The Seafarer: A Modern English Translation by Michael R. Burch
"The Seafarer" is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem whose author is unknown. The
original Anglo-Saxon poem, generally categorized as an elegy or lament, appears
on the left. My Modern English translation 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 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
The most famous translator of "The Seafarer" was Ezra Pound.
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 (anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 990 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Męg ic be me sylfum This is my
sošgied ~ true tale; wrecan ~ wreak, force, tell, utter
sižas ~ journey; secgan ~ say, saga
hu ic geswincdagum of how I endured
geswincdagum ~ days of toil,
earfošhwile ~ hardship-time
žrowade ~ suffer, endure
bitre breostceare bitter breast-cares
... 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 wild waves' atol ~ dire,
repulsive; yža ~ wave; gewealc ~ rolling, tossing
žęr mec oft bigeat relentless poundings
nearo nihtwaco each 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
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
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
wunade ~ live, dwell, remain
wręccan ~ wretch, exile
was bereft of wine-brothers, winemęgum
~ wine-kinsmen ; bidroren ~ bereave
bihongen hrimgicelum;[3a] my beard
hung with icicles, hrimgicelum ~ rime crystals,
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
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
the gannet's cries;
hleožor ~ song, sound
ond huilpan sweg the curlew's
huilpan ~ curlew, waterbird; sweg ~ sound
fore hleahtor wera, rather than the laughter of men;
męw singende the
męw ~ mew, gull; singende ~ sing, compose
better than mead-drinking.
Stormas žęr stanclifu beotan, Storms
žęr him stearn oncwęš, there the
stearn ~ tern; oncwęš ~ answered
ful oft žęt earn bigeal,
ever the eagle screeched,
earn ~ eagle; bigeal ~ yell, scream, screech
urigfežra ~ dewey-feathered
but no consoling kinsmen
hleomęga ~ protector-kinsman
came to comfort
feasceaftig ~ poor, destitute; ferš ~ mind, soul, spirit
frefran meahte. my
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
wyn ~ joy
gebiden in burgum, who
abides happily in a burgh
except for a few trifling pains,
bealosiža ~ bad experiences; hwon ~
trifle, why? (pointless?)
wlonc ond wingal,[4a]
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
Foržon cnyssaš nu Indeed, they are
~ beat, strike
heortan gežohtas my heart-cares,
heortan gežohtas ~ heart-thoughts
žęt ic hean streamas, that I should strive
alone with hean ~ miserable
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.
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
elžeodigra a foreign residence
elžeodigra ~ strange,
beyond earth-desires. gesece ~
Foržon nis žęs modwlonc Therefore there is none
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
lay upon him.
Ne biž him to hearpan hyge Not for him the
ne to hringžege nor
ne to wife wyn nor
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,
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
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 knows not,
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
ofer hrežerlocan, out of my breast,
min modsefa my
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.
Foržon me hatran sind
Deeper, hotter for me are
žonne žis deade lif than this dead life
lęne on londe.
loaned on land.
Ic gelyfe no I do not believe
žęt him eoršwelan
ece stondaš. will stand forever.
Simle žreora sum
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
ecghete ~ sword's edge hate
ripping out life
feorh ošžringeš. from the
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
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.
[1a] Here, gebiden hębbe suggests that the negative experiences
[1b] Here, cearselda means something like "care-place," "care-hold" or
[2a] Here, winemęgum means something like "wine-friend,"
"wine-brothers" or "dear kinsmen."
[3a] Here, hrimgicelum means something like "rime crystals" or
[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
[5b] Here, sylf cunnige means something like "self-exploration" or
[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
Ancient 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 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
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
The speaker begins by telling us that his song is true. (Of course this could be
a fictional deviceone 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 theorynot
necessarily correctthat 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 not 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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(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
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]
This World's Joy