John Wain: 1980

The Greville Press, Warwick


go to line: 62 ;   click on "helpless heart" to return [see note]

My purpose is to tell my own true tale,

to find words for my wanderings, how I in work-days

endured harsh times. Bitter troubles

in my heart's hold I have had to bear,

felt care clutch at my keel often.

The waves' chaos has many times caught me

in the ship's prow as she in peril

drove on to rocks. Ravenous cold

grasped my feet, fettered in frost's

cold chains: but the churning cares

were hot to my heart, and inmost hunger

stabbed at my tired mind.

Amid soft safety

the man in the land's lap will never learn

how I suffered storm-season and ice-cold sea

far from the soothing of friendly siblings.

Icicles hung from me. Hail came showering.

I heard no sound but the sea's smash,

the freezing swell. Sometimes the swan's voice

gave me a gladness: the gannet's language

or curlew's cry were my only carolling:

I knew no mead-hall, only the mew's call.


On stone cliffs the storms came crashing,

their only answer the icy-feathered

tern's whistle, and the wild shriek

of the horn-beaked eagle. No kin of my hearth

was near to comfort my needy spirit.

Ah, little he knows, who has lived

safe from such hell-journeys, in land's shelter

pouring wine, proud, how on sea-paths

I, weary, have watched and waited.

Night came down in darkness, north-snow driving,

frost gripped the earth, hail hit the ground

hardest of corn. Yet my heart cries out,

my heart that rules me, that the rearing waves,

salt water's tumult, I should try for myself.

Without cease my spirit spurs me:

hunger of mind keeps me homeless,

seeking far places and foreign people.


Yet there is none above ground so great-hearted,

so ready with gifts, so reckless with youth,

so lion-brave, by his lord so loved,

as to tempt the sea-tracks and never tremble

at what harms the Most High may have waiting.

That man has no mind for fine rings or harp-music,

worldly wishes, or the joy of women:

his thought is of naught but the wave's thrashing.


The woods are in blossom, towns grow brighter,

the fields fairer, earth's pulse faster,

and it all serves only to stir the striving

mind to movement, in him who means

to venture far across the flood-ways.

Likewise the cuckoo, with unlucky voice,

welcomes summer but warns of sorrow

bitter in breast's hold.

Blissful he knows not,

the secure man, what some must suffer

on homeless roads who roam the farthest.

Even now my soul strays from my breast's stowage,

my spirit flies over the flood-fields,

wide-wandering in the whale's kingdom,

in earth's far reaches --- then to me returns

greedy and hankering.   The helpless heart

is called by the winging bird to the whale's way,

the immense waters. But the Almighty's

delights draw me more than this death-in-life,

brief loan of breath. I have no belief

that the good things of earth can be eternal.


Three things threaten every man's thoughts,

keep him in doubt till his doom's day:

illness, age or the sword's edge:

for every wayfarer, one of them waits.

For that reason, the rightest repute

for any hero, the highest hearsay,

is the love of the living. Before he leaves

this earth, he should earn, in spite of enemies,

the fair fame of fighting the devil.

that the sons of men should commend him

and his bright blazon be among the blessed

for a life without limit, eternity's largeness.

great among the graced.

Days grow shorter,

earth's pride palls, lordship is poorer.

No kings come now, nor conquering Caesars,

no gold-givers like those who are gone:

those among whom were the mightiest marvels

famed in their time as a fearless fellowship.

Those dauntless are departed, their glory dimmed:

weaker men walk the earth now, and wield power:

their having is a heaviness.

Fame is hushed,

the world's dignity withers up and drivels

as comes to every man now over middle-earth:

age presses on him, his face grows pale,

white-haired, he sorrows for his henchmen,

sons of greatness given to the ground.

His garment of flesh, as life goes from it,

loses sweetness, relish and suffering-shock,

neither his hand nor his brain can hold a burden.

And though for his born brother he will bury

treasure in the tomb, strew the grave with gold,

various riches, to rig fair his voyage,

yet if the departed soul was sin-darkened

no gold will keep off the grimness of God,

though he had deftly deceived those he dwelt among.


Great is the Maker's awe, it moves the earth,

which He fastened on a firm anchorage:

the reaches of land and the sky's rim.

A fool has no God-fear; unready death finds him,

but heaven's grace homes in to the humble-hearted:

the Father fixes such minds on a foundation of faith.

A man must rule himself with a strong heart, and steadily,

his word be trusted, his ways clean.

Every man must have dealings meetly

with friend and with foe, ........ disaster ........

though he shall be tested with hell's own fires ........   n

and the friend he has found shall in the flames

of a pyre be powdered: Fate is more powerful,

the All-Mover mightier than a man's wishes!


Now let our hearts think where is their true home

and take counsel how we can come there,

and labour also that we may be allowed

to be in the abode of blessedness,

the right place for life, in God's love's realm,

amid heaven's hopes.

Now thank we the Holy One

that he, the world's Prince, put a price on us:

for all time, the Lord eternal.



n   the manuscript is defective at this point

CHW note 6 Jan 2001: John Wain's translation was not found until well after the posting of The Central Crux of The Seafarer on this site. His rendering of hreþer unwearnum as "helpless heart" recognizes the problem here,   although the rest of his version is conventional.


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