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The Seafarer: Poem Summary, Themes & Analysis

The Seafarer: Poem Summary, Themes & Analysis
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  • 0:01 Background
  • 0:55 Poem Summary
  • 2:03 Themes
  • 3:35 Analysis
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

Get serious with the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Seafarer.' This lesson covers some of the deep and somber aspects of life, and you will find out about Old English poetry, including the form called elegy.

Background

You know what it's like when you're writing an essay, and you feel like you're totally alone with this challenge and don't know where to go with it? The way you feel navigating that essay is kind of how the narrator of The Seafarer feels as he navigates the sea. As in, 'What's the point of it all?' and 'Will I survive this dilemma?'

The earliest written version of The Seafarer exists in a manuscript from the tenth century called The Exeter Book. This book contains a collection of Anglo-Saxon poems written in Old English. In case you're uncertain of what Old English looks like, here's an example.

This is the first page of Beowulf written in Old English.
First page of Beowulf in Old English.

The poem probably existed in an oral tradition before being written down in The Exeter Book. Although we don't know who originally created this poem, the most well-known translation is by Ezra Pound. Pound was a popular American poet during the Modern Period, which was from about the 1900's to the 1960's.

Poem Summary

If you've ever been fishing or gone on a cruise, then your experience on the water was probably much different from that of this poem's narrator. He begins by stating that he is telling a true story about his travels at sea. Before even giving the details, he emphasizes that the voyages were dangerous and he often worried for his safety.

The narrator often took the nighttime watch, staying alert for rocks or cliffs the waves might toss the ship against. Imagine how difficult this would be during a time with no GPS, or even electric lights. Aside from his fear, he also suffers through the cold--such cold that he feels frozen to his post.

But, the poem is not merely about his normal feelings at being at sea on a cold night. Despite his anxiety and physical suffering, the narrator relates that his true problem is something else. He tells how profoundly lonely he is. How he spends all this time at sea, listening to birdsong instead of laughing and drinking with friends. And, it's not just that, he feels he has no place back on the land. He keeps on traveling, looking for that perfect place to lay anchor.

Themes

Overall, The Seafarer is a pretty somber piece. And, true to that tone, it takes on some weighty themes. One theme in the poem is finding a place in life.

Have you ever just wanted to get away from it all? The narrator of this poem has traveled the world to foreign lands, yet he's continually unhappy. He's jealous of wealthy people, but he comforts himself by saying they can't take their money with them when they die. Even when he finds a nice place to stop, he eventually flees the land, and people, again for the lonely sea.

Another theme of the poem is death and posterity. Our seafarer is constantly thinking about death. He fears for his life as the waves threaten to crash his ship. He shivers in the cold, with ice actually hanging from his clothes. The only abatement he sees to his unending travels is the end of life. He believes that the wealthy underestimate the importance of their riches in life, since they can't hold onto their riches in death. Instead he says that the stories of your deeds that will be told after you're gone are what's important. He says that's how people achieve life after death. This is posterity. Perhaps this is why he continues to brave the sea.

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