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The Seafarer
The Seafarer
by Anonymous
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Nature (Plants and Animals)

Symbol Analysis

As the speaker travels along harsh winter seas, he sees evidence of nature, particularly in the sea birds that fly above. Unfortunately, nature seems to be a poor substitute for the human companionship that he has left behind back on land. But still, the speaker feels a sort of connection to nature, which helps us understand just how he's feeling inside. Then, with the arrival of spring, nature takes on a different role; it reminds him that it's time to hit the whale-road again.

  • Lines 17-22: The speaker hears the sound of seabirds – the "swan's song," "gannet's noise," "voice of the curlew," and "singing gull" – instead of the sounds of men on land. Giving these birds a voice and song personifies them, which makes them fitting, if inadequate substitutes for the songs of a bard the speaker might hear in the mead hall.
  • Line 23: Storms beat the cliffs "where the tern spoke, icy-feathered." Again, attributing speech to a seabird personifies it. Calling the bird "icy-feathered" tells us that, like the speaker, who is "hung about by icicles," the animals here are really feeling the brutal cold. So there's at least one similarity between our speaker and these seabirds.
  • Line 24: An eagle pursues the icy-feathered tern, crying at it constantly. With this pair, the poem focuses our attention on how nature is truly "red in tooth and claw." The struggle to survive plays out constantly as the eagle pursues its next meal, and our speaker is like the tern; he, too, is struggling for his life.
  • Lines 48-49: Using gorgeous visual imagery, the speaker describes the arrival of spring. Groves "take on blossoms" and the cities and fields grow beautiful. Everything "seems new" because plant life is emerging after a winter of hibernation. This moment is particularly striking because of the long, cold winter that's come before it. It's almost as if we're experiencing the turning of the seasons along with the speaker.
  • Line 52: With the arrival of summer, the voice of the cuckoo "warns" the speaker. Attributing a voice and human-seeming motivation to its cry personifies the cuckoo, just as the seabirds were personified earlier in the poem.
  • Lines 53-54: The cuckoo is the "guardian of summer" that "bodes a sorrow grievous in the soul." With this description, it becomes a symbol of summer's arrival and the sadness it brings.
  • Line 60: The speaker's spirit soars over the "whale's path," which is a metaphor for the ocean. Also, it just sounds cool.
  • Lines 62-63: The scream of the "lone-flier" urges the speaker's heart to travel. This "lone-flier" may be the speaker's own spirit, the cuckoo from line 53, or perhaps another bird.
  • Line 63: The speaker calls the ocean a "whale-road." This is a special kind of Anglo-Saxon metaphor called a kenning – a figurative noun that's a combination of two other nouns. Along with "whale's path" from line 60, this expression connects traveling to nature, and specifically, to animals.