A Seafarer


Scyld Scefing

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

For a summary of 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." Not what it says in The Bible, Mr Galileo. I'm afraid it's hot logs for you. Unless you recant, of course.

some comments on


On 23rd September, 2019, in a periodical called The Week, an interesting British politician bluntly stated that Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936, was a racist and an imperialist, before following this up by saying that Kipling's Kim was one of his favourite books. Was he aiming to placate all potential voters of his notional electorate ?

In any case, he had been paying scant attention to T.S.Eliot, who, in his introduction to his Choice of Kipling's Verse, 1941, wrote "I cannot find any justification for the charge that Kipling held a doctrine of race superiority." Eliot also wrote, "Kipling was a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle." A determination to belittle Kipling was voiced with a rabid vengeance by George Orwell in the following year, 1942. This was published in Horizon, a literary journal, and is described in a book publisher's blurb as "perhaps the finest brief survey of Kipling's verse". Eliot's essay had earlier been described, in the previous publisher's blurb, as "an admirable example of the finest type of criticism." This was taken from The Spectator.

Here is a taste of what Orwell had to say about Kipling: "Every enlightened person has despised him. No use pretending that Kipling's view of life can be forgiven by any civilized person. A definite strain of sadism in him. Kipling is a jingo imperialist. Morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. Jingoism and brutality. The prophet of British imperialism. His bouncing vulgar vitality. The later part of his life spent sulking. His outlook was that of the salaried bureaucrat. Cruelty and vulgarity. Some streak in him that may have been partly neurotic. Tawdry and shallow. Might have been a good writer of music-hall songs. Sententious poems, such as "If". Air of patronage. Facetious and blatant. Disgusting lengths. A crude, vulgar picture. A patriotic music-hall turn. Gaudy tableau. Kipling himself was only half-civilized. Gutter press. Snack-bar wisdom. Thinking and decent people are on the other side from him. Most of Kipling's verse is horribly vulgar. The taste of cheap sweets. Vulgar thought vigorously expressed. Not witty, not daring. He dealt largely in platitudes. But less shallow and less irritating than Wilde or Shaw." [!?!?!] These are Orwell's exact words.

There is something pitifully putrid about Orwell's vituperative venom, in this selection of considered opinions from the "finest brief survey of Kipling's verse." Obviously, T.S.Eliot did not qualify as an enlightened or civilized person. However, George presumably thought of Eliot as racist. On the other hand, he strongly believed Kipling's well-known line: "lesser breeds without the law" to refer to the Germans. Confusing.

Contrast Orwell with distinctively discriminating Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986, whose full discussion with Paul Theroux in 1979 is accessible here: CLICK. Borges quotes from The Seafarer, evidently in the original Anglish, and this leads him on to Kipling's Harp Song. It is undoubtedly tempting to suppose that Kipling felt inspired by The Seafarer. By 1906 The Seafarer had appeared in seven translations; though fortunately not yet by Ezra Pound. The version likely to have been seen by Kipling would have been that by Lola LaMotte Iddings, 1902, which was nine years later to be surreptitiously mangled by clandestine Ezra Pound: CLICK.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre.
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken- -

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

By Rudyard Kipling. Published 1906.
(English Poet, 1865-1936.)

See Borges on Kipling, and on The Seafarer. Here. An essay by Paul Theroux, selected from The Old Patagonian Express, July 22, 1979.


He recited the opening lines of The Seafarer. "The Seafarer," he said. "Isn't it beautiful?

Borges said, "Read me 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women.'" I did as I was told.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

"'The old grey Widow-maker,'" he said. "That is so good. You can't say things like that in Spanish. But I'm interrupting. Go on." I began again, but at the third stanza he stopped me. "'...the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you'- how beautiful!"

ne biž him to hearpan hyge
ne to hringžege
ne to wife wyn


D.G.Rossetti. 1874.

It is equally tempting to speculate that all four of the verses presented here were in some way influenced by The Seafarer. It may just have been a general perception that the approach of the anfloga, the personification of Death's onslaught, either as an angel or a keening hag, was understood to imply a sea voyage to an unknown destination. The pagan would believe this destination to be the soil from which he had sprung, and the Christian would have been persuaded to believe in a heaven reserved for the repentant sinner. The popular idea, in many interpretations, that "the seafarer's heart has transformed itself into something like a bird, burning to fly away to another world", is, in my view, utterly misconceived.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew
                        from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

by Alfred Lord Tennyson 1809-1892. 1889.
(English Poet Laureate, 1850-1892.)

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

By John Masefield, 1878-1967. Published 1902.
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)


Two of the most popular poems in the English language.
Agnostic Tennyson put his faith in honest doubt.
Masefield expresses no faith at all. Wise man.

Already by 1867 the sea of faith had been perceived to be in recession: see here. Nevertheless, in the 1970s a rather stunning quartet had found something to wonder at in the fairy-tale, and thought that the fantasy still provided a form of consolation. In the singer's sošgied, with the words of Andersson and Ulvaeus:

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness: still another mile
I believe in angels .....
When I know the time is right for me
I'll cross the stream. I have a dream.

sižas secgan hu ic
the ways explain how I

".... 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.


essays and papers
The Cambrige 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
can may let
visualizations of the anfloga
another visualization of the anfloga

the anfloga, bringing eternity
commentary collection
main index

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2019
all rights reserved