Marshall McLuhan pounds the Foundations, and he's right about the Professory Rats:
"publish profusely: just make sure you say nothing unwelcome".

One can see why he bought into Ezra.


Smithers has been largely disregarded because he happened to have been right.

John Hollander & Pamela Gradon
[1929-2013] and [born c 1940 ?]

I just might be persuaded that Alcuin, AD 735-804, was the actual author of The Seafarer poem. This seems to me fractionally more likely than that one of two writers was influenced by the other in noting that the mind may wander far and wide. True, however, that the great majority of those whose thoughts have roamed over this enigmatic composition have come up with stuff that is harmlessly uninspired.

I don't really know why I've headed this page with the names of John Hollander, who discusses Pound's monstrosity in Versions, Interpretations, and Performances, pp 210-213, in On Translation, 1959, edited by Reuben A. Brower; or Pamela Gradon, who looks at another aspect in Form and Style in Early English Literature, 1971, pp 115-118. Their brief contributions seem less dull and harmless than most others, but perhaps that is because they've both skilfully managed to evade any mention of the central crux. Hollander, especially, seems to have a very poor grasp of Anglo-Saxon, but he makes one or two sound points concerning Pound's transmogrification of Anglo-Saxon poetry; and his citation of Alice's request to know the source language of fiddle-de-dee is endearing. How can one translate something if one doesn't know, or correctly understand, its language ?

According to Hollander, Pound offers one of the examples of "queer or précieux mistranslation" which abound around.  Hollander translates bitre breostceare gebidan hębbe as "I have endured intense heartache", and asserts that Pound makes use of "the device of cognate-substitution", in his version, which reads: "bitter breast cares have I abided".   In this case "cognate-substitution" actually seems to me marginally more accurate than Hollander's stab at the sentence. For some reason Hollander also seems to think that ceol means "keelboat", which is not a word I've often come across. Apparently it's a North American term meaning "a large covered river-boat without sails". I hardly think this is what the Anglo-Saxons had in mind, a millenium earlier, especially since they are recorded as having arrived, under Hengist and Horsa, on the shores of Britain, in three ceols, or cyulis, "as they call ships of war".

And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart's keel slides to rest among the meadows.
Home fom Abroad
by Laurie Lee.

Again, for some inscrutable reason Hollander thinks that se že ah lifes wyn gebiden in burgum means "the retainer, the wealthy warrior", which is as weird a reading as anything Pound comes up with.

Although Pound's intentions are opaque, Hollander suggests that he may have meant to "call attention to the alliterative scheme and the compressed syntax of the original by making a very queer sort of English to point it up". He justly adds that "it maintains considerable intensity through its preservation of the condensed structure of the Anglo-Saxon." That'll do from Hollander, faute de mieux. There's something distinctly raffelish about his take on Anglo-Saxon translation.

On to the more refreshing comments of Dr. Pamela Gradon. She likens the seafarer's words to those of the wanderer, and remarks that in both cases the "narrative is merely exemplary" in the first parts of their bi-partite structure. The "two sections are sructurally parallel" in each composition: there is a use of "paratactic structure to express the theme". I had to look up paratactic: it means "an arrangement of clauses without connectives indicating subordination", in case you didn't know.

She goes on to say that "the two parts of the poem are not simply juxtaposed but juxtaposed in a meaningful way. The themes of the first part, the secure life on land which the seafarer rejects and the sea voyage itself become, in the second part of the poem, symbols of the mutability of earthly things, and of the life to come." You can't argue with that, though some try.

No doubt everyone supplying an interpretation of The Seafarer believes their own version superior to the rest. Why would s/he otherwise cast it on the waters ? But then again, does anyone care in the slightest, or give a tinker's cuss ?

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean --- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master --- that's all."

Humpty Dumpty said: "I can explain all the poems that ever were invented --- and many that haven't been invented yet."

"Impenetrability! That's what I say!"

When an Anglo-Saxon word is interpreted by a translator, it means just what he chooses it to mean.


foržon nu min hyge
                    hweorfeš ofer hrežerlocan
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwęles ežel hweorfeš wide
eoržan sceatas cymeš eft to me
gifre and grędig gielleš anfloga
hweteš on węl weg hrežer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu


Despite the mastery of the Humpty Dumpty scholars, foržon nu does not mean "so that but now", nor "wherefore now"; although "wherefore" gets closer. Hweorfeš does not mean "roams", "burst" or "moves"; it means "turns" or "is thrown" (cast). Hrežer does not mean "breast"; its closest English equivalent is "wraith". Ofer means "beyond". (My bonnie lies over the ocean --- not on or above it.) Ežel implies "domain". Eoržan sceatas does not mean "the surfaces of the earth". The phrase refers to the womb-like soil to which man returns, when he dies. Eft means "then". Gielleš means "yells"; possibly "screams" or "shrieks", but nothing less. Hweteš means "sharpens" (steels). Węl means, most emphatically, "death". (Valhalla, the death hall, was modelled on the Roman Coliseum.) Holma cannot possibly mean "seas": it probably means "skerries", ie islets of a coastal archipelago.

Moreover, unwearnum cannot under any circumstances, or by any cogent stretch of the imagination, mean "irresistibly".


Mongolian anfloga

Jewish Anfloga

On to Something Else
Howlett's Seafarer Analysis
go to page one            go to page two
more thoughts on form & structure
back to "this version: structure"
on to Roberta Frank
back to Greenfield
Klinck & Magennis
seafarer essays and papers
back to site version
back to main index
themed images
Click for previous anfloga.
with flowers like those below


Mongolian anfloga

in the Courtyard of Diocletian's Roman Baths
see here, traced from here.


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

The Shetland Gannet's Shanty.

mail here


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2014, 2015
all rights reserved