from Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930
acknowledgement omitted from later editions



This page has probably been prompted by the two readers' reviews of Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea, written as long ago as 1999. A recent return visit to that paper has also caused me to dig out some more references to ambiguity in The Seafarer. Sensibly cloaked in anonymity, the two readers, ill-read and uncultured, were presumably unaware of each other's identity, but I have somehow come to think of them as a linked pair: Tweedledum and Tweedledummer. These gentlemen --- for it is difficult to suppose that judgements quite as crass as theirs could have been expressed by women --- must also have been North Americans. I have a feeling they might have been Canadian, but cannot be sure. Casting around for something useful to say about their observations, and dipping into A Survey of Modernist Poetry, by Riding and Graves, 1928 edition, the following phrase, page 215, leapt out at me: "bigoted inefficiency of criticism"

The second reader, who otherwise seemed marginally less educationally challenged than the first, nevertheless came up with a truly asinine remark, as follows: "Although the paper teeters on the edge of a speculative abyss, I get the sense that it somehow manages to keep its footing (with the exception of the comment that the Anglo-Saxon poet wrote with an "Empsonian ambiguity"; how ahead of his time!)." Empson's landmark Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930, is one the few studies to reveal the workings of genuine poetry, of any age. Many of the essay's points touched on in connection with The Seafarer are explored further in other pages on this site.

Everyone's affected by what psychologists call “confirmation bias” – the tendency to notice evidence that supports a pre-existing belief but ignore information which contradicts it. So people tend to think forecasters always get it wrong because they forget the thousands of correct forecasts and remember the incorrect one.

"The duality of interpretation proposed for the projected voyage in The Seafarer has its counterparts not only in the ambivalence of attitude expressed by the speaker toward that peregrination in the passage itself, but in a deliberate ambiguity of diction throughout the poem." P 156, The Old English Elegies, Greenfield, 1966.

It is advisable to keep in mind the Seafarer poet's mastery of his art, for his work is suffused in Empsonian ambiguity. Many of his words carry multiple meanings and his text can be seamlessly fluid. The adjectival gifre ond grædig is unattached: the phrase works both backwards and forwards, and can be taken as referring to any of several preceding substantives, as well as to the anfloga. Scholars and translators alike have interpreted the anfloga as, variously, the cuckoo (highly improbable), the sea-eagle (unlikely), or the seafarer's hyge, modsefa, or hreþer, ie his disembodied "spirit", which supposedly leaves him shortly before his death and then supposedly returns to goad him. While some (Glosecki) believe that there is a shamanistic subtext to this phase of the poem, it is, if present at all, heavily veiled and alludes to an obsolete or obsolescent pagan past. The Lapps, or Sami, are probably the most recently Christianized territorial Europeans. In Lapp Life and Customs, Vorren and Manker mention the need of a person "beset by dangers" to be able to search "beyond those things one had the ability to comprehend, to enter into the spirit world, to the gods. This was achieved in the transcendent state of ecstasy. The magic drum was the instrument used to help one to achieve this ecstatic state." (121).

Here are some comments from Shippey, Old English Verse, 1972, that could be profitably explored. "The Seafarer contains several problems ..... all of them contribute, some might think deliberately, to make it a poem of considerable ambiguity." p 68. "Wisdom grows out of experience alone ..... the poet can rely on the very looseness of much Old English verse." p. 70. "Even his vocabulary shows signs of deliberate ambiguity." p. 71. These remarks seem a cut above what is otherwise turned out by the Anglo-Saxon faculty.

Here's a quote from p.58: of A Little Book of The Green Man by Mike Harding; Aurum Press 1998. "The movement of skilled craftsmen across Europe and Africa [add Asia] may have been far more widespread than we imagine, and cultural artefacts, as part of trade and warfare, moved great distances." Harding freely lumps cultures, art and imagination together: see Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea.

Familiarity is recommended with Professor S.B.Greenfield's remark (in The Old English Elegies, an essay in Continuations and Beginnings, Nelson 1966: "...the Seafarer poet approaches a more complex Empsonian type of ambiguity in his use of equal and opposite semantic values of the same word to underline ambivalences in attitudes and levels of meaning", Page 158 .

Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson, Published by Chatto & Windus, London (1956). A critical examination of English Literature, and in particular of English Poetry, analysing the effects which may be obtained, deliberately or unconsciously, through the use of ambiguity.

Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea

"Who has ever been able to explain" asked Robert Graves, "what theme is poetic and what is unpoetic, except by the effect that it has on the reader?" (TWG 21). He amplified his answer by citing the Welsh poet, Alun Lewis, an infantry officer in British India during World War II, who not long before his death in 1944 had written to his wife of "the single poetic theme of Life and Death, for there doesn't seem to be any question more directly relevant than this one, of what survives of all the beloved". Lewis was reflecting on a "death-sick" soldier whose own wife had been killed in an air raid, and he went on to speak of "the coldness of Death … and the fire that beats against resignation, acceptance. Acceptance seems so spiritless, protest so vain." (Hooker 108). To which Graves added that "perfect faithfulness to the Theme affects the reader of a poem with a strange feeling, between delight and horror…"

Death is our only certainty, Benjamin Franklin's bon mot notwithstanding, and the theme of what, if anything, can survive Death is a motif in the compositions of poets and thinkers of all times. This essay seeks to touch lightly on this topic, and on some of the images that have accompanied it for the last four millenia: Life as a journey, or voyage, and Death as a sea-passage to "the undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns". (Hamlet 3.1.56). My springboard is the Anglo-Saxon poem called The Seafarer (Chambers, Förster, Flower); and I will try to indicate how the concepts that inform this subtle work find precedent and echo in other poetry, from the earliest we know, up to the ending of our present millenium.

The only extant manuscript of The Seafarer was inscribed within about five years of 975 AD, according to all credible estimates. Anglo-Saxon, called englisc by its speakers, is a language of compounds, as are its related Indo-European tongues, but we may say that the poem consists of 790 words, which modern editors present in 124 lines of unrhymed, alliterative, and strongly rhythmic yet constantly varying verse. Since its introduction to modern readership by the English scholar Benjamin Thorpe, who published his Codex Exoniensis … with English Translation and Notes in 1842, it has been translated well over 60 times, into at least five languages, and has generated perhaps a million words of learned comment. Superficially simple, it is a work of fathomless depth; and to think of the society that created this sophisticated masterpiece as in any sense primitive or rudimentary is to be guilty of gross error; see Max Dimont.

Like the Anglo-Saxon line of verse itself, the poem divides into two strictly measured halves, and its central section, which has engaged linguistic and literary critics for the last 150 years, acts as the caesura which both joins and separates these halves. The first part is realistic, strenuous, personal and specific, and vividly evokes the speaker's life of solitude, cold, and arduous toil at sea. The second half is reflective, impersonal, and philosophic. The rigours of the seafaring life, the inequities of man's experience, the onset of winter night, and the unrelenting cycle of the seasons, are reduced to insignificance by contemplation of the infinity of creation and the eternity of time. Yet throughout the poet's shifting moods there is an insistent sense of his longing for survival, beyond his last voyage, into another world. After an atavistic and conventionally heroic response to human mortality, and a resolve to slay the evils that beset him, his mood modulates from inner turmoil to a formulaic quietus, with a final expression of faith in a life to come. It is worth noting that this coda of acceptance struck many early critics as spiritless, and even spurious.

Dr Samuel Kramer, whose middle name was Noah, entitled his seminal study of the past: History begins at Sumer. Literature therefore also begins at Sumer, notably with the Epic of Gilgamesh, on which Kramer commented that : "Its motivating theme, man's anxiety about death and its sublimation in the notion of an immortal name, has a universal significance that lends it high poetic value." (174). The epic's origins can be traced back to 1,700 BC, and probably much further; and it tells of Gilgamesh, king and citizen of Uruk, and Enkidu, the hairy wild man, perhaps a vestigial Neanderthaler (Renault), who lives among the animals. Enkidu is tamed by a woman of the city, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu then join forces and engage in heroic adventures as comrades-in-arms. Their hubris attracts the displeasure of the Gods, and Enkidu is singled out for death. A terrifying passage describes the trance-like dream and premonition of Enkidu, here quoted from the (slightly edited) prose interpretation of Nancy Sandars: "I stood alone before an aweful being. His face was sombre, like the black bird of the storm. He fell upon me with the talons of an eagle and he held me fast, pinioned with his claw, until I smothered. Then he transformed me so that my arms became wings covered with feathers, and led me away to the Hall of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no turning back. There the people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds, with wings for covering, they see no light. I entered the house of dust and saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away for ever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old." (89). The horrific fascination exerted by this excerpt is attested by its virtually verbatim repetition in The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, and Nergal and Ereshkigal, two other Mesopotamian poems. (Dalley 155, 168).

Gilgamesh grieves deeply over the death of Enkidu, which has awakened his apprehension of his own mortality. He embarks on a quest for eternal life, and in so doing becomes, as Andrew George remarks, the first man to discover the technique "of sailing an ocean-going craft". (xiv). On a distant island over the ocean he finds the flower of immortality. But on his return, in a moment of inattention, a snake steals the flower from him, and his fate is to die like other men; although his name would be remembered. The tale of Gilgamesh was known to cultured readers in the Near and Middle East for many centuries.

It has seemed to me that certain elements in this ancient account of the human condition resonate through The Seafarer, and may help to unravel some of its nameless poet's subtext, which has so fully occupied the attentions of its many commentators. First in this, apart from the fundamental theme itself, is the image of the transformation of the dead and dying into shadowy creatures with wings --- oddly, it may be thought, in view of their dark abode and grimy diet. Wings have sprouted on both angels and devils, in fact on most beings that move between this world and the other, ever since. A feature of the first part of The Seafarer is the presence of a variety of birds, whose significance is emphatic but obscure. In the context these are naturally almost all birds of the coast or sea, and can reasonably be identified as the gannet, curlew, herring-gull, whooper swan, the arctic or common tern, and the sea-eagle, or osprey. It is implicit that the company of these birds, the seafarer's sole amusement, has replaced the vanished pleasures and benchmates of the Anglo-Saxon mead-hall. It is also an age-old staple of coastal folklore that sea-birds are the souls of seamen dead and gone. In his 1902 poem Sea-Change the poet John Masefield expressed this superstition:

"Goneys an' gullies an' all o' the birds o' the sea
They ain't no birds, not really," said Billy the Dane.
"Not mollies, not gullies, nor goneys at all," said he,
"But simply the sperrits of mariners livin' again.

"Them birds goin' fishin' is nothin' but souls o' the drowned,
Souls o' the drowned an' the kicked as are never no more."

But the role of birds in sea-lore, and in the wider mythology of cultures of all corners of our globe, including the Americas (Merriam 220) and the Far East, is multiple and complex. "For the ancient Greeks all birds were ominous and the word "bird" itself was synonymous with omen, as Aristophanes says", notes John Pollard in Birds in Greek Life and Myth. (116). "The bird who appears out of a distant sky has always been a messenger of wonder as the visible incarnation of the invisible world," remark Baring and Cashford, in a section of their study, The Myth of the Goddess, headed The Goddess as Bird. (13). In Homer's Odyssey, which springs to mind as the most obvious instance of man's life as a sea-voyage, (and which Samuel Butler believed to have been written by a woman) there is an example of a sea-bird appearing as a minor goddess: "Ino ….. who was once a woman ..... lived in the salt depths of the sea .… She took pity on the forlorn and woebegone Odysseus, rose from the water like a sea-mew on the wing, and settled on his boat." She gives Odysseus her enchanted veil, which ensures his survival; then "like a mew she dived back into the turbulent sea and the dark waters swallowed her up." (Rieu 97).

In their ornithological metamorphoses men would keep the pecking order they had on earth. "The souls of lesser men", wrote Graves, "might fly off in the form of white birds ….. but a sacred king’s soul had the wings of an eagle or royal gryphon." (TWG 318). The greater and more mighty a hero on earth, the more ferocious and predatory the bird species he would inhabit after death. "According to Plato, Agamemnon chose to be reincarnated as an eagle", notes Pollard again, who also remarks that " the eagle on Plato's tomb described itself as an image of the philosopher's soul." (167). Ultimately, as seen in the passage from Gilgamesh, the most terrifying of these raptors --- and it is accepted that the birds of today descend directly from the dinosaurs of the Jurassic --- may appear as an emissary of the gods themselves, most often bearing, and executing, a death-summons. Not until the imagery of the Christian Trinity can the Holy Ghost be envisioned in the more fittingly benign form of a white dove.

While it is impossible here to do full justice to the rich proliferation of birds, typically hawks, falcons, kites and vultures, but also many other kinds, including the legendary and immortal phoenix, which pervades the mythology and iconography of Mesopotamia's neighbour, Ancient Egypt, and other eastern civilisations, it is appropriate to dwell a little on this apparently deep-rooted dual human concept of both the Soul, and Death or its messenger, either as a bird or some other winged apparition, however dimly perceived.

In 1899 the prolific Egyptologist, and Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum, E.A.Wallis Budge, listed the elements which the Egyptian had formulated as "the component parts of his own body", and which should be considered "before we can describe the form in which the dead were believed to rise." (163). These were the Khat, a man's physical body; the Ka, his "double"; the Ba, his soul --- "frequently depicted on the papyri and monuments as a human-headed hawk"; the Ab, his heart; the Khu, his spirit or spiritual intelligence; the Sekhem, his "power"; his Khaibat, or shadow; and finally his Ren, or name. A hundred years later Barbara Watterson reduces these eight to two: the Ka and the Ba, but she adds another: the Akh, "a glorified spirit". (Perhaps the Akh is the same as the Khu.) "The Ka", she writes, "lived in the body until the moment of death, when it divided into two – into a bird (the Akh) which flew to the Afterlife where it turned back into the Ka; and into a human-headed bird, the Ba, which stayed behind on earth living in the dead body left behind by the Akh." (67).

Any definitive elucidation of Egyptian concepts of the afterlife is notoriously elusive. The components of the Anglo-Saxon's non-corporeal identity are less complex, but still multiple. The poem mentions his hyge, commonly translated as "mind" or "spirit" but which I would rather see rendered as "desire"; his mod, sefa and modsefa, all glossed as "heart, mind, spirit"; his sawle, "soul", a word occuring in the second half of the poem, which is more clearly influenced by the literature of Christianity. "Behind the word soul lies the ancient notion of the soul as something fleeting or mercurial", writes John Ayto, "for its prehistoric Germanic ancestor, *saiwalō, was related to Greek aiólos "quick-moving". Ayto's use of the term mercurial is well-founded, for Mercury, or Hermes, with his winged cap and sandals, was the messenger of the gods, and "the mediator between the human mind and the divine wisdom". (Radice). His counterpart in the Egyptian pantheon was Thoth; in the Germanic, Óðínn. Thoth would later re-incarnate as Hermes Trismegistos, in the fifteenth century rediscovery of Neo-Platonism. Tacitus noted of the Germans that "above all gods they worship Mercury" (G.9), ie Wōden or Wodan or Wuotan or Óðínn.

Finally in The Seafarer we have the hreþer, which, while he remains on earth, belongs in the mariner's hreþerloca, a word that might be suitably rendered here as "chest" or "rib-cage". Hreþer is usually translated simply as "heart" (again), but a better word might be "wraith", a brief dictionary definition of which is given as: "Scotch. Orig. doubtful. An apparition of one about to die or newly dead." (Blackie).

When I broached this topic in 1995, one of my listeners expressed doubt about the legitimacy of linking the concepts of ancient Greek, Egyptian or Sumerian eschatology with those of tenth century Anglo-Saxon England. But the more one paddles in these waters the more one comes to respect the extent to which the traffic of the pre-Christian world in intellectual matters, as much as in goods, was wholesale and continuous. The Seafarer poet, as already implied, was a learned man. Anglo-Saxon verse, certainly by the time the poem was inscribed, was already archaic and backward-looking, partly perhaps because of apprehension at the close of the first millenium, intensified by fears that with the depredations of its pagan cousins from Scandinavia, the society's culture was doomed. In fact it was effectively ended less than a century later, though its final demise was to be sealed by the Christian Norman-French. It is noted by scholars such as Ida Gordon and Sam Newton (11) that much of this verse "is composite, in the sense that it draws freely on a common poetic stock" (Gordon 2); to which I would add, and on a common intercultural heritage.

In The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a major, and to my mind highly convincing, study published in 1957-59, the English scholar G.V.Smithers, in speaking of the "ship-graves, Bronze Age rock-drawings and the petroglyphs on memorial stones of the Viking Age", observed that these attest for "a belief that at death a man makes a journey over the sea, whether in a ship of the sun, or one designed to accompany that of the sun, or to take him to the abode of the sun in the South (in which direction most of the ship-graves face), or in a ship of the dead. The clear evidence for a comparable conception in ancient Egypt is at least a parallel; and those modern scholars who boggle at it as support for the latter interpretation of the Scandinavian material do so mainly because they object to the use of parallels from remote areas and times." (28; 101). It was noted at the same time, by V.Gordon Childe in The Prehistory of European Society, that "The Celtic saints were inspired by a faith that had originated in the Eastern Mediterranean .... the special version of that faith …. while owing much to Egyptian hermits, is believed to have assumed its distinctive form in the Western Mediterranean or more precisely in South France." (129). John Marsden, thirty-five years later, seems to favour a more direct route: "Christianity had reached the Celts of Hibernia long before Patrick came to Armagh. Whether it had first arrived by way of the Roman province of Britannia, aboard the wineships from Gaul, or even --- on the enigmatic evidence of Egyptian holy men in the west of Ireland --- directly from the Holy Land itself, is unknown, but the Irish church is certainly of the greatest antiquity, reflecting the spirituality of the pagan Celts no less than the influence of the earliest Christian fathers." (11).

An earlier alternative route to the north is suggested by Christopher Hawkes, discussing Bronze Age burial-customs in Jutland and elsewhere in his Prehistoric Foundations of Europe: "It is probable that the coffin originally represented a dug-out boat, and that the idea of a voyage by water to the next world, … is here to be recognised at its first beginning, inspired, it may well be, ultimately from Egypt through the Baltic connexions with the South now passing along the Amber Route." (366). Andrew Rugg-Gunn, in Osiris and Odin, maps out the Amber Route precisely (110). In The Road to Hel Hilda Ellis-Davidson also remarked that "a fertility religion connected with the worship of the sun, and possibly including … the conception of rebirth … can be seen fully developed in the art and religion of Egypt, and seems to have travelled northward to reach Scandinavia during the Bronze Age … the ship evidently played an important part, for it is shown continually, sometimes together with wheels and sun-discs …." (25). The consensus is that Egyptian eschatology, including sun-worship in association with the ship of death --- each no doubt linked with the astral observations attendant upon navigation through both watery and desert wastes --- came to the north by various routes; or, indeed, given the antiquity of Stonehenge, and the evidence of Herodotus for northern links with the cult of Apollo on Delos (Cummins 35-41), that the traffic was two-way.

During the 4,000 year literary period which this essay is attempting to skim, the emphasis on the means by which the dead are transported to the other world shifts gradually from a winged creature, of decreasingly monstrous aspect, to the sea-going ship. Both concepts are nonetheless continuously in evidence throughout and beyond this span. Pictures of sea-craft appear on funerary urns in Egypt from the 4th millenium BC; and the ship as bird, and on occasion vice versa --- wings can be thought of as sails --- has been a stock simile in the mouths of poets for at least a thousand years. The Beowulf poet pictures the foam-throated ship which carries Beowulf and his companions to their first adventure as breasting the waves, fugle gelīcost, "most like a bird" (Klaeber l.218). Tennyson, many of whose poems evoke the sea, describes how "a pinnace, like a flutter'd bird, came flying from far away" (470); and in H.E.Boulton's Skye Boat Song, the ship of Prince Charles Edward's salvation is urged to "Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing". But before turning to the links between ships, the sea, the sun, and man's last voyage, we have not yet finished with the birds and their other-worldly associations.

In an account entitled The Horus Myth in its relation to Christianity, a nineteenth century writer, W.R.Cooper, enlarges on the transformations experienced by the dead Egyptian: "a curious and completely inexplicable series of metempsychoses, in which the soul is changed into the form of a hawk, emblematic of Horus Ra, ….. into a sacred heron, whose residence is on the boughs of the tree of life, into a crane, into a human-headed bird, a swallow, in which latter form he makes this most remarkable declaration: ‘O, great one, I have dissipated my sins, I have destroyed my failings, for I have got rid of the sins which detained me upon earth’" (28-30). These sins appear to be shed in the form of a snake, which is commonly observed repeatedly to shuffle off its mortal coil. The etymology of "sin" is of interest, for it is thought by some to be cognate with German sein, "to be" (Skeat; Wessén), and the implication is that our very existence is intrinsically sinful: our sin is truly original for it begins as soon as we are made flesh, and only when we totally cease to exist can we be rid of sin. The materialistic man is warned by the Seafarer poet that gold will not help the soul of him who is synna ful when he meets his awesome God.

Cooper describes how "the deceased then traverses the dwellings of Thoth, who …. gives him his final instructions before he crosses over the eternal waters … and across which he has to be ferried amidst horrible beings which encircle his way, and leap about, crawl over, and try to upset the vessel…. a false boatman …. endeavours to seduce him into a wrong boat ... At last the real bark of the souls arrives, and, joyful at the sight, the Osirian exclaims, ‘I go to pass from earth to heaven.’" The voyager is well advised not to rock the boat, for the devils would drag him under.

The initial catalogue of birds in The Seafarer ends with the call of a screaming erne, or sea-eagle: full oft þæt earn begeal, its feathers dripping from the sea. The scene that the poet has conjured up, with the utmost verbal economy, is not unreminiscent of a passage in William Blake's Jerusalem (Bentley 627):

The weeds of Death inwrap his hands & feet, blown incessant
And washd incessant by the for-ever restless sea-waves foaming abroad
Upon the white Rock. …………………..

Over them the famishd Eagle screams on boney Wings, and around
Them howls the Wolf of famine; deep heaves the Ocean black.......

The only other bird mentioned by name in The Seafarer is the cuckoo, an unexpected intruder into the marine environment. It has been suggested by British scholars "that such a feature as the cuckoo as a bird of lament comes from …. Welsh tradition" (Gordon 31), but there may be some Celtic parochialism in this assertion, which although substantiated is perhaps too confidently localised. Cuckoos can occur in folk poetry elsewhere. A troubadour of sea-shanties in Sweden, Evert Taube, incorporated an element of cuckoo folk-lore into a song of the 1930s, where the cuckoo is seen as a bird of ambiguous omen according to which point of the compass its plaintive voice is heard from. The cuckoo of the south is the cuckoo of death; the bird is a congenital trickster and deceiver.

We then come to The Seafarer's climactic central section, the poem's caesura, where, in line 62:

gifre ond grædig gielleð anfloga

"Eager and greedy, yells the ?" Yells the what exactly? This anfloga is the last flying object to feature in the poem, but its precise nature remains inscrutably unidentified. Critical to the dispute which has raged around its identity is the force of the prefix an- . While -floga can be confidently interpreted as "flier", does an- mean "one-", or "on-"? Mistakenly, in my view, the majority of scholars and translators have settled for "one-", and read the word as "the lone flier". Much more probable, it seems to me, is the reading "on-flier", for the prefix an- predominantly implies, in most Germanic languages, the sense of something approaching; and these languages do not exclude Modern English, as witness such current words as "oncoming", "onrush" and, most aptly, "onslaught". G.V.Smithers, in the article quoted, says exactly this. (28; 20). He also remarks that "it seems conceivable that the anfloga designates a creature of some such type as the valkyrie". (28; 22). Personally I see it not only as the Nordic valkyrie, or the Anglo-Saxon wælcyrige, or the Celtic banshee, but as the direct descendant of Enkidu's awe-inducing visitor.

It is advisable to keep in mind the Seafarer poet's mastery of his art, for his work is suffused in Empsonian ambiguity. Many of his words carry multiple meanings and his text can be seamlessly fluid. The adjectival gifre ond grædig is unattached: the phrase works both backwards and forwards, and can be taken as referring to any of several preceding substantives, as well as to the anfloga. Scholars and translators alike have interpreted the anfloga as, variously, the cuckoo (highly improbable), the sea-eagle (unlikely), or the seafarer's hyge, modsefa, or hreþer, ie his disembodied "spirit", which leaves him shortly before his death and then returns to goad him. While there is undoubtedly a shamanistic subtext to this phase of the poem, (Glosecki), it is somewhat veiled and alludes to an obsolescent pagan past. The Lapps, or Sami, are probably the most recently Christianized territorial Europeans. In Lapp Life and Customs, Vorren and Manker mention the need of a person "beset by dangers" to be able to search "beyond those things one had the ability to comprehend, to enter into the spirit world, to the gods. This was achieved in the transcendent state of ecstasy. The magic drum was the instrument used to help one to achieve this ecstatic state." (121).

The shaman's drum is significant, for in close proximity (line 65) to the anfloga is the first occurrence in The Seafarer of the word dreamas, which has a common origin with "drum". Dream is glossed in Anglo-Saxon lexicons as "noisy merriment, music, gaiety, happiness" (Bessinger), but these approximations are to my mind inadequate, for they exclude the element of ecstatic vision, which dream must also connote. The Nordic shaman-deity Óðínn would sit on his celestial high seat, Hlidskjalf (Simek), from where, perhaps in the form of an eagle or a pair of ravens, he would survey the world. His terrestrial proxy, similarly seated, would enter a state of trance, and below him a group of votaries, often women, kept up a high-pitched song, to the beat of a drum, for as long as the trance lasted (Nordgren). Anthony Burgess, in You've Had Your Time, remarks: "The word 'dream' itself is as mysterious as the phenomenon. Dream is a song in Anglo-Saxon and it is cognate with the Greek thrulos, meaning a noise." (87). According to the OED "dream" is also cognate with "trumpet" as well as "drum"; and the trumpet is the instrument favoured by the angel Gabriel, the herald of the Christian God.

Clearly the anfloga, in its flight down the millenia, assumes many guises, alternately malevolent and benign according to the context in which it is imagined. It appears as a falcon, and also a vulture, carrying the ring of eternity in its talons, in countless depictions in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. (Faulkner). It occurs, in a more grisly manifestation, among the Celtiberians, of whom Barry Cunliffe writes that: "One tantalizing account says that they believed that the souls of those who died in battle and were eaten by vultures went straight to heaven." (137). It seems to merge with the sun, chosen in 1,350 BC as the singular god of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, in his short-lived attempt to replace the intricate mythologies of Egypt with monotheistic sun-worship, in an apocalyptic poem by Gabriele D'Annunzio:

O Glory, Glory, Vulture of the Sun,
who swoop on me and grasp me in your claws
even on this hot seashore where I hide!

I raise my face, although my heart is down,
and through the redness of the eyes I close
I see a world resplendent in my blood.

D'Annunzio published The Vulture of the Sun in 1903 (197), since when the bird seems to have lost much of its ferocity. As I write today, August 1st 1999, the former Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, John Bayley, who witnessed the peaceful departure of his tragically afflicted wife Iris Murdoch, is quoted in the London Sunday Telegraph: "I thought of myself as someone who had the good luck to be there when a really rare bird had appeared. What a wonderful bird it was --- the Death Bird." (Cavendish).

Although suffering remains, has the horror of death then left us? When the summons to the "one-strand river" (Graves TCP 151) came for Bunyan's Valiant-for-Truth, "many accompanied him to the River side, into which, as he went, he said, Death, where is thy Sting? And as he went down deeper, he said, Grave, where is thy Victory? … and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side." (276). If there is one enduring legacy of Christianity, which in Western Europe is presently judged to be fading away (Armstrong; Power), it might be the removal of Death's sting, a kind of fulfilment of Donne's ringing prophecy, "Death, thou shalt die." (326). In another article, equally recent, it is pointed out that ceteris paribus, "Preparing for death … is no more than ensuring that your finances are in order, taxes minimised and the will clear and unequivocal." (Chadlington). Gilgamesh agonised long over the death of Enkidu. The Seafarer poet also instances the obsequies of a man's geworhtne wine, his "well-wrought comrade". But in contrast to the anguish of Gilgamesh, the Anglo-Saxon listener is enjoined to steer with strongum mode, "steadfast spirit", and mid gemete healdan --- keep "a measured hold". A major burden of the poem is that although the anfloga is in the offing, and will inevitably come for the hreþer unwearnum, the "vulnerable soul", a man should be ready to sail in due time. The seasoned mariner will not be caught unþinged, or unprepared: we should ensure our ship "Is tight and yare and bravely rigg'd, as when/We first put out to sea." (The Tempest 5.1.224).

Enough has been said to suggest a deep reservoir of antediluvian concepts eddying below the surface of The Seafarer. At the same time the poem is wholly Christian in attitude and outlook, although also secular enough for early critics to dismiss its more obviously Christian passages as interpolations. On balance, the impression it makes is stoic, rather than evangelical, which may ensure its lasting appeal. Nevertheless, especially in its second half, it is steeped in Biblical texts; and the literary sleuth, if he looks carefully enough, may detect echoes of Psalms 19, 49, 90, 91, 103, as well as Daniel 7, Ecclesiasticus 44, Hebrews 11, Isaiah 40, Joel 2, Matthew 5, Matthew 6, Luke 15, Peter 1, and several other familiar passages.

In the space remaining I will concentrate on some later re-imaginings of ships and the sea as metaphors or commentary linked with the "single poetic theme". As the first of these appeared in 1595, it may be wondered why such a gap since 975, and whether any argument for continuity can seriously be maintained across the intervening 600 years. My thesis relates, in part, to the fact that, as F.A.Janssen writes: "The group of Greek treatises which make up the Corpus Hermeticum has its origin in the second to third centuries AD within the Graeco-Egyptian civilisation of Alexandria." Whether the Hermetic tradition survived in the insular backwaters of the British churches, after their obeisance to Rome in 664 AD, is outside my present scope, but certain it is that its rediscovery in Italy in about 1460 was a signal contribution to that revival of European culture called the Renaissance. Aided by the invention of printing, its influence would have trickled northwards during the following 150 years. Hermeticism is discernible in Shakespeare, notably in Hamlet and The Tempest (Yates 357), and gains apace during the 17th century in the works of English poets such as Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Marvell and Milton. The essence of Hermeticism "is seen in man's ability to achieve immortality through knowledge of the divine." (Janssen).

An inordinate amount of ink has been spilt by scholars on their perception that the first part of The Seafarer expresses "two incompatible attitudes to the sea" (Hamer 184), although any mountaineer, polar explorer, sky-diver, or long-haul solo yachtsman would find little incompatibility. Nevertheless, Edmund Spenser, in a poem dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh, puts a strong case for resisting the impulse to venture abroad:

Who life doth loathe, and longs death to behold
Before he die, alreadie dead with feare,
And yet would live with heart half stonie cold,
Let him to sea, and he shall see it there. (ll 204-7)

By 1608 the opposing point of view had been vigorously expressed by his near contemporary, George Chapman, immortalised by Keats for his translations of Homer:

Give me a spir't that on this life's rough sea
Loves t'have his sails fill'd with a lusty wind.
E'en till his sail-yards tremble, his masts crack,
And his rapt ship run on her side so low
That she drinks water, and her keel plows air.
There is no danger to a man that knows
What life and death is……………….

"Keel", ceol, is incidentally the Anglo-Saxon's word for his ship. "And as the twilight nets the plunging sun/My heart's keel slides to rest among the meadows", wrote Laurie Lee, in Home from Abroad. Dr Donne, on preparing for a voyage in 1633 (Grierson 352), is less breezy, and commits himself to Christ with reflective circumspection:

In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of Thy ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of Thy blood.

Seventeenth century Hermeticism reaches the summit of perfection in the work of Andrew Marvell. Except for Bermudas --- "Thus sung they in the English boat,/An holy and a chearful Note" --- which has certain distinct, if coincidental, affinities with The Seafarer, Marvell is not notably concerned with the sea. But in the much-quoted stanzas VI and VII of The Garden, the ocean is equated with man's inner creativity and perception in a dazzling vision of the ultramarine. The second of these stanzas contains the lines:

Casting the Bodies Vest aside,
My Soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a Bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver Wings;
And, till prepar'd for longer flight,
Waves in its Plumes the various Light.

The "Bodies Vest" matches the flæschoma, the "flesh-shirt" (Wessén: hamn) in line 95 of The Seafarer: the "corruptible" (Margoliouth 91) clothing from which vitality departs with age. Hweteð is the word which follows the anfloga in line 62. Nearly always translated "incites" or "urges", closer renderings of hweteð might be "goads", "steels", or simply "whets", as in Marvell's line. Marvell's striking use of these words, however, can only be coincidental. þis deade lif, says the seafarer. "This … sterile promontory", says Hamlet. "Man … how like an angel … yet … what is this quintessence of dust?" (2.2.316). The words coalesce in a disengaged fragment of verse occuring in the Proteus or shape-changing episode of James Joyce's re-contextualisation of the Odyssey, his monument to metempsychosis, Ulysses:

In quintessential triviality
For years in this fleshcase a shesoul dwelt.

These lines are preceded by the anfloga and the gulls, combined: "Gulfer of souls, engulfer. Hesouls, shesouls, shoals of souls. Engulfed with wailing creecries, whirled, whirling, they bewail." (245).

After 1842 The Seafarer would have gradually entered the consciousness of all English-speaking poets of consequence. Tennyson's and Hopkins' interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry is well-attested. Although there is no documented evidence that Tennyson knew The Seafarer, in the epitaph he wrote three years before his death, Crossing the Bar, the poem's gielleð anfloga rings out again: "Sunset and evening star/And one clear call for me!" (831), though where gielleð may suggest the eldritch wail or call of a bird, Tennyson's solitary anfloga is unspecified. The "bar" of the poem, which marks "our bourne of time and place", is a "bank of silt, sand or gravel deposited at the mouth of a river or harbour". (Cassell). On close inspection, Tennyson's last poem presents several remarkable parallels with The Seafarer.

Crossing the Bar is surpassed in popularity, in Britain anyway (Jones), by Masefield's Sea Fever, in which the anfloga has metamorphosed into the sea itself: "for the call of the running tide/Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied". His line: "To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife" contains enough internal evidence to suggest his familiarity with The Seafarer. In the Anglo-Saxon phrase hweteð onwæl weg, the wæl element carries the same force as wæl- in wælcyrige, "valkyrie", ie "death-chooser", so that onwæl weg should mean "on the death way"; but scholars in their wisdom have been steadily emending the word to hwæl, "whale", for the last century. Perhaps a 10th century audience would have been in two minds about the word it was hearing, just as a modern listener might hear "wail".

The seeds of Kipling's Harp Song of the Dane Women could also well have been sown by the ancient Anglo-Saxon mariner. Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge … ne to wife, says the poet, "he has no desire for the harp … nor for woman". "Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her … To go with the old grey Widow-maker?" laments Kipling's Danish wife. (593). In Recessional 1897 --- "Far-called, our navies melt away" --- Kipling's own voice intones: "The Captains and the Kings depart" (377), perhaps echoing the seafarer's nearon nu cyningas ne caseras, "there are no Kings nor Kaisers now". "Their crowns put away for ever", as The Epic of Gilgamesh expressed it, at least three thousand years before.

D.H.Lawrence's last poem, composed while dying, was The Ship of Death: "Build then the ship of death, for you must take/the longest journey, to oblivion." (71). In The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot's initial draft of Death by Water contained an echo of Tennyson's Ulysses (90): "the sea with many voices/Moaned all about us". (65; l.42). His draft was pared down from 92 lines to ten, but his Phoenician merchant, who "Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell", is still central to the work. T.S.Eliot would, of course, have been fully aware of The Seafarer. "Great poetry", he once noted in a different context, is not pleasant, but will "by some extraordinary labour of simplification, exhibit the essential sickness or strength of the human soul … And … never exists without great technical accomplishment." (TSW 151). He had Blake in mind; but the palm for accomplishment, perfect faithfulness, delight and horror, must go, I submit with respect, to this oaken-hearted nineteenth century summation of the immemorial theme by England's laureate peer:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.


Reader Response One

My first impression of this submission came from a quick glance over its astonishingly varied list of works cited. That impression of arbitrary and unmanageable multiplicity was borne out by the superficial and reductive nature of the paper's argument. Discussing death as a theme of poetry --- all poetry --- is a hopelessly ambitious project. The putative focus on "The Seafarer" here fails to delimit the project because the author apparently sees all poetry before or since as directly relevant to the poem. Evidence can thus be (and is) adduced on no visibly reasonable grounds and manipulated to prove as a conclusion the very commonality that was posited as a hypothesis.

The argument claims to trace general themes through specific instances, but makes claims so general as to make the connections between these specific examples spurious at best. It seems all too easy to note that in widely differing cultures death is feared and that images of transcending it take up images of flight. Describing this as "hermeticism" and claiming that it is a specific enough resemblance to trace patterns of influence demands a much more ambitious study of theology, history, and poetics. As it is, the passing references to complex cultures (the author devotes all of a single page to ancient Sumeria and Egypt) utterly fail to provide enough detail for responsible scholarly comparison. This thin discussion of heterogeneous societies and national literatures pays far too little attention to their historical specificity or the problems of their putative intercultural communion. Lumping millenia and a vast multiplicity of cultures together as the "pre-Christian world" and characterizing that as part of the "common" stock that OE poetry drew on fails abysmally to cover these problems.

Reader Response Two

"Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea" takes the reader on a trip through the ages to show us the potential literary forebears and descendants of a 10th C Anglo-Saxon poem called The Seafarer. The trip, or should I say "voyage" in this context, has the outward appearance of an aviary, as the author concentrates on bird imagery as it relates to recurring images of sea-journeys into a land of the dead.

Although the paper teeters on the edge of a speculative abyss, I get the sense that it somehow manages to keep its footing (with the exception of the comment (here) that the Anglo-Saxon poet wrote with an "Empsonian ambiguity"; how ahead of his time!) At least the author seems aware of potential criticisms of his or her speculations, taking time to deflect two of them (here and here).

The meditation on the transition of anfloga is the most compelling argument. Somehow I find myself convinced of the epoch- and culture-spanning relationship between The Seafarer and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Perhaps I am merely awestruck by the author's apparent command of etymology and anthropology? Perhaps, like Agent Mulder, I simply "want to believe". What the author clearly longs for is an image of an ancient world marked by complex (if only in terms of logistics) traffic in symbols and myths as well as goods. And why not? Sailors presumably swap stories as well as sugar, spice, silk and slaves.

That said, I would like to see three things change in this paper. First the patchwork section of modern takes on the anfloga (mainly the latter sections of the essay) should either be removed or reworked to concentrate more fully on one or two revisions of this seemingly transhistorical, poetic voyage of the soul. Second, I think the author's assertion on page 13 that we, as moderns, no longer feel death's sting in the same way as the ancients should be elaborated upon, perhaps with theoretical support added (I am thinking of various Continental philosopher's thoughts on the "prohibition of death" in late 20th C Western culture). And third, I think more speculation on our desire for winged creatures is called for. Obviously air is one medium humans cannot move in without the aid of a technological prothesis. Perhaps this lack (flight envy?), in part accounts for the ornithological obsession. (Angels are clearly superior beings because, on a very basic level, they can inhabit the one element humans cannot; they embody our desire to unground ourselves, and remain buoyant and aloof when our ungainly winged tubes occasionally refuse to stay aloft --- Air Anfloga?)

To sum up then. While this paper risks credibility by jumping wildly across history and cultures, I still find it illuminating in the way manuscript illuminations open up worlds around the written text. It suggests greater forces at work within the imaginative life of humankind. My only reservation is that I am still unsure whether the giddy heights of these connections are merely akin to the arcana of numerology, conspiracy theories, and Biblical "prophecy" in these "last days". Maybe I am unsettled by the on-set of metanarrative?

*** *** ***


When Reader One, whose astonishment seems to have induced mild incoherence, says that the connections between the examples are "spurious at best", does s/he mean "specious at best"? "Spurious at best" is a vacuous statement, empty of sense. What does s/he mean by "all poetry"? "Sumeria" is known to most of us as "Sumer" --- though not to Baring and Cashford. Reader One's semi-literate remarks are dismally abysmal. They seem to have been thrown together by someone best described as culturally stunted.

Familiarity with Professor S.B.Greenfield's remark (in The Old English Elegies, an essay in Continuations and Beginnings, Nelson 1966): "...the Seafarer poet approaches a more complex Empsonian type of ambiguity in his use of equal and opposite semantic values of the same word to underline ambivalences in attitudes and levels of meaning", might have persuaded Reader Two to take less exception to the phrase "Empsonian ambiguity" --- but then again it might not. The title of Professor E.G.Stanley's collection of "Studies in Old English Literature", Continuations and Beginnings, seems apt in this context, and I should have acknowledged Greenfield's contribution in my list of works cited above.

Karen Armstrong's A History of God: the 4000 year quest, Heinemann 1993, offers a remarkably refreshing approach to the concept of monotheism. Link to:, here.

God save us from the pretensions of the semi-cultured.

*** *** ***


The Amber Route
The Aviary of Death
Death's Sting: Daily Telegraph, 28 Oct 2000

Semi-Nutritious Reading Matter

1969: Medieval Literature and Civilization, edited by D.A.Pearsall & R.A.Waldron.
1972: The Interpretation of Old English Poems, by Stanley B.Greenfield.
1979: Old English Poetry: essays on style. Edited by Daniel G.Calder
1982 A Readable Beowulf: by Stanley B. Greenfield
1983: The Old English Elegies; edited by Martin Green
1986: Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature. Edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, Fred C.Robinson. Essays in Honour of Stanley B.Greenfield.
1989: Hero and Exile: The Art of Old English Poetry, by Stanley B.Greenfield. Edited by George H.Brown


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"Brief and powerless is man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark."
Bertrand Russell
Thanks, Bert. I really like that.

"Truth sits upon the lips of dying men." But who, after the age of about 25, isn't dying, Matthew ?

The whooper swan is the only swan that calls in flight. All other swans are mute, except, apocryphally, when on the point of death. Hence their swan song. "Whooper" is pronounced "hooper", among those who know. The same applies to the whoop in whooping-cough.

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Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea

Seafarer Demolition

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