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The Seafarer

The Seafarer

by Anonymous

Lines 1 - 12 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-3

I can make a true song          about me myself,
tell my travels,          how I often endured
days of struggle, troublesome times

  • Right away, the speaker announces the subject of the poem: "me myself." The repetition of these pronouns puts even greater emphasis on the speaker as the subject of the poem. Some scholars also think the speaker wants to emphasize that he is the author of his own song. Sing it loud, sing it proud, Seafarer.
  • The Anglo-Saxon word used for "true song" is soðgied, and it's something a bit more specific than just any old song.A gied was a poetic song often sung by a bard (a person who recited or sang poems) before a large audience. So when the speaker says he's going to make a gied, he's giving us a heads up; he's a bard, and his song will be an experience he shares with us, his audience.
  • But because he also makes himself the subject of his gied, the speaker proves he's much more than a mere bard. He just might be a brave warrior-hero, because it was these heroes who were often the subject of a bard's song-poems. Hmm.
  • In the second line, the speaker gets more specific about his subject: the poem's not just about him, it's about his travels. With the verb "endured," we get the feeling that these travels can't have been easy. This was no vacation. In fact, his travels were "days of struggle, troublesome times." (3) In this translation, the alliteration of travel with troublesome times emphasizes the connection between the two – the fact that travel is the cause of the speaker's troubles.
  • You might also have noticed the odd blank space that falls right in the middle of each line. This is called a caesura, and it's a traditional pause that we find in Anglo-Saxon poetry. For more on this, see "Form and Meter."

Lines 4 - 8

How I have sufferedgrimsorrow          at heart,
have known in the ship          many worries [abodes of care],
the terrible tossing of the waves          where the anxious night watch
often took
me          at the ship's prow,
when it tossed near the cliffs. […]

  • The speaker focuses on a particular place where his sorrow lies: the heart. In the original Anglo-Saxon version, the words for sorrow and heart are collapsed into one compound word (known as a "kenning"): breostceare – literally, "breast-care." Combining words like this was super common in Old English poetry, and it's a great way to pack in a whole lot of meaning.
  • The setting of the poem gets a wee bit more specific in line 5, when we learn that the speaker suffered these sorrows on a ship at sea.
  • On this ship, there were a ton of worries. The Anglo-Saxon word for worries is cearselda, which the translator has included in brackets as "abodes of care." By including the more literal translation here, the translator draws our attention to the way the poem is focusing on particular places – abodes – where sorrow lives. You might think of this as a kind of personification, in which sorrow is given a human attribute – in this case, a house.
  • The speaker says that an "anxious night-watch" took him to the prow of the ship. That means that he went to the front of the ship to keep watch for who-knows-what in those dark waters. He certainly doesn't seem all too eager to do this duty. It's as if he has no control over his actions. The night watch takes him – he doesn't take it.
  • This passage includes two verbs of motion to describe the movement of the waves and ship, both of which the translator has given as "tossing." The second "tossing" can also be translated as "striking." In both cases, we're struck (pun intended) by the violence. The sea is not a calm, cozy place for our sad speaker.
  • It's also worth noting that we've got some more alliteration thrown our way with the repeated "t" sounds of "terrible tossing." Keep your eye open for more examples in this translation, and for more on this, take a look at our "Sound Check" and "Form and Meter" sections.

Lines 8 - 12

[…] Fettered by cold
were my feet,          bound by frost
in cold clasps,          where then cares seethed
hot about my heart–          a hunger tears from within
the sea-weary soul. […]

  • The speaker personifies the cold and frost here by saying they "bound" and "fettered" his feet in "cold clasps." He gives the cold human characteristics, by implying that it kept him prisoner in a way. We have to say, this journey is not sounding fun at all.
  • Just to make everything seem even more miserable, we learn that all this unfortunate freezing action happens in the same place where cares are "hot" around the speaker's heart. So he's both cold and hot at the same time. Ugh, isn't that the worst?
  • The speaker also personifies hunger by saying it "tears" the sea-weary soul from within. This line gives us an inkling that, despite the miserable weather, what's really bothering our speaker is something inside him. But what, exactly? Stay tuned to find out.
  • All in all, our speaker is having a bit of a tough time, wouldn't you say? He's cold, hot, hungry, and altogether unhappy.
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