Baffin Island 1962
Getting a bit autobiographical here, but what the hell. I feel compelled to supply some minimal credentials. This compulsion comes from having wallowed in the slough of what seem to me numberless irrelevant arguments and discussions devoted to the seafarer poem. I read that it was written by a penitential exile, or a fisherman, or that his voyages were imposed by a confessor on the sinful seaman. It has been contended that the poem is an allegory for the representation of the mind, or an allegory for the life of a sinner. Publish or perish is the motto of career-minded academicians, and I wonder whatever will they think of next.
I may be wrong, but I don't suppose any of the word-spinners who have spun their webs around the Anglo-Saxon seafarer had done any sailing themselves. I have, however. Under the masterly captaincy of my good friend, legendary David Lomax, the Lime Grove Lion, 1938-2014, and his mate, Judy; and after several excursions to Cherbourg, and the Channel Islands, circa 1980-86, I crewed for him in his 33 ft yacht, Cloudwalker, on voyages from Florida to New York 1988; Eric the Red's BrattahlÝ, Greenland to Iceland round well-named Cape Farewell, and then on to Shetland, via Faeroes, 1989; Stockholm to Helsinki, 1991; Svalbard, Moffen Island, 80║N, and North Cape to Troms°; 1994; Shetland, Faeroes, Iceland,1996.
What leads people to embark thus ? What drove Erling Kagge, Cecilie Skog, Ran Fiennes; Chichester, Knox-Johnston, Blyth ? Through cold, wet, frost, and endless discomfort ? They would see nothing odd at all in the sentiments of the seafarer. Penitential exile ? Impositions of a confessor ? Don't make me laugh. Like hitting your head against a brick wall: it's so great when you stop. And my destination makes it worth my while, pushing through the darkness, still another mile. Not to mention the distinct sense of superiority over the landlubber. All sailors, even fishermen, know they are a cut well above the lobster-clad pongos, let alone the drongos, moaning at the bar. After all, they can read the stars, and know how to navigate.
The seafarer poem is utterly commonplace. It is extremely similar to Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, or Masefield's Sea Fever, two of the best-loved poems in the English language. Part of the appeal of these compositions is that they are as good as non-denominational. Philosophical, not tediously religious. If life has been tough, try to look on death as compensation. Believe in angels. Masefield had been a sailor, but otherwise a liitle imagination is all that is needed. Tennyson can identify with Ulysses, even though the land-girt dons in Toronto or Stanford cannot. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. That's the ticket.
Anglo-Saxonists claim to see fern-seed, but can't see an elephant in front of them. D.R.Howlett points out that they simply don't understand the texts they write about. And even Howlett, who sees more of the elephant than the rest of them put together, has on occasion persisted in using "Old English", which, as Dr Beard has noted, is "contrary to common sense".
Morover, Howlett goes badly astray, by failing to respect G.V.Smithers, 1957, when he writes about lines 58-63 in The Seafarer, as he did in 1975: -----
"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. Birds recur as heavenly messengers in Ethelwulf De Abbatibus, lines 174-178, 234-243, and 574-578."
By not fully appreciating the true meanings of anfloga and unwearnum (certainly not "irresistibly", as also unnoticed by Smithers), the biter here is somewhat bitten. He also seems to confuse the putative "lone bird", supposedly a messenger, with the sparrow that flew through the mead-hall; surely merely a metaphor for a man's life ?
Nevertheless, these following quotes from Howlett are decidedly useful. From British Books in Biblical Style, 1997, and The Structures of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, 1975. The first two observations have a beauty giving them notes which are positively musical to my ears.
Page 313, SWS 1975: Describing critics who have spilled gallons of ink on The Wanderer and The Seafarer, Howlett remarks "As the dissectors have not yet established which parts of the poems are 'genuine' one may agree with C. S. Lewis: 'These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.' "
Page ix, BBBS 1997: With reference to "Old English texts", Howlett suspected that "philologists, literary critics, and historians .... did not understand them".
His own "preliminary 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 more correct than the conceptions of his hostile dismissers.
Remember Russell, remember Schopenhauer, remember Columbus, remember Galileo.