A Seafarer


Scyld Scefing

some comments on

The Cambridge Old English Reader
Richard Marsden. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, 2004

and on

Quote: "This is a major new reader of Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest. Designed both for beginning and for more advanced students, it breaks new ground in two ways, first in its range of texts, and second in the degree of annotation it offers." Included among its fifty-six prose and verse texts is a study of The Seafarer. Quote: "Headnotes establish the literary and historical contexts for the works that are represented, and reflect the rich cultural variety of Anglo-Saxon England. Modern English word glosses and explanatory notes are provided on the same page as the text. Other features include a reference grammar and a comprehensive glossary."

Because this massively authoritative book, referred to as COER below, has been published quite recently, and only acquired by me in 2009, its introduction and annotations to The Seafarer, though relatively brief, are of considerable interest. The prefatory remarks make it beautifully clear that the poem is not an elegy, but "exhortatory and didactic", and that its Christianity is indisputable. There could be little disagreement that the poem's message is: "Let us (good Christians, that is) remind ourselves where our true home lies and concentrate on getting there". Admirably succinct, this sensibly does not bother to consider the earlier, now obviously inane, ideas that there are any "monkish" interpolations, still less that there are "two voices". The poem is a unity.

The annotations are virtually exclusively concerned with nicely strict points of syntax and grammar; but grammar is not a poet's first priority. Samuel Johnson, 1765, commented that "Shakespeare regarded more the series of ideas than of words"; and castigated Hanmer for being "solicitous to reduce to grammar, what he could not be sure that his authour intended to be grammatical." The COER annotator is extremely reluctant to abandon grammar at any point, which he considers might reduce "the dynamic of the poem to a mere list of loosely connected ideas" (p.225). These ideas would be densely, not loosely, connected, however. The dynamics are heightened, not reduced. Modern punctuation also forces the text into meanings not necessarily intended, or exclusively intended. Lacking, therefore, is any considered attention to poetic techniques, sometimes called poetic license ("offending those who resent the re-interpretation of cherished beliefs" --- see here), or the nuances of meaning, wordplay, and the communication of sentiments. The fact is that this composition has exceptional power, and it actually seems to have accumulated impact during the thousand years, and more, of its existence; more especially during the last three hundred years, when it became increasingly widely available. Nonetheless, attention to spelling, logic and grammar has its place and its uses; which is more than Pound would have conceded.

"Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority." Thomas Huxley

For a summary of what's wrong with "peer review", see here. "The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding."

Line Anglo-Saxon COER: gloss or note Comment
1mæg can Quite wrong. The word is "may", but with no sense of asking permission. May there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.
2siþas journeys (or experiences) Siþas means "paths" or "ways", with an undercurrent of "patterns of behaviour" or "conduct". See here. "Journeys" is simply wrong.
2geswincdagum dat. of time: 'in days of toil' Gordon calls this "dat. to give attendant circumstances". This term appears in A Guide to Old English, Mitchell & Robinson, 1988, para 204, p 112. "Sometimes the exact grammatical status (of participles) is not certain".
7nearo oppressive See here. A curiously coincidental gloss.
8calde dat. of instrument: 'by cold' Use of the dative in a variety of circumstances fascinates.
11slat rent Why "rent"? Perhaps because it is used for slat in several translations of Beowulf. See here for slat.
11hat the ending -e has been elided. 'Hot', meaning here 'intense' or 'violent' Why "intense" or "violent"? "Hot" is quite adequate.
19ylfete song swan's [song] Swans are proverbially mute. The whooper, pronounced "hooper", swan is an exception. A singing swan connotes death.
34 hean deep "Steep" preferred: it works both up and down. Hean appears to be the equivalent of Latin altus. See here.
37 ferð spirit Not "spirit". The word means "journey". See here for fer(h)ð.
42 sorge anxiety Seems not too bad, but worse than it seems. "Concern" is better. Also "care".
44 hyge poss. dat.: 'his thought' "Mind", "inclination" or "desire", not primarily "thought". See here.
49 wongas meadows Correct! Neither "fields", nor "plains", which often appear, is correct.
51 siþe journey See line 2. Tricky grammar in this line. Dative ?
53 geac notable feature of early Celtic elegies Also a notable feature of Scandinavian folklore; and elsewhere. The Baltic? See here. And here.
53 geomran reorde with sad voice "Dat. of manner". Geomran actually means " to complain", or to "whine".
58 hweorfeð journeys Not "journeys". "Turns", "casts" or "throws" (itself, understood).
60 ofer over The meaning of ofer is closer to "beyond" than "over".
61 sceatas the regions (or surfaces) Virtually certain that sceatas does not mean "regions" or "surfaces". Surely not "surfaces", possibly "corners". Ideally "lap", though plural. See here.
61 eft again The basic sense of eft is not "again", but nearer to "then": eg "eftsoons" or "anon" or, less quaintly, "in due course"; not repetition, but sequence. Afterwards.
62gielleð cries "Cries" is far too weak for gielleð. See here.
62 anfloga the cuckoo; almost certainly not the soul, as some critics have suggested Almost certainly neither the cuckoo, nor the soul, as suggested by the DOE. There is little doubt that floga means "flier". The question is what does an- mean? The cuckoo is neither an on-flier nor a one-flier, nor does it yell. The same applies equally, if not more so, to the soul.
63 hweteð incites Very doubtful. Does "to whet" mean "to incite"? No, it doesn't; but a semantic approach is frowned on. The wind's like a whetted knife, ie sharpened.
63 wælweg Probably for hwælweg, "whale's path" CEOR: "conceivably wæl is the word meaning "slaughter" or "the dead". Well noted, CEOR. Conceivably, the poet (and the scribe) meant both.
63 unwearnum irresistibly "According to Schuchardt", after 1910. The Central Crux of The Seafarer, first published 1996, is ignored by the COER annotator, although there are faint indications that he may have been aware of both it and this website, as it was in about 2001 or 2002.
65 dreamas joys Perhaps. The sense is really of ecstatic visions.
66 læne fleeting The usual gloss is "transitory". The underlying concept is still "loaned", rather than "fleeting": see glossary for word in Klaeber 4.
74 lof praise Yes. But why then "glory" for lof in line 78?
75 fremum 'by good actions' Emendation: "dat, of instrument".
80 dugeþum hosts Huh? The word means "worthy", "doughty", "brave". Perhaps the annotator is thinking of hordes of braves, rather than landlords.
95 hyge mind Correct enough. Up to a point, Lord Copper.
96 onhreran move More probably means "touch" or "feel". Hreran may mean "move", but on- implies "on to", ie "touch".
109 stieran restrain Under steoran (stieran) BT gives "I. to steer, guide a vessel", and "II. to correct, restrain a person (dat.) from wrong." "Steer" seems fine, in this context, but perhaps CEOR is following BT's citation of The Seafarer.
109 strongum headstrong CEOR wants "restrain the headstrong (mode, ie temper)". No doubt strongum is in the dative. Gordon has mod meaning "heart, spirit" in 4 out of 5 cases. The context prefers "steer the spirit strongly".
123 ealdor prince Not good. "Elder" hardly implies "prince" in any way; the connotations are very different. cf Beowulf, "ealdmetod" (l. 945), antiquus dierum (Dan 7:9 and 7:22); See here.

See also notes on The Seafarer by W.J.Sedgefield, 1928

The annotations and glossary in the CEOR recall again Jespersen's remark in 1938 that the shades of meaning in Anglo-Saxon words had been inadequately investigated. They still are. The devotion to grammar may well be ace, but the glossary is, it has to be said, indifferent. Poets deal in feelings and meanings, and have needed minimal grammar to understand The Seafarer.

"Professor Sonnenschein says that cases 'denote categories of meaning'. But he does not, and cannot, specify what the particular meaning of the dative is." From The Philosophy of Grammar, by Otto Jespersen, 1924, 9th impression, chapter XIII, Case, p 178.

Do not miss this. By Carolyn See. See here. Washington Post, Friday, December 4, 2009.

Her review is positively stuffed with splendid perceptions. Quote:

" Jack Lynch ... gives us not a history of the English language but a history of those who have tried to make sense of it. He divides them into "prescriptive" and "descriptive" linguists: The former try with all their might to purge the language of undesirable words and constructions; the latter, acting on the theory that the language is untamable, simply try to describe its current use.

The English language itself didn't have a formal grammar, but Latin did, and it seemed sensible to think that the rules of this revered dead language might easily be applied to bumptious, wildly growing, very-much-alive English.

... there arose those pesky, prescriptive Latin grammarians who did everything they could to hammer English into a Latin mould. ... A lot of very learned people got sick and died ..."

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre.
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken- -

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

By Rudyard Kipling. Published 1906.
(English Poet, 1865-1936.)

See Borges on Kipling, and on The Seafarer. Here. An essay by Paul Theroux, selected from The Old Patagonian Express, July 22, 1979.


There were shelves of poetry in no particular order --- Tennyson and e.e. cummings, Byron, Poe, Wordsworth, Hardy.

He recited the opening lines of The Seafarer. "The Seafarer," he said. "Isn't it beautiful?

Borges said, "Read me 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women.'" I did as I was told.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

"'The old grey Widow-maker,'" he said. "That is so good. You can't say things like that in Spanish. But I'm interrupting. Go on." I began again, but at the third stanza he stopped me. "'...the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you'- how beautiful!"

ne biž him to hearpan hyge
ne to hringžege
ne to wife wyn


D.G.Rossetti. 1874.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew
                        from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

by Alfred Lord Tennyson 1809-1892. 1889.
(English Poet Laureate, 1850-1892.)

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

By John Masefield, 1878-1967. Published 1902.
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)


Two of the most popular poems in the English language.
Agnostic Tennyson put his faith in honest doubt.
Masefield expresses no faith at all. Wise man.

Already by 1867 the sea of faith had been perceived to be in recession: see here. Nevertheless, in the 1970s a rather stunning quartet had found something to wonder at in the fairy-tale, and thought that the fantasy still provided a form of consolation. In the singer's sošgied, with the words of Andersson and Ulvaeus:

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness: still another mile
I believe in angels .....
When I know the time is right for me
I'll cross the stream. I have a dream.

hweteš - whets

a summary of thirty-five translations

Translated as Translated by Total
urges B.Thorpe 1842; R.K.Gordon 1926; C.W.Kennedy 1936; C.C. Abbott 1943; K.Crossley-Holland 1965; N.D.Isaacs 1966; P.Clemoes 1969; S.B.Greenfield 1972; J.Mandel 1976; A.D.Horgan 1979; S.A.J.Bradley 1982; R.F.Leslie 1983 12
whets S.A.Brooke 1898; E.Pound 1911; N.Denny 1960; M. Alexander 1966; J.C.Pope 1974; C.McPherson 1987; L.J.Rodrigues 1991 7
impels H.Sweet 1871; H.Sweet 1888; N.Kershaw (Chadwick) 1922; D.Whitelock 1923; O.S.Anderson (Arngart) 1937; F.N.M.Diekstra 1971 6
incites W.S.Mackie 1933; R.Hamer 1970; B.K.Green 1974 3
beckons J.D.E.Spaeth 1910; C.Faust & S.Thompson 1918 2
raves, drives, presses, forces, excites G.R.Merry [a longing raves] 1890; L.LaM.Iddings [drives] 1902; G.Bone [presses] 1934; A.Scott [forces] 1949; B.Raffel [exciting me] 1964 5

Modern dictionary definitions of "to whet" are: "to sharpen, to excite, to stimulate". In this context the most appropriate of the modern meanings of "whet" is "sharpen". The most appropriate translation of hweteš is not "urges", but "whets", implying "prepares". The seafarer is preparing himself, girding his loins, for his departure.

sižas secgan hu ic

".... I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language, than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man's prospects of advancement."   T.H.Huxley, Autobiography, p 1, Lectures & Essays, Watts & Co, published 1931.


essays and papers
the central crux of the seafarer
anfloga and wearn: more notes
The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer. G.V.Smithers
An, Ân, & Eft: Old English Grammar. A. Campbell
journey's jargon
re: unwearnum
can may let
visualizations of the anfloga
another visualization of the anfloga
main index

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2009
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