The Dualistic Perspective of the Seafarer
It seems essential to have two parts to everything. Whether it may be a reward and a punishment, or a heart of both hatred and love. Dualism is not simply the act of having two parts; it’s the act that the second part is essential to the first. Perhaps the second part provides motivation of what not to do, or it is our human nature to desire more than one thing. This ultimately creates a larger challenge for ourselves than originally intended. “The Seafarer” was written during Britain’s Anglo-Saxon period and was used mainly as entertainment in that time. Of course back in those days entertainment had an entirely different meaning. Anglo-Saxons were known for having a strong connection with God, which is clearly represented through the spirituality in the poem. Through the use of dualism the author highlights the controlling metaphor, stresses the imagery, shapes the poetic structure, and emphasizes the theme in “The Seafarer”.
The poem accentuates two sides, the land and the sea. Throughout the poem the sea is given a negative connotation where land is represented as a safe and calm place. When the poet writes about land, “orchards blossom, and the towns bloom, / Fields grow lovely as the world springs fresh,” (48-49) he makes it seem more peaceful and serene. Yet, when he writes about the sea. “iced cold sea, whirled in sorrow, “ (15) it gives off the opposite effect. Even though the sea may be rough and dangerous the Seafarer still desires to venture out into the open waves. The good versus bad side dualism is commonly seen in literature. However in this poem contains a deeper meaning. In the controlling metaphor the sea represents the challenges faced by a Christians and obstacles in ordinary life and their spiritual journey. For example, “ with frozen chains, and hardship groaned / around my heart.”(10-11) symbolizes the hardship of the sea. The sea is a vortex of guilt, sins, and loneliness. As humans we are drawn by curiosity. This is what keeps the seafarer coming back to the water, even though he knows the pain and suffering it causes him. This is shown here when the poet writes, “ And yet my heart wanders away, / my soul roams with the sea”(58-59). Despite all of that, he continues to go out onto the waves, showing that you must be persistent in overcoming your challenges in order to achieve greatness. Greatness being the idea that you will one day go to heaven, which is considered to be our true home. By using the dualism of land and sea, the controlling metaphor is proved that we do not belong on land or sea, but rather with God.
The dualism also accentuates the vivid imagery. Imagery is meant to enhance the poem, and when you compare two things it intensifies the power ordinary imagery. The poem’s imagery then appears to also be fighting back and forth for both sides of the dualism, rather than just describing words. When the poet uses imagery to describe the sea it gives off such an eerie effect. “The death-noise of birds instead of laughter,” (21) is one line in particular that shows the spookiness of poem. The poet then uses a metaphor, “hail would fall, / the coldest of seeds.” (32-33) to add on to the imagery. Imagery of weather seems to be a constant theme in this poem. The poem begins by talking about smashing winds and ice-cold temperatures. The poet also uses nature in the poem’s imagery. Discussing natural wild life and plants throughout the stanzas. Both land and sea imagery tie into the idea of dualism and create more power behind each subject.
The poetic structure of this poem is very much affected by the idea of dualism. The poem begins by talking about the sea, but then turns into comparing the land to the sea. Towards the end of the poem, it focuses in on the main theme of spirituality. This poem was written during a time when Christianity was very important and the idea of heaven was our true home and where people belonged. The theme of spirituality can also be questioned by the possibility that all the traveling is someone’s religious journey in finding God. The poem also presents God as the main foundation for stability among human’s lives. “The Seafarer” also ends with an “Amen”, supporting the idea that this poem is purely about a journey of a Christian soul, rather than the journey of a literal person.
Overall dualism is able to greatly affect the controlling metaphor, imagery, poetic structure, and theme in the poem “The Seafarer”. Making it seem as though the whole idea of the poem is really just a Christian doing some soul-searching. The sea is the challenges they face, and the land being a small haven from the stress and difficulty. The dualism allows the poem to send a greater and stronger message then it originally could, making the reader question the true meaning and where they belong.
A Study on Religious Believes of Anglo-Saxon Society based on The Seafarer, The Wanderer, and The Wife’s Lament
Synthesis Essay on the Anglo-Saxons
The Anglo-Saxons were a religious group of people as other generations of people were. Religion played a role in the Anglo-Saxon people’s lives and as a result it reflected in their writings. Poems written by the Anglo-Saxons have shown significant signs of religious influence including “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.” Each writer of each poem gives their own testament regarding God’s influence on their situation. The Anglo-Saxon practiced their belief beyond religious establishments by writing of them within their poems.
The Anglo-Saxons seemed to have correlated their everyday lives to their religious beliefs as shown in “The Seafarer.” The poem is written by a man fond of the sea and mentally drained by dwelling on the land. He understands the hardships of travelling by sea but simply cannot stay away. “Grown so brave, or so graced by God, That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl…” The writer is fearless of what the sea offers and correlates his bravery to being graced by God. Religion may have motivated many actions amongst the Anglo-Saxons as they believed to be protected and thus fearless.
The Anglo-Saxon people being religious had no conflicting ideals of evolution instead pointing to God for it all. The writer goes on to talk about how God essentially created the Earth and life itself. “We all fear God. He turns the Earth, He set it swinging firmly in space, Gave life to the world and light to the sky. Death leaps at the fools who forget their God.” Scientific beliefs such as evolution may have been non-existent to the Anglo-Saxons as the writer of “The Seafarer” notes on how everyone fears God and how He gave life to the world. Religion played a key role to everything the Anglo-Saxons believed in from their everyday activities to basis of life itself.
The Anglo-Saxon’s often looked to religion and God in times of distress to mediate the best of a bad situation. As shown in “The Wanderer,” the writer finds himself alone following the slaughter of many people he had once knew. With nowhere else to turn, the speaker turns to his religion for comfort. “This lonely traveller longs for grace, For the mercy of God…” The speaker falls to God in his lonesome travels to remedy the hardships he had just experienced. The Anglo-Saxons believed and stood by God’s impact on their lives despite what they’ve been through.
The Anglo-Saxon people went to God and religion as a reason behind everything they do. “It’s good to find your grace In God, the heavenly rock where rests our every hope.” The speaker goes on to state how giving your life despite hardships to God is good as religion holds all the hope in the world. “The Wanderer” gives example of one dweller of many who may have found themselves in a lonesome situation who in turn, turned to God. The Anglo-Saxon people believed in religion greatly as their only source of hope through hardships such as war.
As supported by “The Wanderer” speaker, the Anglo-Saxon’s sought after religion during times of distress. “The Wife’s Lament” is a poem written by the ‘wife’ of a man who seemingly is exiled himself and the speaker seeks him. The speaker in the poem however is exiled herself and forced by her husband’s kinsman to remain in the woods “in the den of the earth.” “Blithe was our bearing often we vowed that but death alone would part us two naught else.” The speaker motions towards her marital vows towards her husband to counteract his decision to hold her in the woods against her will. Marriage often seen as a lifelong relationship established by God, the speaker feels her Lord betrayed both her and God by abandoning her and their commitments.
As with all religions, the Anglo-Saxons consisted of individuals who had went against their beliefs. “May on himself depend all his world’s joy.” The speaker wishes upon the “curse” that her husband depend on everything given to him on Earth rather than what awaits him later in the afterlife. The speaker in “The Seafarer” notions at how the wealth of the world does not reach the Heavens nor does it remain important when you die and thus the wife wishes her husband depends heavily on the joys he experiences now. Religion to the Anglo-Saxon’s explained every aspect to their life including marriage and those who opposed it were seen as deserters as noted in “The Wife’s Lament.”
Religion explained many aspects within the Anglo-Saxon’s lives through the three poems, “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament.” The three speakers of the poems noted God’s ability to guide them through times of distress and as a result gave their life to their faith. The three poems reflected the impact of religion to Anglo-Saxon people’s lives and thus this was reflected in their writings.
The Narrator’s Journey to God in the Seafarer
During the poem “The Seafarer” a sailor goes through a journey off at sea and discovers how his life’s journey through the dangerous sea is a factor that could bring him closer to God.The narrator depicts an overall message: in order to get to heaven you’ll have to go through the dangerous journey of life and forget all of your worldly pleasures, this is seen through imagery and symbolism of spring and winter to help us feel, hear, and see how he feels.
In the middle of the narrator’s journey he ventures off onto the land and discovered people drinking wine and enjoying its pleasures. He sees how the people of the land are fortunate and spoiled, experiencing no hardships equivalent to his, saying that “the passion of cities, swelled proud with wine and no taste of misfortune.” (Raffel 31-32). The narrator used imagery to show the beauty he experienced: the start of spring as “orchards blossom, the towns bloom, fields grow lovely as the world spring fresh”(48-49). For the seafarer this site represents a rebirth of a better life with less misery . Although, he realizes how life on land is filled with pleasures that could make his life better, he also realizes the land is filled with sin that draws man away from God and the hope of heaven. Knowing this the narrator decides to go back and continue his journey on the sea believing that it is his fate of his “soul [that] called [him] eagerly out, [and] sent [him] over the horizon” (36-38) to conquer the hardships that he is experiencing in order to obtain a closer relationship God and enter his true home of heaven.
In the beginning of “The Seafarer” the narrator speaks of his dangerous journey out at sea. He talks about the winter as if it’s a violent and powerful force. The narrator uses imagery of the cold frozen weather to symbolize how he feels trapped in this world, as if he is a prisoner saying, “being in icy bands, bound with frost, with frozen chains, and hardship groaned.” ( 9-10). He is also expressing how he feels physically cold symbolizing that he is living in this world of life bating loneliness and depression with no one to love speaking about how he is “ on an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow, alone in a world blown clear of love, hung with icicles.” (15-17). He uses visual imagery provoking the sense of sight, saying that he was “hung with icicles” (17) and that “hailstorms flew” (17) showing how he is not only physically cold, which is harsh, but metaphorically cold going through troubles of life that can ultimately bring him closer to God.
Overall the seafarer learns that remaining out on the hazardous sea aided him through his experiences of hardship in order to lead him down the right path to God and heaven. Through his journey he endures temptation with the beginning of spring along with the people of the land seeing the comfort of wine and having no misfortunes, however, he ventured on the right path and continued to follow God.
How The Poem “The Seafarer” Provides More Compelling Laments In Comparison And Contrast To The Poems “The Wife’S Lament” And “The Wanderer”
In principle, the Anglo-Saxon poems entail those developed using the Old English of the British history, especially between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the mid-fifth century. The authors focused on the orally transmitted literature with the intentions of oral performances. For example, the poem “The Seafarer” utilizes the system of alliteration to create a rhythm as a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Specifically, it entails the story of a lonely man on a sea voyage and lamenting about his ordeals in the wild waters. He explains the challenges he encounters including the harsh weather, storms, strong winds, loneliness, and separation from his family members. The narrator says “The chains got frozen and my hands stiff”. Similarly, the poem “The Wife’s Lament” depicts the story of a female character reflecting on the loss of her husband. It demonstrates her pain during the life in exile where she feels separated from the family members. The poem illustrates how the lord left the lady at home as he went on the long voyage at sea. She moves about the forest to settle in a cave after realizing the inevitability of her reunion with the husband. Consequently, the poem “The Wanderer” depicts the story of a lone former warrior lamenting over the death of his kin, slaughtered by the enemies. He demonstrates his belief in fate as the component of life and seeks the intervention of his Lord. Therefore, this paper discusses how the poem “The Seafarer” provides more compelling laments in comparison and contrast to the poems “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Wanderer” based on their elegiac mood, alienation, conflict with nature, and the philosophy of survival.
Notably, the three poems present the elegiac mood through the narrations whereby the characters express their melancholic states. The narrators desperately seek happiness as the solution to their circumstances. Besides, loneliness and separation permeate in all the three poems as the main characters in all of them move away from their places of comfort to seek happiness. For example, the narrator in “The Wanderer” laments over the loss of his lord, who died of old age. The narrator says “The death of my lord presented a blow to me” to indicate his disappointment. Similarly, the narrator in “The Wife’s Lament” also laments over the loss of her husband, who lives the area to navigate the wilds. Moreover, the narrator in “The Seafarer” also laments over the loss of his crew members to the strong winds and storm at sea. He says “Surviving the wreckage when other die and remaining alone”. The three poems show that the narrators observe life from the single point of view whereby they spend time in solitude. The melancholic tone in the three poems helps to foster the elegiac mood that supports the theme of suffering across the poems. Besides, the three poems entail the intensive use of alliteration by maintaining the consonant to enhance the stress on the syllable.
Further, the poems express the alienation of the characters from the traditional society whereby they encounter solitude in their exile states. For example, the narrator in “The Seafarer” explains the agony of the lonely voyage without the family members or friends. He says “They don’t understand the voyage without seeing family and friends”. Similarly, the narrator in “The Wife’s Lament” also illustrates how she left her town in search for her husband as she ends up in the forest to live in a cave alone. Besides, the narrator in “The Wanderer” also encounters loneliness during his exile at sea. Smithers, the alienation from the traditional society fosters the melancholic tone and the mood in the poems. Significantly, the narrators in the three poems engage in the conflict with nature including the harsh weather and the strong winds. For instance, the narrator in “The Seafarer” explains how the cold weather made the chains to freeze beyond the human touch. The narrator in “The Wanderer” also feels the pain of the harsh weather and seeks the intervention of his Lord for leverage from the suffering.
Fundamentally, the three poems demonstrate different philosophies of survival among the narrators. For example, whereas the narrator in “The Seafarer” focuses on the supernatural forces of the spiritual beings to explore the issues of life, the narrator in “The Wife’s Lament” focuses on human friendship for survival. The narrator in “The Seafarer” says “Submission to the deity provides reprieve”. The narrator in “The Wife’s Lament” says “They separate me from my husband to cause me the pain” to indicate her belief in the union of lovers. Consequently, the narrator in “The Wanderer” indicates his belief in the combination of the spiritual forces and friendship for survival. He says “Believing in God and having responsible friends help to overcome”. The narrator shows that creating friendships coupled with the belief in the deity as the ultimate propositions for survivorship. Essentially, the poem “The Wife’s Lament” deploys the elaborate use of the meter while the “The Wanderer” fails to focus on the use of meter. Further, “The Seafarer” poem provides a combination of the use of alliteration and the meter in the work.
Indeed, “The Seafarer” provides more compelling laments in comparison and contrast to the poems “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Wanderer” based on their elegiac mood, alienation, conflict with nature, and the philosophy of survival. The narrator in “The Seafarer” laments over the loss of his crew members to the strong winds and storm at sea. The three poems show that the narrators observe life from the single point of view whereby they spend time in solitude. The melancholic tone in the three poems helps to foster the elegiac mood that supports the theme of suffering across the poems. Whereas the narrator in “The Seafarer” focuses on the supernatural forces of the spiritual beings to explore the issues of life, the narrator in “The Wife’s Lament” focuses on human friendship for survival.
Depicting the Time Gone by in the Seafarer and the Wanderer
The poems The Seafarer and The Wanderer are both elegiac in nature: each speaker delivers a reflective monologue about their journey from the past they have lost to the solitary present they face, although there are limitations to the past’s disappearance, as it clearly lingers in their memories of ‘days of toil’. The ‘ubi sunt’ formula used in both is a traditional method to voice a realisation of loss and the transitory nature of life: for example, in a rhetorical set-piece in The Wanderer it takes the form of a list.
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
The poet here expresses how distant the past now really is, as the hypothetical wise man asks after treasure-givers and the place of banquets in vain, as these fundamental examples from his past life are now gone. This rhetorical despair is emphasized by the repeated use of ‘Hwær’, as he appears to be in denial about the permanent loss of his familiar surroundings. The oral tradition in which Old English manuscript poetry had its roots influences this structure, as the mono-syllabic word demanding answers directly from any potential audience creates a striking new ‘movement’ within the poem, as though allowing a performer the chance to differ his intonations to re-engage attention and lend emphasis to the following moment of realization. He follows this with another repeated structure, a triadic structure of laments introduced by the vocative ‘Eala’:
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym!
The shift from ‘Hwær’ to ‘Eala’, rhetorical question to exclamation of lament, conveys the loss of the familiar without describing the actual process of his exile and losing those individual aspects of his life. The ‘Eala’ movement, however, changes its subjects; the gleaming cup, armoured warrior and prince’s glory he bemoans the loss of in these lines are more traditionally celebrated in heroic tales than the quotidian joys of the hall he previously mentioned. This escalation allows for greater dramatic power in the laments, as he is bewailing the loss of his culture’s ideals, as well as his personal experience. If Pasternack’s suggestion that in manuscript poetry, textual techniques substituted for performance context, is accepted, this entire movement may be read as the substitute for a performer acting out loss, as the questions and laments are emotive explanations directly to the reader that communicate his pain at the loss of his past.
The Seafarer does not directly refer to a past that the speaker has lost in order to be in exile on the ocean, in the same way as The Wanderer refers to his battles and kinsmen; instead the objects or locations associated with the land (which are similar to the objects mentioned in ‘The Wanderer) are represented through a hypothetical man on the shore, and the sense of the past that the speaker must have had is conveyed by the contrast of a normal, comforting life with his harsh, lonely time at sea. ‘The man who lives most happily on land’ cannot truly know how harsh the winter at sea is; along with the pathetic fallacy in ‘bihongen hrimgicelum; haegl scurum flaeg’ (‘hung round with icicles; hail flew in storms’- the intensity is conveyed particularly through ‘scur’ commonly meaning a metaphorical shower of blows as well as a literal storm) the Seafarer is ‘winem gum bidroren’, deprived of dear kinsmen. The use of ‘bidroren’ informs the reader that he once had kinsmen but has lost them, and this vivid sense of loss is also intensified by the fact that The Wanderer also uses this word in ‘dreame bidrorene’, referring to rulers lying deprived of all joys, and used in that phrase it is a common motif for Old English elegiac poetry, communicating tragic bereavement and acknowledgement of transience. The homiletic ‘ubi sunt’ formula is also represented here, through lines 80-86.
‘Dagas sind gewitene, ealle onmedlan eorþan rices; nearon nu cyningas ne caseras ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron, þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal; dreamas sind gewitene.’
Although ‘ubi sunt’ was derived from Latin poetry, the lament for grander days here is expressed in terms with specific significance to an audience familiar with Germanic heroic poetry, especially the mention of ‘glorious deeds’ and ‘magnificent renown’. With this familiarity, The Seafarer makes the tale of a man alone in the harsh elements, separated from his past by literal distance and complete difference in circumstance, more relevant by reminding its audience that the familiar and grand alike fade away and become the inaccessible past.
The poet of The Wanderer also has another reference to a past he is not connected to, and which therefore is truly foreign to him: the phrase ‘eald enta geweorc’ (also present in another elegy from the Exeter Book, ‘The Ruin’) was used primarily to discuss the Roman ruins for which there was widespread Anglo-Saxon admiration, but could refer to any relic from an ancient culture. In the context of Line 87, the speaker of The Wanderer is imagining the modes of death its inhabitants met: destroyed by battle, torn apart by wolf, buried by another grieving warrior. Christine Fell argues that this implicitly Roman architecture and these universal rather than specific descriptions of death provide a contrast to the purposefully Anglo-Saxon rhetorical laments for the treasure-giver or the joys of the hall (in the already discussed ‘Hwær’ movement). The Roman past invokes thoughts on transience and mortality; the Anglo-Saxon specificity then forces the audience to apply those thoughts of the inadequate and earthly to the context of their culture. Another interpretation of the historical context is that the speaker of The Wanderer is now as distant from his own past as he is from a cultural one that he never experienced: the poem didactically advises that a man who stands in front of the ‘eald enta geweorc’ and wisely reflects upon it would recall far off a large number of slaughters (‘feor oft gemon wælsleahta worn’- the prominent placement of ‘feor’ after the caesura again highlighting his distance from his past). The vagueness around these slaughters implies that he is remembering both the battles he has actually experienced, and the battles of a long-gone civilization through communal memory; they are the same to him now, as he is so far from his own past.
Riedinger argued that Christianity in early medieval manuscript poetry complicates the theme of home, as the poets in both The Seafarer and The Wanderer treat it as an elusive object of desire due to the simultaneous longings for a secure home on earth and an eternal one beyond that. In both of these poems the comforting home of the past is left behind for their current exile, which could be seen as a path or pilgrimage to heaven; in The Seafarer specifically, Christianity’s presence appears to nullify or supplant the past. In lines 100-101 the poet describes how the gold gathered during someone’s time on earth would not help them if their soul is full of sins before God:
ne mæg bære sawle be bib synna ful gold to geoce for Godes egsan’.
The placement of ‘synna ful’ at the end of the line also juxtaposes it with ‘gold’, demonstrating through comparison the insignificance of earthly matters. The implication of God’s wrath upon facing a life that has been full of sin contradicts a complete rejection of the past, however; the previous lines have described loss through glory being brought low (‘Blæd is gehnæged’) and old age overtaking each man, stripping him of his friends of old (‘yldo him on fare’- the subject ‘yldo’ and verb ‘fare’ surrounding the object to convey the total defeat from every side). This loss of the world they knew, through old age and eventually death, would seem to make the past entirely irrelevant: the kingdom of heaven cannot be affected by what you gather materially on earth. This mention of sins being brought in front of God, on the other hand, demonstrates that while the possessions and people of your past are now relics of a foreign country, the contents of your soul remain blighted or blessed by your actions during life thereby making your past still relevant in the afterlife. Even if the practical luxuries of ‘ealle onmedlan eorban rices’ (all the pomp of the kingdoms of earth) fade away, the past and your actions matter as the speaker stresses the importance of a hypothetical man being ‘gewis werum, wisum claene’- reliable in his pledges and clean in his ways- in order to reach heaven. The man’s past actions define the kind of moral character he will present for judgement in the afterlife. This direct Christian admonition at the end provides context for the misery of exile to the elements described from the start; he is ultimately not concerned with the earthly matters those on the land enjoy, because none of that affects a path into heaven as only morality can.
The presentation of Christianity at the culmination of The Wanderer likewise affects how the speaker’s relationship to the past is presented. As Bjork argues, the poem works in an envelope pattern, developing the scale from personal experience to universal truths as its central speaker progresses from ‘anhaga’ or ‘eardstapa’ to ‘snottor on mode’ by sitting apart in secret meditation (‘sundor aet rune’) and accepting both the transience of earthly matters and the reality of his own fate. In this way, the Wanderer turns his hopeless, directionless exile of the Germanic tradition into a heaven-bound journey of Christian exile and derives hope from being separated from his past. This interpretation of the poem charting his acceptance of his past’s unattainability explains the journey from specific despair (the initial description of ‘eardstapa’ as ‘earfeþa gemyndig, wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre’ a triadic structure of absolute misery that intensifies in specificity by naming his miseries, the battles which caused him grief, and then the deaths of kinsmen as the reason battles caused him grief) to assurance that ‘it will be well for him’, which could be otherwise be read as contradictory. The acceptance of his fate could also, however, be seen purely as rejection of the past society he was a part of: rather than a serene acceptance of heaven as ultimately more important after meditation, the conclusion could be a decision to dismiss any connection to his past due to the pain it is causing him during his current exile. Even if this reaction would continue the bitter, grieving tone from earlier in the poem more cohesively, Bjork’s interpretation of a reasoned meditation on transience is probably correct as the conclusion is a sincere assertion of Christian ‘are’ or ‘mercy’, and it supports the theme of using even your painful past as experience (‘a share of winters’) to inform wisdom.
The concept of the past being a ‘foreign country’ evokes the idea of extreme separation; the current lives of these poems’ speakers are different enough from their past that the Wanderer sees the battles which stripped himself of his kinfolk as equivalent to those of an ancient civilization, and the Seafarer describes normal life on land as ‘dead’ and ‘transitory’ as he has found greater meaning in the idea of heaven. The actual absence of the past can be questioned in The Seafarer, however, as its focus on Christianity leads to acknowledgement of morality influencing judgement in the afterlife: your past actions remain even if the earthly results of them do not. In The Wanderer, also, the wisdom gained by the eponymous ‘eardstepa’ allows him to meditate and see the Christian hope inherent to his exile; his struggles constitute experience and therefore insight. In both cases, the spiritual ramifications of their past are not transient, even if the material ones are.
‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, in ‘Old and Middle English: An Anthology’, ed. Elaine Treharne (2000), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 42-53.
Carol Braun Pasternack, ‘Anonymous polyphony and The Wanderer’s textuality’, Anglo-Saxon England 20 (1991), 99-122.
Ida L. Gordan, ‘The Seafarer’, Oxford: Alden Press, (1979) 26.
Christine Fell, ‘Perceptions of transience’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature’, eds. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (1991), 172-189.
Anita R. Reidinger, “Home’ in ‘Old English Poetry’, NM96 (1995): 51-59.
Robert E. Bjork, ‘“Sundor aet rune”: the voluntary exile of the Wanderer’, Neophilologus 73 (1989), 119-129.
A Comparative Study on the Anglo-Saxon Values based on the Wanderer and the Seafarer
“The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are exact reflections of historical Anglo-Saxon life. They depict important Anglo-Saxon ideals and values. The Anglo-Saxon society was a great male-dominant, patriotic culture. All the tribes of that time shared common features like fierce allegiance to one’s land, value of reputation, martial values, and such. Most importantly, the revenge cycle or wergild, was a feature they strongly believed in and practiced. These features are highly evident in these elegies and in the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem, “Beowulf.” By comparing the three texts side by side, we can get a good sense of how such ideals were practiced in these tribes. Furthermore, by digging into the themes of isolation and exile, we can get a better understanding of how important kinship ties were, and how they shaped the society’s structure; especially in “Beowulf,” which conveys the importance of kin that can further explain the speakers’ conditions and hardships described in the two short poems.
Let’s start by taking a close look at “The Wanderer.” Written in the Exeter Book Elegies at around 1000 AD, “The Wanderer’s” subject matter concerns a warrior’s loss. It is a dramatic monologue about the speaker’s troubles and his great losses. From the beginning of the poem, we are informed about the speaker’s exile. The warrior is travelling alone under harsh cold weather. The winter season is when literally everything in nature is dead. Thus, it symbolizes his loneliness, since everyone he knew had passed away. “Ever since long ago I hid my gold-giving friend in the darkness of earth and went wretched, winter-sad, over the ice-lock waves,” (lines 22- 24); the second part of the quote emphasizes this relationship between loneliness and weather conditions. The imagery is concrete and we feel the tension emphasized by words like “ice-locked waves” and “winter-sad”; they reflect the speaker’s mental state and his sorrow due to being away from the warmth he enjoyed back in his homeland.
On the other hand, the first part of the quote shifts our attention to a past event the speaker is retelling. His “gold-giving friend” is apparently his lord or king. It seems that his king had died perhaps in battle, but instead of dying beside him a noble death, the warrior has to suffer a shameful isolation –here the ideals of the Anglo-Saxon society emerge. The term “gold-giving” portrays the ethics of a king towards his warriors, who is expected to reward his retainers after serving him in battle i.e. it is a reciprocal loyalty. We are reminded of this ideal later in “Beowulf,” in Hrothgar’s speech to Beowulf. Furthermore, if the king dies, it was expected of his warriors to avenge his death. This takes us back to the wergild motif I mentioned earlier. The fact that this warrior perhaps hadn’t avenged his king, only adds more to his sorrows.
The more the warrior contemplates on his dear kinsmen, the mead hall, and his lord, the harder his isolation becomes. Hence, his isolation is not only physical, but mental and emotional as well. This idea makes us think about the importance of kinship ties to this society. A warrior without kin is like a man without an identity. In this society, a man is measured by his kinship ties, heroism, generosity, and role in the community. Without these, he is considered unstable. Thus, evidently the speaker is longing for stability. He is longing to become a part of a community again. Because as long as he is in exile, he has no identity and consequently he has no reason to live in this world.
Similarly, “The Seafarer” describes the hardships one experiences in solitude. Physical distress and anguish is greatly stressed in this poem. The speaker is again, suffering cold weather in the sea, physically and mentally; “Pinched with cold were my feet, bound by frost in cold fetters, while cares seethed hot around my heart, hunger tore from within my sea-wary mind,” (lines 8-12). Vivid imagery of binding, frost, and cold waves makes its way into this poem. As we read more, we become more sympathetic with the speaker. He evokes pessimistic feelings, as we feel like we are in his place, for when he talks about his own distress he shifts his tone and starts addressing the struggles of human life when he says, “Always, for everyone, one of the three things hangs in the balance before its due time: illness or age or attack by the sword wrests life away from one doomed to die,” (lines 68-71). In other words, every man dies including you, no one is immune to death.
However, he later points out that with your reputation, you can leave something of you to be remembered by as this is the best of praise. He refers to “gold-givers” (a term also seen in “The Wanderer”) as examples of people who did “glorious deeds and lived in most lordly fame,” (lines 84-85). Again, this relates to the important values this culture holds dear, which also stresses the importance of one’s ties and what one leaves behind. Even by simply having a son or a successor, your name can continue to live and thus your reputation. This is something that is highly valued among the Anglo-Saxons, which Beowulf unfortunately lacks.
While the speaker of “The Seafarer” is like “The Wanderer,” looking for stability, “The Seafarer” shifts from being a sea voyage to a more spiritual one. So perhaps for the seafarer, stability lies within religion. In fact, the speaker eventually describes this earth as being a temporary place and this we can all relate to since we will all eventually die. Nevertheless, they both portray themes of isolation and loneliness quite explicitly.
With this in mind, we can shift our attention to how “Beowulf” portrays ideals explained earlier. For the most part, “Beowulf” is a poem that emphasizes martial values and heroism. We see in “Beowulf” the importance of the revenge cycle and how it ties to having kin or successors. There’s a dynastic theme which is crucial to Beowulf’s kingdom, thus we can definitely agree on how important the kinship role plays in this culture. If one wants to understand the backgrounds of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” one must simply read “Beowulf” since it addresses the issues and values related to this culture, which they all share in common.
Hrothgrar’s speech, for instance, in lines 1687-1784 illustrates these values and validates what I said earlier about kinship ties and how important they are, since they are the foundation of these Anglo-Saxon tribes. In his speech, he praises Beowulf for his goodness and contrasts him with Heremod who suffered because he lacked the characteristics expected from a king. “No rings did he give to the Danes for their honor,” (lines 1719-20); again this notion of “gold-giver” is noted here. In general, the king must be loyal and must give to his people and as a result, his warriors must have heroic qualities. Thus, the survival of these standards is crucial to maintaining some social stability within these tribes.
Moreover, Hrothgar continues by advising Beowulf to learn from Heremod. “For your sake I have told this, in the wisdom of my winters,” (lines 1724-25), a line that echoes what the speaker says in “The Wanderer:” “A man cannot become wise, before he has weathered his share of winters in this world,” (lines 64-5). In other words, one should have his share of struggles and experience a whole lot of winter (grow old), before one can truly become wise. Indeed, Beowulf realizes that, when he becomes old and rules the kingdom without an heir. He realizes that his position is not a very favorable position to be in, when one wants to rule and continue his legacy.
This takes me to the notion of instability and how it affects Beowulf’s people. Grendel, for instance, though an outcast, does have someone to avenge his death at first. We see Grendel’s mother practicing the ideals of the society by going back to Hrothgar’s hall to avenge her son’s death. However, Grendel himself does not have off-springs, thus he has no one to continue his dynasty. Likewise, Beowulf lacks a successor. Although his kinsmen respect and serve him well, Beowulf does not have a kin of his own to carry his name. This jeopardizes his people after his death, as this makes them vulnerable to outside attacks. Therefore, the importance of keeping a stable society is something that Beowulf fails to accomplish.
And so, in brief, by looking at these texts and by understanding how human connections are interconnected with one’s character and role, we get a good picture of how these Anglo-Saxons survived. “The Seafarer” does tell us that one must leave a good reputation about himself after his death, which Beowulf accomplishes to do. However, “The Wanderer” reminds us of how important kinsmen are to one’s identity and one’s place in society and that is something Beowulf does not fulfill completely. These are rather challenging standards that these Germanic tribes had to conform to, but only by understanding these values and ideals can we begin to grasp the themes of isolation, exile and loneliness in these Old English texts.
A Literary Study on the Anglo-Saxon Poetry Features and Styles based on The Wanderer and The Seafarer
Anglo-Saxon poetry is most known for its regard to the timely darkness of the world they were written in. Both from the Anglo-Saxon period, “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” exhibit strong characteristics of literature of the time. Accompanied by a strong relationship in theme and purpose of the two poems, the tones of the narrators create polarity that distinguishes “The Wanderer” from “The Seafarer.”
“The Wanderer” begins with a strong impression of a melancholy tone perceived by the reader as he begins to tell his story as an exile, living in near solitude and helplessness. He describes his situation: “No one knew me now, no one offered comfort, allowed me feasting or joy.” It is obvious through this passage that his conflict is interpersonal—he is not with anybody who will offer him what he once would never have to ask for. Believing that the world was corrupt because of these on-land struggles, his tone becomes dark and his words spit hatred of evolving times when “warmth is dead.”
However, the same idea of the unwelcoming feeling the land its inhabitants bear is presented in “The Seafarer,” only the narrator takes on the situation with what can only be described as a passion. The narrator essentially finds a way out and utilizes the sea as an escape. Though his narration is riddled with complaints of hunger, chill, and lack of shelter, the seafarer prefers the hardships of home at sea than on land, in a world he claims is “blown clear of love.” The seafarer faces the internal conflict of where he should be—in the desolate, roaring waters or in a social environment on land. He also mentions the changing of times and how the world has “bent like the men who mold it,” which is further incentive for the narrator’s preference to the sea. His picture of the sea is that of a potential journey, which essentially would make the journey worth any turmoil.
The main difference in tone comes from the narrators’ perspectives. Where the wanderer is left without any choice but to live as an outcast, the seafarer chooses to outcast himself. Because the wanderer is in this position, the telling of his conflict reflects the emotion behind loneliness, rejection, and lack of direction. The seafarer, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is putting himself through and chooses the tumultuous life at sea because he is seeking journey and adventure, which he feels is not available to him on land.
At points in both poems, there is both a sense of hopelessness and of hope. There is a theme that corruption lies in society, and the people—lords and rulers in particular—are no longer at the aid of people or peers. The wanderer is an exile and the seafarer is urged into solitude due to this corruption. Thematically, faith also plays a large role as both the wanderer and seafarer believe God is a rock in a shaken society. While the wanderer has nowhere to go and nobody left to accept him, he places his faith in God to lead him and assure him everything will piece together. For the seafarer and his conflict, his solitude will not become a problem in reaching spiritual achievement because God is stable despite the rough seas of his life. The idea of God being hope is prevalent in both. Christianity is a single light that shines in the dark Anglo-Saxon age, and is mentioned in both “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.”
This presence of faith intertwined with the dark settings presented relate both poems to common characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry, one characteristic being the presence of war and turmoil, both which appear in “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” The prominent purpose of the poems is to detail these struggles and conflicts found within the narration, including the struggle of changing social philosophies and a lack of growth through experience. Both narrators reference to a decline from what was a “golden age” of rulers and emperors to a world where only the strong survive; the ability to accept this change in social morals is an ongoing challenge. Both speakers have also realized the impact of life experience after gaining knowledge of life as a result of their situations; the wanderer understands what makes a man wise, while the seafarer comes to realize that his permanent home will be in Heaven, away from the dying world. These growths were brought on by experiences both good and bad, which the wanderer and the seafarer feel there is a severe lack of among people who choose to only live in comfort.
No two works of literature can be exactly the same, but “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” draw some very similar parallels in terms of theme and purpose that directly relate them to the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is the subtle differences in the general tones of the speakers that separate these two poems into their own identities, but within the same category of elegiac Anglo-Saxon poetry.