Study Guide

The Seafarer Suffering

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

Right away in line 2 with the verb "endured," the poem lets us know that the speaker's "true song" is no walk in the park, since this is a word that connotes suffering. And line 3 confirms our suspicions: this song is about trouble and a struggle.

How I have suffered          grim sorrow at heart,
have known in the ship          many worries [abodes of care].

The more literal translation of "worries" as "abodes of care" suggests that the speaker inhabits not just a ship, but also a psychological space of sadness. He carries his suffering around inside himself, almost as if his body is the ship itself. This sorrow overwhelms him so much that he feels like it's an actual place in which he dwells – an "abode."

[…] This the man does not know
for whom on land          it turns out most favourably,
how I, wretched and sorrowful,          on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter          in the paths of exile.

The speaker is convinced that lucky land-dwellers cannot possibly understand what he has gone through. This passage sets up a contrast between life on land and seafaring, associating the former with good fortune. But what is it about these city-folk that makes them unable to get our guy's suffering?

[…] Indeed he credits it little
the one who has the joys of life,          dwells in the city,
far from terrible journey,          proud and wanton with wine,
how I, weary,          often have had to endure
in the sea-paths. […]

Life in the city is just about as far as possible from the life of a "terrible journey." For one thing, the city-dweller possesses material comforts like wine. For another, there are people around – not just seabirds.

[…] 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.

There's that word again: "endure." It's no longer a completely bad thing here, though, since it provides our subject with special knowledge that a lucky warrior cannot possibly have. It seems that suffering may have a purpose after all.

All that old guard is gone          and the revels are over—
the weaker ones now dwell          and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat. […]

One of the consequences of the Fall of Man, according to the Hebrew Bible, was that the earth no longer yielded its fruit freely. As punishment for his disobedience, man had to work hard for his daily bread. This is what our speaker is referring to here when he says that the "weaker ones" must enjoy the world "through their sweat." This reference to the Fall reminds us of another of its consequences: that women will bear children in pain and suffering.

Age comes upon him,          his face grows pale,
the graybeard laments;          he knows that his old friends,
the sons of princes,          have been given to the earth.

You know what's worse than the physical pain you go through as you age? The fact that you have to watch your friends die. No matter how much gold you heap on a person's grave, he's gone forever, beyond your reach.

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