it takes more than one modern English word to communicate what I think the poet was trying to say (and of course there is no guarantee that I am always correct in my interpretations). At best, this is my personal interpretation of an ancient poem that no one may fully understand today. But I think the essence shines through, thanks to the passion and clarity of the original poet. Or perhaps there was more than one scop involved, as I suggest in my translation notes.—Michael R. Burch

NOTE: There are expanded translation notes after the poem. I have also provided a Synopsis/Summary, a more detailed Analysis, a Glossary/Vocabulary, and notes about Genre, Language, Kennings, Theme and Point of View.


The Seafarer
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I.

Męg ic be me sylfum                    This is my self's
sošgied wrecan,                            true song,                                sošgied ~ true tale; wrecan ~ wreak, force, tell, utter
sižas secgan,                                 my sea-lay's-saga—                sižas ~ journey; secgan ~ say, saga
hu ic geswincdagum                      of how I endured                     geswincdagum ~ days of toil, tribulation
earfošhwile                                   life's hardships,                        earfošhwile ~ hardship-time
oft žrowade,                                 wrenching anguish,                  žrowade ~ suffer, endure
bitre breostceare                           bitter breast-cares
gebiden hębbe,[1a]                      ... and still do!                         gebiden hębbe ~ continue to have, remain

gecunnad in ceole                          Tested at the keel                   gecunnad ~ tried, tested; ceole ~ keel
cearselda fela,[1b]                         of many a care-hold,              cearselda ~ care-place; fela ~ much, many
atol yža gewealc,                           rocked by great waves'         atol ~ dire, repulsive; yža ~ wave; gewealc ~ rolling, tossing
žęr mec oft bigeat                         narrows-poundings each
nearo nihtwaco                              anxious night-watch,              nearo ~ narrow, full of hardship
ęt nacan stefnan,                           soaked at the stern                nacan ~ ship; stefnan ~ stern, prow
žonne he be clifum cnossaš.          when tossed close to cliffs!    cnossaš ~ pitch, drive

Calde gežrungen                           Ice-enmassed                       gežrungen ~ crowded, pressed
węron mine fet,                            my fettered feet                     węron ~ be, happen
forste gebunden                            became frost-bound              gebunden ~ bind, tie
caldum clommum,                         cold clumps!                         clommum ~ bond, fetter, something binding

žęr ža ceare seofedun                  There cares seethed             seofedun ~ sigh, lament
hat ymb heortan;                           hot in my heart;
hungor innan slat                           hunger's pangs pierced          slat ~ slit, tear
merewerges mod.                         my sea-weary soul!              merewerges ~ sea-weary; mod ~ mind, mood, soul

Žęt se mon ne wat                       How can land-locked men understand,
že him on foldan                           for whom Fortune                                   foldan ~ land, ground
fęgrost limpeš,                             smiles more favorably?                           fęgrost ~ fairly; limpeš ~ happen, befall

hu ic earmcearig                            How I, care-wracked and wretched,     earmcearig ~ miserable, wretched-caring
iscealdne sę                                 borne on the ice-cold sea
winter wunade                              weathered winter's                wunade ~ live, dwell, remain
wręccan lastum,                           exile-ways,                           wręccan ~ wretch, exile
winemęgum bidroren,[2a]            bereft of wine-brothers,        winemęgum ~ wine-kinsmen ; bidroren ~ bereave
bihongen hrimgicelum;[3a]            my beard hung with icicles,    hrimgicelum ~ rime crystals, icicles
hęgl scurum fleag.                        my body hail-pelted!             hęgl ~ hail; scurum ~ shower

žęr ic ne gehyrde                         How I heard nothing              gehyrde ~ heard (of)
butan hlimman sę,                        but the sea's savage roars,      hlimman ~ roar
iscaldne węg.                               its icy-cold rages.

Hwilum ylfete song                        Sometimes the swan's song   Hwilum ~ while; ylfete ~ swan
dyde ic me to gomene,                  gave me pleasure—              gomene ~ pleasure, entertainment
ganotes hleožor                            the gannet's cries;                  hleožor ~ song, sound
ond huilpan sweg                          the curlew's clamor               huilpan ~ curlew, waterbird; sweg ~ sound
fore hleahtor wera,                        rather than the laughter of men;
męw singende                              the seagull's shrieks              męw ~ mew, gull; singende ~ sing, compose
fore medodrince.                           better than mead-drinking.

Stormas žęr stanclifu beotan,        Storms slammed the stone-cliffs;
žęr him stearn oncwęš,                there the tern answered,                 stearn ~ tern; oncwęš ~ answered
isigfežera;                                      icy-feathered;
ful oft žęt earn bigeal,                   ever the eagle screeched,                earn ~ eagle; bigeal ~ yell, scream, screech
urigfežra;                                       sea-spray-slathered;                      urigfežra ~ dewey-feathered
nęnig hleomęga                            but no consoling kinsmen               hleomęga ~ protector-kinsman
feasceaftig ferš                              came to comfort                            feasceaftig ~ poor, destitute; ferš ~ mind, soul, spirit
frefran meahte.                              my destitute soul.                           frefan ~ cheer, comfort

Foržon him gelyfeš lyt,                  Therefore he takes it lightly,           forbon ~ therefore, because; gelyfeš ~ grants, trusts, takes
se že ah lifes wyn                          the one who lives easy,                 wyn ~ joy
gebiden in burgum,                        who abides happily in a burgh
bealosiža hwon,                            except for a few trifling pains,      bealosiža ~ bad experiences; hwon ~ trifle, why? (pointless?)
wlonc ond wingal,[4a]                   worldly, wine-flushed.                  wlonc ond wingal ~ haughty and flushed with wine (drunk)

hu ic werig oft                               While often I, bone-weary,
in brimlade                                    have had to endure                      brimlade ~ sea-path, sea-lane
bidan sceolde.                              scalding sea-paths,
Nap nihtscua,                               shadows of night deepening,        nap ~ grow dark, obscure; nihtscua ~ night's cover
noržan sniwde,                             fierce northern-snows,                noržan ~ northern
hrim hrusan bond,                         frost binding the ground,             hrim ~ rime, ice; hrusan ~ ground
hęgl feol on eoržan,                     hail flailing the earth,                    feol ~ fall, falling on
corna caldast.[5a]                        the coldest of crops.                   corna ~ grain

II.

Foržon cnyssaš nu                        Indeed, they are crushing,            cnyssaš ~ beat, strike
heortan gežohtas                           my heart-cares,                          heortan gežohtas ~ heart-thoughts
žęt ic hean streamas,                    that I should strive alone with      hean ~ miserable
sealtyža gelac                               miserable salt streams' tumults     sealtyža ~ salt-wave; gelac ~ tumult, chaos, commotion
sylf cunnige—[5b]                        while exploring                            sylf cunnige ~ self-exploration
monaš modes lust                        my moody mind's lusts.

męla gehwylce                             While always my spirit      gehwylce ~ each, every one, all
ferš to feran,                                 longs to fly forth,              ferš ~ mind, soul, spirit
žęt ic feor heonan                        to find, far from here,        feor ~ far
elžeodigra                                    a foreign residence            elžeodigra ~ strange, foreign
eard gesece—                              beyond earth-desires.       gesece ~ desire

Foržon nis žęs modwlonc            Therefore there is none so mood-proud
mon ofer eoržan,                           not a man on earth,
ne his gifena žęs god,[6a]             none so generous with gifts,          his gifena žęs god ~ so good in his gifts
ne in geoguže to žęs hwęt,          none so bold in his youth,             geoguže ~ youth; hwęt ~ bold, valiant
ne in his dędum to žęs deor,       none so brave in his deeds,          dędum ~ deeds; deor ~ brave, valiant
ne him his dryhten to žęs hold,     none so beholden to his Master   Dryhten ~ Lord, Master
žęt he a his sęfore                      that he in his seafaring
sorge nębbe,                               has never had to worry               sorge ~ sorrow
to hwon hine Dryhten                   about what his Lord                   Dryhten ~ Lord, Master
gedon wille.                                 will do to him.

Ne biž him to hearpan hyge         Not for him the harp-song
ne to hringžege                            nor ring-bringing
ne to wife wyn                             nor wife-winning
ne to worulde hyht                       nor world-glory
ne ymbe owiht elles                     nor anything else
nefne ymb yša gewealc;              except the numbing motion of the waves;
ac a hafaš longunge                     but he always has longings
se že on lagu fundaš.                  who strives with the sea.

Bearwas blostmum nimaš,          Woodlands blossom,
byrig fęgriaš,                             burgs grow fair,
wongas wlitigaš,                         meadowlands flower,
woruld onetteš:                          the world hastens forward:
ealle ža gemoniaš                      all these things urge on
modes fusne[7a]                        the doom-eager spirit—            modes fusne ~ doom-eager mind, death wish
sefan to siže                              the one with a mind to travel,
žam že swa ženceš                   the one who imagines
on flodwegas                             venturing far afield
feor gewitan.                             over earth's sea-paths.

Swylce geac monaš                  Now the cuckoo warns
geomran reorde;                       with her mournful voice;
singeš sumeres weard,              the guardian of summer sings,
sorge beodeš                           boding sorrows
bitter in breosthord.                  bitter to the breast-hoard.

Žęt se beorn ne wat,               This the normal man does not know,
sefteadig secg,                         the warrior lucky in worldly things,
hwęt ža sume dreogaš            unaware of what others endure,
že ža wręclastas                     those who brave most extensively
widost lecgaš.                         earth's exile-paths.

Foržon nu min hyge hweorfeš        Now my spirit soars
ofer hrežerlocan,                           out of my breast,
min modsefa                                  my mind floods
mid mereflode,                               amid the waterways
ofer hwęles ežel                            over the whale-path;
hweorfeš wide,                              it soars widely
eoržan sceatas—                          through all the far reaches of the earth—
cymeš eft to me                             it comes back to me
gifre ond grędig;                            eager and unsated;
gielleš anfloga,                               the lone-flier screams,       anfloga ~ solitary flier, perhaps valkyrie
hweteš on hwęlweg                      urges the helpless heart     hwęlweg ~ whale-way
hrežer unwearnum                         onto the whale-way          unwearnum ~ helpless, unresisting
ofer holma gelagu.                         over the sea-waves.

III.

Foržon me hatran sind                   Deeper, hotter for me are
Dryhtnes dreamas                          Lord-dreams
žonne žis deade lif                         than this dead life
lęne on londe.                               loaned on land.

Ic gelyfe no                                    I do not believe
žęt him eoršwelan                         that earth-riches
ece stondaš.                                  will stand forever.

Simle žreora sum                           Invariably,
žinga gehwylce                              three things
ęr his tiddege                                threaten a man's existence
to tweon weoržeš:                        before his final hour:
adl ožže yldo                                either illness, old age
ožže ecghete[8a]                          or sword's-edge-malice               ecghete ~ sword's edge hate
fęgum fromweardum                     ripping out life
feorh ošžringeš.                            from the doom-endangered.

Foržon biž eorla gehwam             And so for each man
ęftercwežendra                            the praise of the living,
lof lifgendra                                  of those who mention him after life ends,
lastworda betst,                            remains the best epitaph;
žęt he gewyrce,                           such words he must earn
ęr he on weg scyle,                      before he departs ...

fremum on foldan                          Bravery in the world
wiš feonda niž,                             against the enmity of fiends,
deorum dędum                            daring deeds
deofle togeanes,                           against devils,
žęt hine ęlda bearn                     thus the sons of men
ęfter hergen,                                will praise him afterwards,
ond his lof sižžan                         and his fame will eternally
lifge mid englum                           live with the angels.

Translation Notes by Michael R. Burch

I have divided the poem into three "cantos." The first Canto seems the "eldest" to me. The second Canto begins to seem "Christianized" with the introduction of lust, a desire for heaven, and a Lord who must be pleased.

Expanded Glossary/Vocabulary

[1a] Here, gebiden hębbe suggests that the negative experiences continue.
[1b] Here, cearselda means something like "care-place," "care-hold" or "care-abode."
[2a] Here, winemęgum means something like "wine-friend," "wine-brothers" or "dear kinsmen."
[3a] Here, hrimgicelum means something like "rime crystals" or "icicles."
[4a] Here, wlonc ond wingal means something like "haughty/proud and flushed with wine." The phrase also appears in "The Ruin."
[5a] Here, corna means "grain" as maize had yet to be discovered by Europeans.
[5b] Here, sylf cunnige means something like "self-exploration" or "self-discovery."
[6a] Here, his gifena žęs god may mean something like "so good in his gifts" or "so generous in his gifts."
[7a] Here, modes fusne seems to mean something like "a doom-eager mind" or a "death wish."
[8a] Here, ecghete seems to mean "edge hate" or the hatred of a sword's edge or blade.

Synopsis: "The Seafarer" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poem by an anonymous author known as a scop. The poem's speaker gives a first-person account of a man who is often alone at sea, alienated and lonely, experiencing dire tribulations. The poem consists of 124 lines, followed by the single word "Amen," for a total of 125 lines. The poem appears in the Exeter Book, one of only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry.

Genre: "The Seafarer" has most commonly been categorized as an elegy. It has also been classified as a sapiential book or wisdom literature. However, in my opinion "The Seafarer" more closely fits the medieval genre of planctus, or complaint, along with similar Anglo-Saxon poems such as "The Wife's Lament," "Deor's Lament," "The Wanderer," "The Ruin" and "Wulf and Eadwacer." These ancient poems have a very similar "feel," to me, and I think the terms "complaint" and "lament" best describe the poems and their genre.

Dating the Poem: The Exeter Book dates to around 990 AD, so "The Seafarer" is at least approximately that old. However, it could have been composed earlier ... perhaps much earlier. In any case, it is one of the oldest extant poems in the English Language. 

Point of View/Interpretation/Meaning/Message: The poem's speaker is a sailor who sees the world from a sailor's point of view. And he's a very "salty" sailor at that! More than once he compares the harshness and hardness of his existence to that of burghers, or city folk. His point of view is one of loneliness and alienation from the rest of the world. He seems to feel closer to seabirds than to human beings. However, please see my Analysis for a discussion of how the speaker's point of view seems to change, as if more than one poet may have contributed to the poem, unless the poet had a religious conversion at sea! The poem has only one character, the speaker, so it may be considered a soliloquy or dramatic monologue. The meaning of the poem is open to debate. The poem begins making life sound hopeless. Then there is a ray of hope, with a possible escape to what sounds like heaven. But the poem concludes on a darker note, saying that the best a man can do is war with fiends and demons and leave a good name for himself when he dies. The poem's meaning may include a debate over which is more potent: fate or faith?

Theme: The poem's theme may depend to some degree on one's own worldview. In my opinion, the original poem's theme was that life on the sea is hard, dark, cold and depressing. The theme might be summarized as "Life's the pits, and then you die." But as I discuss in my analysis below, the poem's theme seems to change. Thus a pertinent question becomes: who changed it, and why?

Language: "The Seafarer" was written in an ancient form of the English language called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. This is an "intermediate" form of language roughly halfway between German and Modern English. We can see the Germanic nature of the language, for example, in the use of "ic" for "I." The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the name England derives from Angle-Land. The best-known Anglo-Saxon poem is "Beowulf" and its language is very similar to that of "The Seafarer."

Kennings: "The Seafarer" includes a number of Anglo-Saxon kennings (knowings) such as "wale-way" for the sea, "breast-cares" for heartaches, and "wine-kinsmen" for close family.

Literary Devices: "The Seafarer" employs a number of literary devices, including: alliteration, assonance, and figurative language: imagery, metaphors, symbolism and kennings.

Mood/Tone: The poem is generally bleak, with a few glimpses of light that seem to quickly dissipate.

Location: While the location of "The Seafarer" remains unknown, it seems reasonable to suppose that speaker was sailing far north ... perhaps off the coast of England, Scotland, Scandinavia, or perhaps even Iceland. The ship tossing near cliffs makes me think of Dover and the English Channel, although that is speculation on my part.

Rhyme Scheme: "The Seafarer" is an ancient poem, written before the first known English rhyming poems.

Meter: "The Seafarer" is written in Anglo-Saxon accentual meter. This means that it has four stresses (emphasized syllables) per line, with a slight pause between the first two and last two stresses, called a caesura. The first stressed syllable of the second half-line has to alliterate with one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half-line. For example:

Bearwas blostmum nimaš, byrig fęgriaš, (Groves take on blossoms, the cities grow fair,)
Wongas wlitigaš, woruld onetteš; (the fields are comely, the world seems new;)

Structure/Stanzas: The original Anglo-Saxon poem did not have stanza breaks. 

The Role of Religion: There are different schools of thought about "The Seafarer." One interpretation is that the poem was originally a pagan poem, with the Christian elements being added later. Another interpretation is that the speaker "evolved" into a Christian, moving from a pagan worldview to a more Christian worldview. The honest truth is that no one knows who wrote the poem, or what he believed at the time the poem was composed.

Analysis/Assay/Essay/Discussion/Study Guide: The speaker begins by telling us that his song is true. (Of course this could be a fictional device—one that has been used by many poets and other writers!) The speaker then uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of how dreadfully cold, dark and dangerous his world can be. He then compares the harshness and hardness of his lot to the much easier life of burghers, or city folk. He grumbles that they have it very easy, compared to him! At this point the speaker sounds plausibly like an ancient Celt or Norseman, both known for their fatalism. But then the poem's viewpoint seems to shift. Please keep in mind that my "cantos" are artificial and do not appear in the original poem. But I think the "breaks" illustrate changes in the viewpoint. It is my theory—not necessarily correct—that one or more poets "Christianized" the original poem by extending it into something of a morality play, or sermon. In my opinion the first "canto" is the strongest part of the poem. Beginning with the second "canto," we find the speaker suddenly discussing Christian concepts such as lust, a desire for heaven, and a Lord who must be pleased and obeyed. By the beginning of the third "canto," the speaker has decided that nothing really matters but dreams of the Lord, and fighting against fiends and devils! But the sailor has apparently never met anyone other than a few seabirds, so how can he fight the Lord's battles? The poem ends with gnomic statements about God and morality, with the sailor sounding suspiciously like a priest or pastor. While my theory can probably never be verified, I doubt that the original poet was a man of the cloth. Christian monks have been known to "Christianize" other works of poetry and literature. For example, the ancient Celtic myths that became the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. So I suspect something like that may have happened here. In their 1918 Old English Poems, Faust and Thompson note that before line 65, "this is one of the finest specimens of Anglo-Saxon poetry" but after line 65 the poem becomes "a very tedious homily that must surely be a later addition." I found this critique after splitting my translation into three cantos, and it was interesting that I had chosen to end the first canto exactly on line 65.

Quiz/Quizlet/Questions:

Who was the author of the original poem?
What language was it written in?
Roughly what percentage of the words can you understand without referring to the Glossary?
Was the poem's imagery effective? Did you feel the cold? Did you experience and empathize with the speaker's loneliness and alienation?
How do you think the translation can be improved? You are welcome to email your suggestions to mikerburch@gmail.com (please note that there is an "r" between my first and last names.)

Translators and Artists: Michael Alexander, Stopford Augustus Brooke, Michael R. Burch, Paul Klee (surrealistic painting), A. S. Kline, Conor McPherson (a play based on the poem), George R. Merry, Ezra Pound, Burton Raffel, Mary Jo Salter, J. Duncan Spaeth, Benjamin Thorpe

Quotes/Quotations:

Bitter breast-cares have I abided [Ezra Pound]
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water [Ezra Pound]
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable! [Ezra Pound]
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth. [Ezra Pound]
How I oft endured / Days of hardship / Times of trouble [A. S. Kline]
This is my self's true song / my sea-lay's-saga [Michael R. Burch]
My feet were cast in icy bands, bound with frost [Burton Raffel]
Sing of my seafaring sorrows and woes [J. Duncan Spaeth]
Little he knows whose lot is happy [J. Duncan Spaeth]


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