Study Guide

The Seafarer Dissatisfaction

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[…] I have suffered         grim sorrow 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. […]

He's quite the insomniac, our speaker, keeping an "anxious night watch." A "night watch" is usually something warriors take when they fear an enemy attack, so it seems the speaker might be worried about some ominous invading force that we don't know about.

[…] cares seethed
hot about my heart--          a hunger tears from within
the sea-weary soul. […]

The seething hotness of the speaker's cares is a stark contrast to the ice-cold environment he describes in the previous lines. The "hunger from within" is violent: it "tears" the sea-weary soul. This last line tells us that the enemy threat the speaker is keeping watch for may not be an outside force at all. Maybe it's just his own restlessness and dissatisfaction.

[…] Indeed, now they are troubled
the thoughts of my heart,          that I myself should strive with
the high streams,          the tossing of salt waves—

His heart's thoughts are troubled, which makes it seem like his heart has a mind of its own. His heart also totally has power over him, causing him to actually want to go back on the ocean, even though it's such a nasty, cold, and violent place.

the wish of my heart urges          all the time
my spirit to go forth,           that I, far from here,
should seek the homeland          of a foreign people—

Talk about conflicted! The speaker feels his heart urge his spirit to set forth, and in doing so, actually divides himself in three. He's a body, a heart, and a spirit.

Not for him is the sound of the harp         nor the giving of rings
nor pleasure in woman         nor worldly glory—
nor anything at all         unless the tossing of the waves;
but he always has a longing         he who strives on the waves.

The seafarer is consumed by a "longing." Could that explain his lack of pleasure in earthly things? It just might, if we knew what he was longing for. But of course, we're kept in the dark here.

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; […]

Our guy is literally torn into two pieces – his spirit and his body. Even travel all over the world fails to put an end to the seafarer's constant longing. The word "unsated," often used in relation to physical hunger, connects this longing to the hunger that "tears from within" in line 11.

there are not now kings,         nor Caesars,
nor givers of gold,         as once there were
when they, the greatest, among themselves         performed valorous deeds
and with a most lordly         majesty lived.

The speaker expresses dissatisfaction with the kings of his times, because they're just not nearly as awesome as the kings from the past. Of course, how could anyone compare to those he seems to regard almost as gods, describing them as "the greatest" and living with "a most lordly majesty"? That's a tough act to follow.

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