Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lines 48 - 52
Groves take on blossoms, the cities grow fair,
the fields are comely, the world seems new:
all these things urge on the eager of spirit,
the mind to travel, in one who so thinks
to travel far on the paths of the sea.
- To be honest, this passage strikes Shmoop as a bit strange. The speaker describes the arrival of spring – and with it beauty – in the world around him. But for some reason, this beauty actually causes the traveler to want to leave. What's that all about?
- Once again, the decision-making is not being done by the speaker, but rather by his mind or spirit, which feels urged to travel by the blossoming plants and comely fields. Because it's the mind that feels like traveling, and not the person, it's not clear whether the journey in question here is an actual, physical one, or whether it's a journey of the mind or imagination. Is the sea really a sea, or is it a metaphor for something else entirely?
- This wanderlust doesn't affect just anyone: the person whose mind feels urged to travel is one who has already thought about making a journey on the "paths of the sea." With the arrival of spring, he suddenly feels moved to act on his plan.
Lines 53 - 57
So the cuckoo warns with a sad voice;
the guardian of summer sings, bodes a sorrow
grievous in the soul. This the man does not know,
the warrior lucky in worldly things what some endure then,
those who tread most widely the paths of exile.
- The arrival of warmer weather brings with it the return of birdsong and, in particular, the cry of the cuckoo. Apparently, even before the invention of the clock, the cuckoo marked the passing of time.
- Just as it was in the passage at lines 17-22, birdsong is a bittersweet pleasure for the listener. It may mark the arrival of warm weather, but it also means that sorrow's coming, too, presumably because it means it's time to say farewell.
- Once again the speaker contrasts the knowledge of the "lucky," worldly-wise warrior with that of the traveler. The lucky man does not feel sad when he hears the cuckoo's song, because he has no intention of leaving. He doesn't know what it's like for the traveler who does.
- Again here, the Anglo-Saxon word for "paths" is lastas, or "footsteps," suggesting that the way of exile is one many others have tread before now, so the pathway is marked by their tracks.
- These lines, with their repetition of "This the man does not know," and "the paths of exile" act as a kind of refrain by reinforcing the ideas that came before. The seafarer really wants us to remember that he's not one of these lucky guys. He has to go sail the sea, and there are definitely rough waters ahead.
Lines 58 - 62
And now my spirit twists out of my breast,
my spirit out in the waterways,
over the whale's path it soars widely
through all the corners of the world– it comes back to me
eager and unsated; […]
- Instead of departing on a physical journey himself, the speaker describes how his spirit travels away from him. The repetition of "spirit" here shows us that it's not his body that travels, but some inner piece of him.
- The Anglo-Saxon word for breast that's used here is hreþerlocan. The first part, hreþer, means chest, while locan is a lock, an enclosed place, or locker. So the spirit escapes from a locked, enclosed place, making its journey seem like some sort of psychological prison break.
- The spirit departs with a "twisting" motion, and then soars widely around the world. Sounds like fun, right? Its physical freedom is a sharp shift from the trapped feeling speaker's body experiences in lines 8-12, when the cold imprisons him. The waterway over which the spirit soars is also called a "whale's path," which is a lovely metaphor for the sea.
- But alas, despite all its wanderings, that pesky old spirit is still "unsated" when it returns to the speaker. This word refers to an almost animal hunger that has yet to be fed. If even the "corners of the world" are not able to provide what the spirit needs, what will?
Lines 62 - 66
[…]The lone-flier screams,
urges onto the whale-road the unresisting heart
across the waves of the sea. Indeed hotter for me
are the joys of the Lord than this dead life
fleeting on the land.[…]
- It's not clear who this "lone-flier" is. Could he be the cuckoo from line 53? Or is he the speaker's soaring spirit? Whoever the lone-flier is, he urges the speaker's heart to set out on a journey. And that heart is "unresisting," which means it's totally ready for the ride.
- Echoing line 59, in which the sea is called the "whale's path," the speaker calls it "whale road" here. This is the most famous kenning, or figurative compound noun construction, in Anglo-Saxon literature. It is probably most known for its inclusion in Beowulf
- Apparently, the joys of the Lord are "hotter" for him than life on land. Calling the joys of the Lord "hot" in a poem so focused on the misery of being cold is high praise, indeed. Plus, when he talks about the joys of the Lord, he's comparing them to life on land. Could this mean that the joys of the lord are to be found at sea? Or could the sea be a metaphor for the joys of the Lord?
- Our speaker makes great use of an oxymoron (or contradiction in terms), when he refers to "dead life" on land. Of course, just a few lines back, the speaker described the land blossoming into life with the arrival of spring, so why is he now calling life on land "dead"? One explanation is that, according to our speaker, life on land is "fleeting. So that life eventually comes to an end and, in this sense, is less alive or real than eternal joy with God.