The Two Voices of the Seafarer





The Two Voices of The Seafarer

There is much argument in the literary field as to whether there is more than one speaker in the Old English poem The Seafarer. In this brief essay we will look at some of the previous criticisms of the last two centuries, and through them attempt to prove that the speaker of the poem is the same one throughout.
The author of The Seafarer is unknown. Its manuscript is untitled and unique, and is thought to have been inscribed around 975 AD. It survives on four pages of the Exeter Anthology which was given to the Exeter Cathedral in England, by the Archbishop Leofric, who died in 1072 AD.
The Seafarer is a poem about an Anglo-Saxon man who, having apparently been banished from his home, has taken to the sea. John Pope, one of the foremost critics of the poem, postulated, and it is now generally accepted, that it is composed of three parts. Part A1, covering lines 1 through 33a, is believed to be the story of an inexperienced young sailor who tells of his hardships at sea. Part A2, lines 33b to 64a or 66a, and part B, 64b or 66b through 124, is told by an eager young sailor who loves the sea. An epilogue is usually believed to be contained in lines 103 through 124 (Pope, 177). Jove Pope’s greatest critical adversary, Stanley Greenfield, believed that A1 is details a voyage the speaker was forced to undergo, and that the purpose of A2 is to emphasize the speakers choice to undertake a current journey (Greenfield, 107).
The poem begins by telling us of how the young seafarer has “often suffered times of hardship / and have experienced / bitter anxiety.” He is journeying into a world of loneliness and a destiny away from his comitatus, his meadhall, and his lord. At times he despises his life at sea: “Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost / In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot / About my heart, and hunger from within / Tore the sea-weary spirit...” (The Seafarer, Line 8). At others, he celebrates it: “...Even now my heart / Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts / Over the sea, across the whale\'s domain, / Travel afar the regions of the earth, / And then come back to me with greed and longing. / The cuckoo cries, incites the eager breast / On to the whale’s roads irresistibly, / Over the wide expanses of the sea,” (The Seafarer, Line 58).
In Anglo-Saxon society a warrior believed in lof: he received glory by his valor in battle; his accomplishments in life. If his deeds were sufficiently notable his name would live on long after he died, granting him immortality. The Seafarer believes that “Sickness, old age, the sword, each one of these/ May end the lives of doomed and transient men. / Therefore for every warrior the best / Memorial is the praise of living men ” (The Seafarer, Line 68).
Halfway through the poem we see a drastic turn. Part A has mentioned almost nothing spiritual, only speaking of the hard life of a man who lives at sea. In the beginning of part B, in line 64b, however, he changes his thus far Anglo-Saxon tone to that of a pious Christian: “Because the joys of God mean more to me / Than this dead transitory life on land.”
The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England was relatively quick. It went from a culture which had a comitatus conscience to one that was dominated by an individual, Christian conscience. Even during his musings on God, the speaker still laments “The singing gull instead of mead in hall” (The Seafarer, 23), the loss of “dear friends,” (The Seafarer, 15), and the lord he once had. At times it seems like the poet is attempting to reconcile the tensions between the two different cultures.
In one of the first know criticisms of the poem, Max Rieger in 1869 postulated that the poem is of one writer and speaks of a dialogue between two individuals; an eager young sailor and an older more cautious one (Rieger, 313). He believed that the poem is