See Ancient of Days on previous page.

Frederick Stearns Holton
University of Edinburgh

Note: 25 December, 2013. This page must have been drafted many months ago, and then set aside to attend to more pressing matters, perhaps concerning Peter Monamy. It was then forgotten, until today. It obviously intended to address two of the studies of F.S.Holton, which struck me as having signal relevance to the poem, and which comprehensively refudiate (lovely word --- good enough for Ezra) the garbage peddled by said Pound, and other ludicrously obtuse seekers after Anglo-Saxon paganism. These essays would have been the two titled: Old English Sea Imagery and the Interpretation of "The Seafarer" in: The Yearbook of English Studies vol. 12, 1982, pp. 208-217, see below for opening remarks; and Exegesis and Eschatology in Old English poetry, University of Edinburgh, 1979, see also below for Abstract. Both of these articles can be found, easily, via the internet, where I found them.

Exegesis and Eschatology in Old English poetry 1979.

Abstract: "In this thesis I contend that, although Anglo-Saxon poetry is not specifically allegorical, one is justified in speaking of a "cultural context" for the poetry, formed by and responding to the writings of the Fathers, which permits one to consider liturgical overtones, not as hints at. allegory, but as contributing nonetheless to an understanding of the texts in question. Extrapolating this into the archetypal sphere, I contend that one may also speak. of a "cross-cultural context", in which general images at any rate may be viewed as evoking responses not necessarily tied to the specific world of Anglo-Saxon culture, and that unconscious factors of composition must be taken into account. I then apply this combination of patristic and archetypal criticism to three main groups of images--those relating to the sea, those relating to the eschatology of the cross, and those relating to the theme of the homeland. The sea represents flux, chaos, and hostility to the divine but is also the catalyst --- as with the Wanderer and the Seafarer --- for personal development and "rebirth", analogous to Christian baptism. Whereas the sea indicates potential, vegetation is the actual; and the highest expression of this actuality is the cross, without which the waters of baptism are wholly inefficacious, just as the Christian may not reach heaven without being in the ship of the Church, which is fabricated of the wood of the cross. But even this only constitutes earthly fulfilment, and the final stage is the eternal fixity of the Heavenly City, the ultimate homeland. Viewing Anglo-Saxon poetry in this light --- as a poetic cosmology based on the elements of Christian myth --- it is possible to enhance our understanding of the poetry, while avoiding the excesses of the historical school, who believe that it is strictly conscious and allegorical, as opposed to symbolic."                                                                                                         F.S.Holton

All that Holton was missing were the correct translations of unwearnum and anfloga, which would have clinched his arguments. Here, from above left, is a particularly attractive statement: "It has long since 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." Written in 1982, it is amazing that there are still dense individuals, in 2014, echoing the dumber scholars of the early C20th, and rejecting the poem's 125 line unity.


The Seafarer can be divided into two precise halves: the first half is an exemplum; and the second half draws a didactic, hortatory, moral conclusion. Physically and aesthetically central to the composition is the word unwearnum. An exemplum, courtesy the Free Online Dictionary, is "an anecdote that supports a moral point or sustains an argument, used especially in medieval sermons." The verse moves from the concrete to the abstract, from experience to reflection. The indications are that the experience may have been personal, but unlikely to have been repeated more than a few times; between monasteries, as it were. It is also possible that all that was needed was a vivid imagination. No one supposes that Coleridge had himself endured the trials of his Ancient Mariner. At the same time, the poetic ingenuity, culture and sophistication demonstrated in this work were not entirely acquired at the helm of a sea-craft. Many commentaries during the 19th and 20th centuries have been convinced that the poem is purely autobiographical, whereas it is better understood as a vehicle for doctrine.

The Seafarer is a so­gied. Bosworth-Toller, 1898: "gid, gidd, gied, gyd, gydd, ged, es; n. ..... II. as Old English or Saxon proverbs, riddles, and particular speeches were generally metrical, and their historians were bards, hence, A speech, tale, sermon, proverb, riddle; sermo, dictum, loquela proverbium, ænigma etc." The most natural conclusion, that The Seafarer is a sermon, has been sedulously avoided by all and sundry, except, of course, by Olof Arngart.

See Jackson C.Campbell, Oral Poetry in The Seafarer, Speculum, 1960, pp 87-96. Quote: " .... many early Christian poets, rather than being simple, devout, and unlettered like Caedmon, or even professional pagan scops who continued to exercise their gift after being converted, were often English monks and churchmen, well-educated in Christian Latin literature and actively working to introduce Christian elements into their native poetic tradition, not only in the form of Biblical narratives, but also in matters of diction and formulaic phrasing. ... none of the evidence we can deduce from the poems we have actually precludes a poet putting together a poem in the solitude of a monastic library." Campbell, however, goes on to argue that "it appears" that The Seafarer, although undoubtedly a unity, is " a vivid and dramatic oral poem, full of the older conventions, [which] has been remembered and reworked by a lettered homilist-poet, a man with full knowledge of the style of oral poetry and even a certain reduced command of its formulas." Debatable.

From Corey Owen's exemplary and wholly admirable The Seafarer: A Hypertext Edition, 1999:

Concluding paragraph of his General Introduction:

"The value of The Seafarer as a guide for a monastic audience suffering from some sort of doubt, then, is made clear by the position in which the speaker places the audience. By inviting the listener/reader into the seafarer's experience and awareness at each stage of his crisis and conversion, the poet, or possibly poets, offers a subtle guide for one whose faith is suffering. Considering their access to such works as St. Gregory the Great's Cura Pastoralis and John Cassian's Institutes Monachorum, Anglo-Saxon monks would have considered notions of spiritual struggle commonplace. Such a monastic reader, in a time when encouragement is desired, could read The Seafarer, or almost any other spiritually didactic poem in the Exeter Book, and find a figure with whom he or she could identify. In The Seafarer, such a figure reminds a monastic audience of its purpose for renouncing the world: for ■on me hatran sind / Dryhtnes dreamas ■onne ■is deade life / lŠne on londe (64b-66a), "for the joys of the Lord are dearer to me than this dead life, fleeting on land." Whether this poem was composed by a monastic poet or interpolated for an audience of monks remains unclear; however, the vernacular lyric's therapeutic function for such listeners or readers is confirmed by the speaker's description of his dedicating his life to a spiritual purpose."

mid-13th century

unwearn, unwearnum

translation       poetry

annotation       main index

essays & papers

other versions

site version



late 8th century

Image of St John, right, from the Book of Moling, Trinity College, Dublin
Try The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature, by Charles D.Wright, 1993.

From History Today
November, 2010

Many other allusions mentioned by other commentators can be found in Corey Owen's annotated bibliography.


© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2013, 2016