Annoying that Pound got "may" right. He then got "reckon" totally wrong of course.


Can I ? May I ? Let me.

The prefatory remarks in The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2004, make it beautifully clear that The Seafarer 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, suffused in Biblical learning and allusion. Let me be transparent about this.

The editor's 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.

At this point it seems useful to teleport a note from the first page of annotations. Click here. December 2011. Psalm 19 is quoted, twice, here. It becomes attractive to quote it a third time, but not in its AV translation, which reads verse 14 thus: "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight...." More apt seem to be the translations adopted by both the New International Version (1984), and the New Living Translation (2007): "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing...." The question of which is to be preferred, "let" or "may", is touched on here. The translation of mæg as "can", is robustly rejected, here. Further note: May 2016. The uncomfortable fact is I now seem to have settled on "Let" as the best translation. Let the words of my mouth ring true.

An instance of further advisability for the etymological approach, seemingly ignored and eschewed by the profoundly misconceived Toronto Dictionary of Old English, so-called, occurs in this imagined comment of a mother to her son, as he sets forth on his military career: Adieu mein Kleiner, möge das Glück mit dir sein! See here. Or here. German möge and Anglo-Saxon mæg could hardly be closer in sound, sense and import. It does seem passing strange that so many of the most modern interpretations of Anglo-Saxon poetry appear to be made by writers otherwise ignorant of Germanic languages, both modern and ancient. There seems, sadly, to be no complete Anglo-Saxon version of Psalm 19 extant.

Many long years ago I was instructed to observe that the following obtained in educated English usage:

"Can I ?" means "Am I able to ?" Conversely "I can" means "I am able to".
"May I ?" means "Am I permitted to ?" Or, more aggressively, "Permit me to".
"May I" can also mean "Let me". This use allows virtually no disagreement.

Oliver Kamm, however, in the article reproduced below, asserts that demotic usage disagrees with these precepts, and hallows the contrary. I find his argument does not really ware well. It is ridiculous to let the common mob wield the reigns in this way. It is bearly acceptable. Definatly not. Anyway, I don't get the point he is attempting to make by invoking Carroll's Alice. Consider also the repeated corrections directed at little Amaryllis in the 1961 musical film The Music Man. Reminded me of my grandfather.

notes and glosses from The Cambridge Old English Reader

LineAnglo-Saxongloss or noteComment
1mægcanQuite 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. Let this be understood.
2siþasjourneys (or experiences)Siþas means "paths" or "ways", with an undercurrent of "patterns of behaviour" or "conduct". See here. "Journeys" is simply wrong.
2geswincdagumdat.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".

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 Reader's devotion to grammar may well be ace, but the glossary it offers 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 ..."


siþas secgan hu ic

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

For 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."

".... 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.

Cristiana Doerschel, 5 years ago:"Sehr schöne Version, das Lied ist so bewegend, dass ich es immer wieder hören will... es gab ja wirklich so viele Mütter die vor Kriegen zu ihren Söhnen sagen: 'Adieu mein Kleiner, möge das Glück mit dir sein!' Und viele sind nicht mehr wiedergekommen... ?"


essays and papers
commentary three
cambridge old english reader
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
another visualization of the anfloga

main index

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2016
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A Seafarer


Scyld Scefing