Seafarer Essays & Papers
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Errors are made.

"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original."
E.Bruce Brooks

"Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals." George Orwell

a summing up


An octogenarian must doubtless expect to be forgetful from time to time. Recent reading of Paul Strathern's 1998 account of Bohr & Quantum Theory inspired me to reflect on The Seafarer in terms of atomic ambiguity. I had completely forgotten that I'd already addressed Ambiguity (click) a mere two years ago ! Is the funny farm not far off ? No matter. Quotes from the earlier paper below, (click). Meanwhile here are some from Strathern's little book, which struck me as somehow illuminating.

1. Page 7. "Horowitz once remarked of Mozart that he was 'too easy for beginners, too hard for experts'," This applies to The Seafarer, although the evidence is that there are no experts on its composition or content. There are many opinions, half-baked, ill-informed.

2. Page 8. "Electrons can exist as two different things simultaneously." For 'electrons' read 'ideas' in The Seafarer.

3. Page 15. Bohr's "later work was characterized by its essential ambiguity. Quantum theory is about the incompatability of two apparently irreconcilable opposites." The incompatible opposites that require reconciling in The Seafarer are its healthy, realistic, traditional paganism and the novel religion of encroaching, authoritarian Rome. The paganism is one reason the poem retains its fascination for modern readers.

4. Page 20. Bohr "saw that when a word referred to mental activity it was essentially ambiguous." The activity in The Seafarer is a little more spiritual than mental. Now we're getting somewhere. I feel enlightened already.

5. Page 22. Bohr "was forced to accept that ..... ambiguities are inherent in language."

6. Page 100. "Multiculturalism is a quantum concept". One giant leap. The Seafarer is multicultural. It is the product of a multicultural, multilingual mind. Unlike the mind of Ezra Pound. Same page: "Pluralism is the belief in the co-existence of incompatible views."


An understanding of the nature of the Empsonian ambiguities that have rattled past scholars, soi-disant, in their interpretations of The Seafarer, especially in connection with its central crux, lines 58-68, begins to dawn. Contained in its author's mind are two incompatible attitudes to the future that awaits us all. This may have played a part in the early perception, among some misguided souls, that there were "two voices" in The Seafarer. There was obviously only one voice, but it was internally conflicted.

Kine die and kin die
All things must die; but I
Know what does not die
How dead men are deemed.

At left is the rational philosophy of the pagan Anglo. "So any noble spirit will aspire to earn an everlasting epitaph of praise" for "good deeds done on earth, bold blows dealt at the Devil and against fell foe." I use my own translation, as it is enlightened. The nucleus of this molecule is hreşer unwearnum, the "naked soul", when life leaves the inert body to the fecund soil or funereal flame.

Around the nucleus of death, dead centre, revolve, elliptically, the several additional and associated notions, reflecting disparate points of view. It's that "dead centre" that is so telling. Those two words, hreşer unwearnum, "defenceless wraith", are literally the exact centre of the poem. It occurs to me here that Bohr-Sommerfeld is a better heuristic model than Howlett-Olsen-Runion. Click here, and here.

The pagan surmised that there would be nothing left of him at her death, except his reputation. Perhaps s/he might experience happiness in the classless Elysian fields of Hel, the gentle, healing goddess. Contrariwise, the novel authoritarian religion of Rome, with infallibility at its papal head, held great appeal for the post-pagan king. He set about conversion with enthusiasm. Olaf toured his vassals with an axe, or sometimes a seax, in one hand and a bible or a cross, as most of them couldn't read, in the other. He was concerned to make their conversion consensual, so he offered each vassal a choice. Few chose the axe. I don't think any did. Olave was rewarded by the Romans with sainthood. His image heads this page; his foot crushing the recalcitrant, as he handles his axe. His religion consolidated his power.

In place of a conception of death and Hel as a pleasant dream, rewarding a life of achievement, the militant crusader threatened the pagan with a redesigned Hell of permanent torture in a fiery furnace. The Roman ruled by instilling fear. There is no sense of loving an enemy, or turning the other cheek, as had been promoted by his religion's alleged founder. Inquisitorial persecution of dissidents was rampant. Indulgence or remission might be purchased for ready cash, as time went on The power of authority was augmented. The pagan, especially the northern pagan, had little fear of death, unlike the Roman convert, who was kept in subjection by a priestly reiteration of what fate had in store for all, as all were sinners.

At left is an excerpt from Karen Armstrong's 500-page History of God, 1993, It's upsetting to realise that her history has only one mention of Zeus, page 80, and nothing at all about Odin. Her account deals virtually exclusively with a dreadful, ferocious and primitive Middle-Eastern volcanic deity, the origin of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim faiths, and the inspiration for National Socialism's concept of the chosen people, and the ultimate justification for ethnic cleansing, as outlined in the Hebrew scriptures.

Strathern thinks well of Bohr; above the likes of Newton, Einstein and Hawking. Page 63. "Bohr would never forget Rutherford's Manchester laboratory. This was how science should be done: in an atmosphere of camaraderie and fruitful argument, in which all took part." This is, of course, how debate among Anglo-Saxonists should also take place, but in my experience it doesn't. No doubt not all members of the faculty are ill-mannered boors; I just seem to have exclusively encountered the ones that are.


"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.

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

Familiarity is encouraged to be acquired 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.

Gaut         Getae        Goth

"It is dangerous to be right when established authority is wrong." Voltaire.
Henry Sweet is the Aristotle of Anglo-Saxon studies.
The Horace Walpole of Linguistics.
Errors in Understanding.

The following comment is undeniable:

"Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning which the original text had."
Wayne Leman

Click for fidelity, integrity and truth.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2018

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An edition was published June 2005, limited to 125 copies: ISBN 0-9550 126-0-0

The published text has since been repeatedly revised

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a summing up

Low-German ?? Stone knife or celt ??

Ezra hails his saint, who had his own version of the cross, hi-jacked from the pagans