A Seafarer


Scyld Scefing

some comments on

An Anglo-Saxon Book of Verse & Prose by W.J.Sedgefield
Manchester University Press, United Kingdom, 1928


Whatever criticism may be levelled at its notes on The Seafarer, the prefatory remarks in The Cambridge Old English Reader 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: in effect, a sermon.

Sedgefield's misconception of The Seafarer in his Anglo-Saxon Book of Verse is classic. Though not alone in his misreadings, which were characteristic of the Anglo-Saxonists of the era when he wrote, it is truly splendid in its self-confident obtuseness. After dealing with The Wanderer in a similar vein, he delivers himself of the pronouncements scanned below. Irresistible is the word: some monk had definitely monkeyed with the ghostly "original" --- non-existent and imaginary.

Sedgefield's statement that "we have omitted 22 or 23 lines" because "they are definitely religious" is hilarious: nothing religious should be allowed to sully the pure Germanic paganism of the "original". The didactic, hortative, evangelical character of the poem should have been obvious from the very earliest it became an object of learned study, and the failure to grasp its true character is quite remarkable. In her 1995 study, The Textuality of Old English Poetry, Carol Braun Pasternack notes, p 35, that "Frantzen and Venegoni agree with Stanley that much of early Anglo-Studies was shaped by a desire to discover pure Germanic origins." Unfortunately I cannot understand most of what Professor Pasternack is saying, and will stick with Giordano Bruno, instead: "From translation all knowledge has its source"; and if the translation is imprecise, the knowledge will be flawed. By concentrating on the translation, and the nuances of wording, the nature of the work becomes inescapable. Instead, the early scholar first decides that there is no "religion" in the text, and then religiously removes any suspicion of clerical contamination. The grotesqueries of Ezra Pound, and his "improvements" on Lola Iddings, are the result.

It is not impossible that Sedgefield was influenced by the comments of Dr. Ernst Sieper in Die Altenglische Elegie, 1915.

Line Anglo-Saxon W.J.Sedgefield: gloss or note Comment
6 atol yža gewealc yža gewealc occurs in Beo. l.464, and atol yža geswing in l.848. Interesting. Relevant?
8 he sc. naca Yes.
9 węron mine fet The MS reading węron mine fet is metrically faulty, as in the B and C types of half-line it is the first strong stress that alliterates. The original text may have had fete, the earlier form of fet, in which case the half-line would have been of the type with one strong stress. The obsession of the germanistas with metricality can be traced to "Professor Edward Sievers, whose researches first placed the study of early Germanic versification on a sound basis." [p 126]. Sievers, 1850-1932, "later abandoned this type of analysis in favour of Schallanalyse, or 'sound analysis,' a system which was understood by very few ..." See Wikipedia.
13 že him on foldan fęgrost limpeš 'To whom fortune is fairest on land', ie who is fortunate enough to live on land'. Slightly unlikely. Fęger, "fair", essentially means "beauty", or "beautiful", mainly of flora and fauna. "Fortune" is not necessarily implied here. "Den blomstertid nu kommer med lust och fägring stor". See here, or Wikipedia, under blomstertid.
15 wræccan lastum 'in the tracks of an exile', ie far away from home. 'footprints of an outcast', Swedish vräk. OK. Why "far away from home"?
16 winemęgum bidroren A half-line has dropped out here, though there is no sign of a lacuna in the MS. The reason there's no sign of a lacuna is because there is no lacuna, nor accidental "dropping".
20 dyde ic me to .. ganetes hleožor .. huilpan sweg etc 'I made the cry of the gannet my delight, and the scream of the gull I put before the laughter of men, the chanting seamew before the drinking of mead". Pre-1928, Bosworth, Clark Hall, Sweet, and Bosworth-Toller all fail to name the huilpe as "whaup", "whimbrel" or "curlew", so it's a little too much to expect of Sedgefield. Medodrince means the drink itself, not the drinking of it.
24 þæt þæt: sc. clif
25 urigfeþra The epithet urigfeþra, 'wet-feathered', is applied to the eagle in Judith l. 210, and Elene l. 29. Two half-lines seem to have fallen out here. This scribe really is careless, dropping lines all over the place. See Gordon's note for the proliferation of daft proposals by the Besserwissers..
26 ferhð seems here to have the meaning of 'soul', 'person'; transl. 'not one of the kinsmen, not a single poor soul, was (or, would have been) able to sail (in such weather)'. [See note, below.] ferhš means "journey". Possibly "life", certainly not "soul" or "person". The translation by WJS is amazingly contorted. How come the kinsman turns into "a poor soul"? Where is the comforting?
27 foržon him gelyfeš lyt se že ah lifes wyn gebiden in burgum bealosiža hwon wlonc and wingal ... etc Therefore he who, proud and luxurious, possesses the good things of life, who (living) in towns (has) experienced but few dangerous journeys, will hardly believe how,' etc.
The seafarer has a grievance against the fortunate, unsympathetic landsman.
Arguably. Why grievance ? What evidence is there for the landsman's lack of sympathy? WJS reads far more into the verse than it contains. The overriding sense is of life's injustice in general. "Quare via impiorum prosperatur?" wrote Hopkins. See here. There are distinct echoes of Jeremiah 12, and Psalm 1.
27 him Him can hardly be translated here. If so, why not?
31 nap nihtscua The past tenses in this line and the next denote recurring action in the past: 'the squall (lit. night-shadow) would loom up, it would snow from the north', etc. "Squall" is a very odd translation of nihtscua. Night-shower? The historic present was warmly embraced by Damon Runyon. Conversely, the seafarer embraces the present past.
33 for žon ..... cunnige 'so too now my thoughts are battering at my heart, (impelling) me to face in person the deep waters, the heaving of the salt waves'. Hean is translated by WJS as "deep". It means both "high" and "deep", ie "steep".
34 hean hean is acc. pl. weak, with the def. art. omitted, as is usual in early verse; cf ecan, l 79. Omission of the def. art. hardly seems relevant. Is c 800 AD early? Maybe. 800 AD seems more probable than 700 AD.
36 modes lust Such 'psychological' words as mod, herte, sefa, feorhš, hrešer, gehygd, etc., are used vaguely in A-S poetry, being virtually interchangeable. Shades of meaning do not bulk out the bags of the germanistas. These words are all more than subtly different, and are used with precision.
37 ferš to feran In the earlier verse to is often used with the uninflected inf. See here for ferš to feran.
39 for žon nis žęs modwlonc ... a his sęfore sorge etc A man may be ever so brave and favoured by fortune, yet he cannot face a sea-voyage without anxiety. WJS translates sorge as "anxiety". "Anxiety" may be partly correct, but the real underlying sense is "concern to make ready". A man should prepare for his demise and death. See here for sorge.
39 žęs žęs, 'so'; to žęs has the same sense.
41 dryhten Here, as in l. 43, probably means 'earthly lord', 'chief'. Here, yes, definitely; but in l.43, below, obviously not.
43 to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille As to what commission his lord will charge him with As to what the Lord will intend, or have in mind, for him
46 ne biž him to hearpan hyge ... ne ymbe owiht elles nefne etc 'nor will he think of aught else save'. See here for hyge. This line is the clearest indication of the word's meaning.
48 nimaš here intrans., 'take on', 'increase'. Miss Kershaw suggests blostmiaš. If the scribe is assumed to be completely stupid, anything at all may be suggested.
51 žam že swa ženceš 'of him who is thinking of'.
52 flodwegas We may read either 'sea-waves', or 'sea-paths'. Or both.
53 geac The cuckoo is also mentioned in The Husband's Message, l.40, as the harbinger of summer
54 beodeš 'utters', 'proclaims'. Why not "bodes"? The cuckoo is predicting.
55 breostheord the sense requires the dat. breosthorde, but this would be metrically incorrect. But perhaps the sentence means that the bitterly complaining cuckoo fills the mind of the hearer with sadness. "Complaining" is unusually good. The cuckoo is certainly not "mourning", as many have it, but "yammering".
57 že ža wręclastas widost lecgaš 'lay down the footsteps of exile', ie wander, travel.
58 min hyge hweorfeš ofer hrežerlocan 'my thoughts pass over the confines of my breast', ie go roaming. Hyge = inclination, or desire; hweorfeš = turns, or throws; ofer = beyond.
61 min modsefa mid mereflode The seafarer likens his spirit (modsefa) to a sea-bird. The seafaring part of the poem ends with gelagu; the rest is commonplace moralizing, like the latter part of the Wanderer. The "moralizing" is the entire purpose of the composition. Its first half is an exemplum; its second half draws a conclusion. Modsefa does not have to imply a seabird, nor does it have to mean "spirit".
63, 64 hweteš on węl weg hrežer unwearnum ofer holma gelagu 'urges my thoughts irresistibly to the whale-path, over the expanse of waters'. Unwearnum means "vulnerable", from which reading a complete understanding of this poem follows. "Irresistibly" is ridiculous.
64 hatran 'more warming', 'more inspiring'. Inspiring? Does heat inspire?
68 simle žreora sum žinga gehwylce etc 'Ever for each creature, before its time passes away, one of three things brings a risk (lit. becomes a doubt); either sickness or old age or else armed hate may wrest the life from a man, if he is doomed and about to go. Therefore for each man the best memorial he can win before passing away is the praise of survivors (lit after-speakers), of the living; let him by bold deeds against the malice of foes, against the devil, bring it to pass (fremman) that the sons of men may afterwards praise him, and his fame live', etc. The temptation to tinker with fremman is almost irresistible, to coin a term, although here Sedgefield resists what Gordon is unable to, since she emends to fremum. For fremman compare Sw främja, "to promote, to further, to spread, to push beyond normal borders". It does not mean "bring to pass". See here.
69 tidege for the MS reading tidege Grein suggested tiddege = tiddęge 'date' (of occurrence). No objection here.
73 lastworda lit. 'words that remain'; cf the phrase last weardian, 'remain in one's footsteps', 'remain behind'.
75 fremman on foldan The obj. of fremman is the clause introduced by žęt in l. 77. For fremman Sweet reads fremme, to correspond with gewyrce. Sweet can be ignored.
77 ęlda the Anglian form of W.S. ielda.
79 awa to ealdre 'for evermore', lit. 'ever for life'. "Ever for life" seems to be pulled out of a hat.
80 dugušum 'the (heavenly) hosts', a common meaning in religious poetry. Duguš implies "able, fit, worthy, qualified, capable", etc. Why on earth "heavenly hosts"?
84 mid him 'among themselves'.
85 dome 'glory'; dom originally meant 'something laid down', hence 'judgement', 'opinion', then 'good opinion', 'fame', glory'. Skeat and Partridge express little certainty about "doom". There is no hint of "lay down" from either.
86 duguš 'noble company'. Better than "hosts". "Élite", or "elect".
88 brucaš žurh bisgo 'possess it anxiously'. Brucaš means "use"; bisgo implies "busyness", "occupation", "employment", "utility". Clark Hall, 1894, suggests, inter alia, "labour", "pains", "trouble". "Anxiously" is not good.
91 on on takes a full stress here.
93 iuwine Cf. The Wanderer, ll 22, 23 iu goldwine
97 97 to end. [Sedgefield ends the poem at line 102.] 'Though a man may strew with gold the tomb of his own brother, (and so) with various treasures bribe the dead man (to excuse him) from accompanying him, yet no gold, when he buries it in his lifetime here, avails to ease the conscience (sawle) of the sinful man from his fear of God.' Bribe ??? To excuse him ??? Since when did sawle mean "conscience"? The translation offered here is even more weirdly twisted than the one at l. 26.

See also notes in The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2004

These annotations by WJS recall again Jespersen's remark in 1938, ten years later, that the shades of meaning in Anglo-Saxon words had been inadequately investigated. They still are. A wide, wide field in the province of Anglo-Saxon studies awaits excavation.

".... 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, published 1931. Much scholarly labour is undertaken simply with a view to personal career advancement. It carefully avoids treading on anyone's toes, and often simply repeats a predecessor.. Nonetheless, pursuit of truth may, in time, find fit audience, though few.

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

"A work is never complete --- a word which (...) is meaningless --- but abandoned." Paul Valéry.

Hand-written note in Gordon's 1960 edition, probably by Sandra Farquhar


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
visualizations of the anfloga
essays and papers
site version and Anglo-Saxon text
main index

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