These pages on structure were first composed and posted without reference to, and in ignorance of, the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss:
the surface of his work is scratched on here:
Myth, Language, Structure, Etc
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[click on well-head, below]

bronze box lid: diameter 81 mm
Ireland: late Iron Age

A design too magical not to be repeated on this page.
from Early Celtic Art, Shire Archaeology 1994, by R & V Megaw


David Howlett's analysis of the Structure of The Seafarer

distilled from The Structures of The Wanderer and The Seafarer
published in Studia Neophilologica, 1975, 47:2, pp 313-317

March, 2014. The image at left is of Howlett's awe-inspiring British Books in Biblical Style, published 1997.

First necessary comment: an unequivocal assertion that Howlett's scholarship, writings and opinions, are stratospherically superior to 98% of those engaged in similar pursuits in similar fields, especially among Anglo-Saxonists, very many of whom are severely hampered by cerebral indequacy.

Secondly: a recapitulation, below, of what has already been said elsewhere, some of it quite some time ago.


The hope, not utterly forlorn, is that this site will have established that The Seafarer cannot be fully understood unless its bipartite construction, deliberate and self-conscious, is indisputably admitted. This basic form has been reproduced in this site's Modern English version, but the two halves have been manipulated, in that the first half, already concise, has been further compressed and the second, already more languid, has been further stretched. I can't exactly explain, yet, why I felt the need to do this. There also appears to me to be some sort of much more elusive pattern, perhaps based on deeper notions of arithmetical or geometric proportion, underlying the poem's obvious two-part division. The interest of the ancients in concepts of ratio, applied to everything within their mental orbit, but especially to the arts of music, word and form, is reasonably well-recognized. Although I have spent a number of hours trying to crack the code of rational harmony which I suspect embedded in the poem's Anglo-Saxon text, I have not succeeded, and, other than feeling fairly confident that there is at least a syllogistic base to the poem's argument, am reduced, for now, to suggesting that its structure resembles the box lid image above.

There is a contrast in the poem between the (no doubt erroneously perceived) permanence of the universe, and the entropy of humanity. What John Cruickshank called "the sense that time is rapidly and inexorably bearing us towards physical disintegration; the consciousness of our brief human lives in contrast to the endurance of inanimate nature." Cruickshank was discussing the existentialism of Camus. This was possibly in Albert Camus & the Literature of Revolt, 1959 , but I'll have to check it. Note: 7 March, 2014. Haven't found it there yet; but in his Encyclopedia Britannica entry, Cruickshank says that the essay collections of Camus: "contrast the fragile mortality of human beings with the enduring nature of the physical world."

Comments from Wikipedia: In 1975 David Howlett published a textual analysis which suggested that both The Wanderer and The Seafarer are "coherent poems with structures unimpaired by interpolators"; and concluded that a variety of "indications of rational thematic development and balanced structure imply that The Wanderer and The Seafarer have been transmitted from the pens of literate poets without serious corruption." Howlett further added that "The argument of the entire poem is compressed into" lines 58-63, and explained that "Ideas in the five lines which precede the centre" (line 63) "are reflected in the five lines which follow it". By 1982 Frederick S. Holton had amplified this finding by pointing out that "it has long been recognized that The Seafarer is a unified whole and that it is possible to interpret the first sixty-three-and-a-half lines in a way that is consonant with, and leads up to, the moralizing conclusion."


Sectionable into two parts, or three, or five ? Well, in 1975 David Howlett was explicit: "The unit of composition is the verse paragraph, of which ..... The Seafarer [contains] five." Although his analysis was written 40 years ago, I don't think I've looked into it with proper thoroughness until just recently, and am struck by how near, yet how far apart, we come in agreement. "The centre of a poem 124 lines long lies between lines 62 and 63." I would say that the poem is 125 lines long (the last line consisting of the single word Amen, elongated into a prolonged chant), and its exact centre is actually line 63, namely hweteš onwęl weg | hrežer unwearnum. Whets for the death-way the wraith unprotected. "Whets" implies "prepares for". The whale's way is the road of death --- for the seafarer of that age. The poet was more of a playful punster than has yet been generally appreciated. However, Howlett's discernment of the seafarer's style is virtually the same as mine: it's in the linguistics that we differ.

Howlett says, and rightly, that "The argument of the entire poem is compressed into" lines 58-63. [En passant, why not 58-68 ? No matter, never mind.] What is of greater interest is that by 1997, when he published British Books in Biblical Style, he omitted any discussion of The Seafarer, although he retained an extended analysis of The Wanderer. Perhaps something had caused him to change his perception of The Seafarer, after 1975, but before 1997. I really can't help wondering if he had been glancing at Studia Neophilologica., 1996.

Some useful quotes from BBinBS, 1997, and TSTWTS, 1975. The first two observations have a beauty giving them notes which are positively musical to my ears.

Page 313, 1975: Describing Anglo-Saxonist critics, Howlett remarks "These men .... claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight". The sentence was originally coined by C.S.Lewis.
Page ix, 1997: With reference to "Old English texts", Howlett suspected that "philologists, literary critics, and historians .... did not understand them". His own "prelimary analyses" met with reactions from "Medieval and Classical and Biblical scholars" which "were nearly always dismissive and hostile". This means that his preliminary analyses were almost certainly correct.

Page 3, 1997: Chiasmus, a statement followed by a restatement in reverse order. Example, p 4: the old joke riddle: "As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives, etc .... Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St Ives ? Har, har, ha, ha !"


Howlett's analysis of the structure of The Seafarer, slightly modified and amplified

Part One

Lines 1-8

Lines 9-57

Lines 1-8
are prologue
41 words

Lines 9-57
48 lines
divided thus

how many words ?
left half


Lines 58-67

hweteš onwęl weg | hrežer unwearnum.

-------------------------------- gielleð anfloga
hweteð onwæl weg | hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu ----------------------------

here we part company:

Howlett: "When the Seafarer's thought has ranged over the whole transitory world and returned to him longing and unsatisfied, a lone bird calls irresistibly, urging him to consider the eternal joy which the Lord alone gives. With this solitary anfloga one can compare Bede's passer, the symbol of transitory earthly life in Historia Ecclesiastica II xiii. "

However: 'The anfloga is not any old "solitary bird", nor is the seafarer's thought consumed by "unsatisfied longing". The anfloga is a greedy, yelling, raptor, descending upon a poor, bare, forked animal, like the monstrous crow, which frightened both the heroes so. "Irresistible", true, but only because man's attendant circumstance is one of exposed and helpless vulnerability. Unwearnum does NOT mean irresistibly.'

See Central Crux.

Part Two

Lines 68-116

Lines 117 -125

Lines 117-125
are epilogue
53 words

Lines 68-116
48 lines
divided thus

how many words ?
right half

The figure at far left comes from The Golden Section, 1990, by Garth E.Runion, page 8. It reminds me of Howlett's mathematical dissection of The Seafarer. A tentative closer look is taken on another page.

On the same page one or two other matters will also be addressed, Such as the stupefying pronouncement, and query: "That depiction [of the seafaring life] is too nuanced, complex, and emotionally realistic to settle easily into the category of allegory .... (what about the seasonal return to land ?)". Also, eg, the matchless modesty and self-effacement of the legendary translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry, Burton Raffel.


the anfloga is the death bird
click here for Gumpel collection, p 16.


In BBiBS Howlett mentions the Fibonacci Series. Page 615. Also page 18, onwards, part of the five adjuncts of Biblical Style. But perhaps there is no connection between The Seafarer and the Fibonacci Series, originally a Hindu-Arabic notion. Not that that has any significance.

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"What is matter ? Never mind. What is mind ? Doesn't matter". Advice from Bertrand Russell's family.

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

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2014