Our speaker tells us right off the that bat he's going to "make a true song" about himself. Sounds pretty straightforward and autobiographical, right? We're primed and ready for the story of his life. Except, the problem is, we never really get it.
All we truly know about our speaker is that he's spent a whole boatload of time out on the open sea in the middle of terrible winter weather. We know he feels restless, sad, and pretty darn lonely most of the time. But the weird thing is, it's never quite clear why he lives this life. Why does he always have this urge to travel? Why does he refer to himself living in the "paths of exile"? Did he commit a crime? Is he fleeing a war? Or hey, maybe he's just a deep-sea fisherman. Anything's possible, right?
At certain points in the poem, the speaker refers to the "sea-weary man," or "those who travel the paths of the ocean." At this point we know he's talking about himself. But these vague terms also broaden his scope a bit. He seems to be claiming that everyone who has experienced what he has feels just the same way and understands just the same things he does. So then this isn't just an autobiography. It's much more universal than that.
So what does this speaker, along with all the other sea-weary men know? What's he trying to share with us? Well, the speaker claims that those who have traveled the paths of exile understand that everything in this world is fleeting: gold, friends, even whole civilizations eventually pass away with time. Knowing this, the speaker can't and won't take pleasure in such things. He knows from experience – the only stable thing in life is God.
And there's the kicker. The most important thing we can learn about our speaker in this poem is not that he's a traveler, but that he is deeply religious. Sure, he may reallybe a seafarer, but he's also a pilgrim, and his story is about his own spiritualjourney as much as his physical one.