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

Myth, Language, Structure, Etc       Well-Head       This Version       Central Crux.


Stanley B.Greenfield


Stanley Greenfield is probably, with one exception, the literary critic who, during the last 100 years, has devoted most space and time to comment on The Seafarer.

At left is an index of 134 specific studies of The Seafarer, scanned from The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, revised second edition 2000, edited by Bernard Muir. This publication is indispensable to anyone seriously interested in the poem. That doesn't amount to very many people, sadly. The numbers boxed in red indicate essays by Greenfield exclusively concentrating on the poem, but he has many other comments scattered elsewhere.

After 1969 any halfway scholarly article about The Seafarer is unfortunately obliged to take notice of a paper by Peter Clemoes, even if not totally or overwhelmingly influenced by it. This is entitled Mens absentia cogitans in The Seafarer and The Wanderer. Clemoes states, p 70, in Medieval Literature & Civilization, that he believes "that the idea of the mind escaping from the body and flying in thought across sea and land came to the Seafarer poet probably from Alcuin's De Animae ratione ..... ", believed to have been written "in about 799 or soon afterwards".

I might be persuaded that Alcuin was the actual author of The Seafarer poem. This seems to me slightly more likely than that one of two writers was influenced by the other in noting that the mind may wander far and wide. Such a thought has been a simple commonplace in every age: a rather famous poet remarked that the poet's eye glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. One of his contemporaries decided that his mind to him was a kingdom; and a little later another poet asserted that the mind was an ocean, which replicated things as above, so below. Later still, a poet felt that he had an inward eye, the bliss of solitude, which saw dancing daffodils; and fairly recently a group of singers asked the bird on the wing, high in the sky, to carry them with it where their thoughts ever strayed. None of these, however, described their mind as a yelling, screaming, death-delivering valkyrie or banshee, eager and greedy.

The incidental translation in 1969 by Peter Clemoes of the central crux, lines 58-64a, reads as follows: "Now my mind roams beyond the breast that confines it, my spirit roams widely with the ocean flood across the domain of the whale, across the surface of the earth; the solitary flier returns to me filled with eagerness and desire, calls, urges my heart irresistibly on to the whale's path across the expanse of ocean ....", which amounts to 56 words. Its seventeen highly dodgy glosses are underlined. It is quite extraordinary that someone holding the appointments held by Peter Clemoes should be so excessively linguistically obtuse when it comes to Anglo-Saxon..

To be specific in a couple of instances, I don't think the mind is confined by the breast. In fact, I don't think the breast confines anything much; and quite certainly not the mind. The heart, perhaps. It is, however, itself confined by the rib-cage. Isn't it ? Furthermore, I don't think it useful to think of a corner, or even several corners, as a surface.

In Esthetics and Meaning and the Translation of Old English Poetry, an essay in Old English Poetry, edited by Daniel G.Calder, 1979, Greenfield crossed swords with Burton Raffel, much to the latter's displeasure. What he said, in one particular instance, p 96, was "Raffel has falsified both the esthetic and meaning of the poem". I'm with Greenfield, here..

In The Old English Elegies, 1983, p 37, Raffel retaliated thus: "It is not for me to prejudge readers' reactions, but I think it is not prejudicial, or even inappropriate, for me to say that there seems to me to be a lot more of the scop's poetic passion in my own version."   Than in Greenfield's version (of The Seafarer), he meant. Greenfield had succeeded in nailing Raffel's rock-solid lack of understanding of the Anglo-Saxon language, which was almost the equivalent of Pound's incomprehension. Unfortunately, Greenfield did not fully understand the poem himself. That's my opinion, like.

In The Art of Translating Poetry, 1988, p 165, Raffel remarked: "do not go to Ezra Pound's translation [of The Seafarer] for an accurate portrayal of the Old English soul or of the Old English mind. The heart probably beats harder in his translation. I think it beats more complexly, as well as rather more accurately, in mine."   Here, Raffel replaced his passion with his soi-disant accuracy and complexity.

Whose version is the more inaccurate, Burton's or Ezra's? I think Ezra just has the edge. No doubt every translator believes his own version to be the best. Why would he otherwise cast it on the waters ?

I have asked myself why I've headed this page with Greenfield's name. He was, I'm sure, a most excellent and amiable Professor, but it doesn't seem to me that he had anything remarkably penetrating to say about The Seafarer. In The Interpretation of Old English Poems, 1972, pp 43-45, however, he comes perilously close to lighting on the real truth of the poem's nature, only to conclude that the interpretation he posits "seems much too strained and, with most other critics, I would have to reject it." He is, in fact, crushed by the weight and density of the faulty readings that surround him. He should have had the courage of his suspicions, and seen "the anfloga divorced from the hyge, with the epithet (gifre and grędig) describing only the anfloga ----- a bird, whose whetting of the speaker's appetite for a journey bodes ill, even as does the cuckoo's speaking with sad voice a few lines earlier. The critics who interpret the anfloga as a bird, however, see a favourable meaning in the gifre and grędig epithet !"

Of course they do. The seafarer's message is that all men must die. To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late: early or late, he stoops to fate. The seafarer, who is, in every probability a monk, also has an evangelical mission along with his message, to bring his listeners within the fold, and to strengthen the faiths of those already flocking within it. Gifre and grędig applies both to them, and to the death-delivering anfloga. Had Greenfield only understood the true meanings of anfloga, unwearnum and węl weg he would have unlocked the riddle, and felt no obligation to Clemoes. Like the man who got as far as 6-Up, little did he know how close he came.

Two reasonably sensible comments, albeit brief, are offered by John Hollander, in Versions, Interpretations, and Performances, pp 210-213, in On Translation, 1959, edited by Reuben A.Brower; and Pamela Gradon, in Form and Style in Early English Literature, 1971, pp 115-118. Their contributions had best be examined on yet another page.

Various rendings, and I mean rendings, of The Seafarer's central crux appear below.
Enormous liberties are taken in these, and almost all other translations, but these are more cavalier than most.
Fine examples of the Humpty Dumpty school of translation.

Raffel: 1964

And yet my heart wanders away,
My soul roams with the sea, the whales'
Home, wandering to the widest corners
Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,
Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me
To the open ocean, breaking oaths
On the curve of a wave.
[44 words]

Pound: 1911

So that but now my heart
                        burst from my breast-lock,
My mood 'mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale's-acre, would wander wide.
On earth's shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean;
[38/42 words]

Greenfield: 1972

Wherefore now my spirit moves beyond the confines of my breast, my mind with the sea-flood, over the whale's home, turns widely across the surface of the earth; the lone-flier returns to me eager and greedy, calls loudly, urges my heart irresistibly onto the whale-path over the expanse of the seas.
[51 words]

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
When an Anglo-Saxon word is interpreted by a translator, it means just what he chooses it to mean.

"Find the style. When the style is found, write in the style."
E.Bruce Brooks: Translation Maxims


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

[35 words]


Despite the linguistic mastery of Humpty Dumpty, foržon nu does not mean "so that but now", nor "wherefore now". Hyge does NOT mean "soul", "heart" or "spirit." It translates exactly to Swedish håg or hug, ie "mind" or "thoughts". Hweorfeš does not mean "roams", "burst" or "moves"; it means "turns" or "is thrown". 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".



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Click for the Gumpel collection

On to Something Else
Howlett's Seafarer Analysis
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more thoughts on form & structure
back to "this version: structure"
Hollander & Gradon
Klinck & Magennis
seafarer essays and papers
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themed images


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Miriam Gumpel observes that the "symbol of an eagle ... appears above Holy Arks." Click.

Semi-Nutritious Reading Matter

1969: Medieval Literature and Civilization, edited by D.A.Pearsall & R.A.Waldron.
1972: The Interpretation of Old English Poems, by Stanley B.Greenfield.
1979: Old English Poetry: essays on style. Edited by Daniel G.Calder
1982 A Readable Beowulf: by Stanley B. Greenfield
1983: The Old English Elegies; edited by Martin Green
1986: Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature. Edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, Fred C.Robinson. Essays in Honour of Stanley B.Greenfield.
1989: Hero and Exile: The Art of Old English Poetry, by Stanley B.Greenfield. Edited by George H.Brown


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

"Truth sits upon the lips of dying men." But who, after the age of about 25, isn't dying, Matthew ?

The whooper swan is the only swan that calls in flight. All other swans are mute, except, apocryphally, when on the point of death. Hence their swan song. "Whooper" is pronounced "hooper", among those who know. The same applies to the whoop in whooping-cough.


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