Repeat after Shmoop:
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
Excellent. Got that one down? Of course you do. Okay, now try this:
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
Piece of cake, right? Or maybe… not. Believe it or not, the lines of seeming gibberish you've just read (or at least tried to) are actually in English. Yep, you heard us right: English.
You're probably thinking, those lines don't look like any kind of English I know. You're not wrong. They're written in something called Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the language that the inhabitants of Britain spoke before the Norman invasion in 1066. But English has evolved so much since then that the Old English in these lines is completely unrecognizable to us twenty-first-century readers. How in the world are we supposed to know what they're saying?
That's what Shmoop (with the help of a handy translation) is here for. As it turns out, these lines are the first two lines of a ridiculously old and ridiculously awesome poem called "The Seafarer." Written by an anonymous author and included in a tenth-century manuscript known as the Exeter Book, "The Seafarer" is a 125 line poem that tells the story from the point of view of a person who has spent a lot of time – you guessed it – seafaring. He's a traveler in exile on the sea yearning for home and, as it turns out, God – and we get to hitch a ride on his journey. Later, as the poem develops, there are hints that seafaring might really be a metaphor for the spiritual journey of the good, faithful Christian.
Many scholars like to think of "The Seafarer" as an elegy – a lament about something that's been lost. To be fair, the poem does contain a heck of a lot of lamenting: about friends who have died, about growing old, about the passing of the glorious civilizations of days gone by. But it eventually moves beyond these laments to teach us readers a lesson about the importance of Christian faith in God. For this reason, "The Seafarer" is also part of the "sapiential," or wisdom tradition. That's a fancy way of referring to poetry that teaches lessons, often in the form of short, matter-of-fact statements like, "Man must control his passions and keep everything in balance" (110). "The Seafarer" is chock full of such lessons.
Although "The Seafarer" was included in a manuscript from the tenth century, it may actually have been composed orally at an earlier time, when Christianity and its values were still new to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The poem contains a mixture of Anglo-Saxon warrior values and Christian values, because our clever speaker wants to make Christian faith appealing to Anglo-Saxon warriors. One way to do this is to mix the two cultures together in one big, beautiful melting pot of a poem. The presence of both these worldviews suggests that "The Seafarer" was likely composed at the meeting-point between Paganism and Christianity in England, which makes for a fascinating read. But don't just take our word for it. Jump in, and see how you fare with "The Seafarer."
Why Should I Care?
Ever had an urge to pack your bags, hit the road, and head for destinations unknown? When the travel bug bites you, it's an itch you've just got to scratch. For some people – like those folks who pack their whole lives into RVs and spend years driving from one little town to the next, or backpackers who give up personal space and daily showers to wander the world – the travel bug never really seems to go away. They're always on the lookout for a new horizon to chase.
The speaker of "The Seafarer" is one of those people; no sooner has he gotten home and put his feet up than the cuckoo's cry reminds him that it's spring – prime traveling-time – and before he's even had a chance to unpack, he's on the road again (or in his case, the whale-road).
Of course, most people don't travel forever. Eventually most of us reach a place so comfortable, so familiar and right, that it feels like home. And at that point, even the most hard-bitten of wanderers may just decide to unpack and put down roots.
Finding a stable home is easier for most of us than it is for the speaker of "The Seafarer," who sees only death and decay in the "life on land" he rejects. But even he eventually recognizes that a home is waiting for him somewhere. It's just that in his case, the home is not anywhere on earth. It's in heaven. So as it turns out, all this traveling is just an effort to get home.
So what's your true home? A tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea? A sophisticated studio apartment in the middle of Paris? A sprawling ranch under a big mountain sky? Wherever it may be, if you don't search for it, you'll never find it. So what are you waiting for? Follow in the seafarer's footsteps. Pack your bags and hit the (whale) road! But, you know, make sure you read the poem first.