This is the revised, corrected, and expanded text of a paper originally published in Studia Neophilologica; Vol LXVIII, No 2, Uppsala, Sweden 1996.

The Holderness Cross, 50 mm x 50 mm, early 7th century

The Central Crux of The Seafarer

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


This paper addresses one of many problems encountered when attempting a Modern English verse interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Seafarer, now widely recognized to be of seemingly inexhaustible subtlety. The poem survives in a unique ms, inscribed in about 975 AD; and its continuous, unbroken text has been organized, by successive editors since 1842, into 124, or 125, lines of verse. The form of Anglo-Saxon verse is fairly constant. It is unrhymed, alliterative, and has a caesura roughly in the centre of each line. The two halves of the line are conventionally labelled a and b.

J.R.R.Tolkien, in a famous lecture in 1936, and in his preface to the revised (1940) edition of J.R.Clark Hallís translation of Beowulf, drew attention to the Anglo-Saxon epicís balanced structure, which he noted was "like a line of its own verse written large", and "more like masonry than music". In my view the structural symmetry of The Seafarer is even more marked. I will here concentrate solely on lines 62b-64a (quoted above) which form the exact mid-point of the poem.

Much scholarly scrutiny has been devoted to ll.58-68, of which this passage forms the core, and many of the words in these lines have been closely examined. This paper will focus on unwearnum, however, which so far seems to have received little attention. Most translations of ll.62b-64a render unwearnum as "irresistibly", which is the principal meaning given by almost all dictionaries and glossaries. (A selection of dictionary excerpts is appended [a], showing the complex shades of meaning of the many words ultimately derived by the OED from the Old Teutonic root wer- or war-.)

My primary aim in this paper is to show that unwearnum does not mean "irresistibly", and to propose that the basic meaning of wearn, the root word from which unwearnum is formed, and which is said by the Oxford English Dictionary (under "warn") to mean "refusal", may have been misconstrued. An appreciation of the full significance of this word offers, in my view, the key to a definitive understanding of the entire poem.

If we reduce the context of unwearnum to a manageable minimum, we appear to be left with the (edited) statement: anfloga hweteð on (h)wælweg hreþer unwearnum. A so-called "invariant core" of this line's numerous translations would read: anfloga - the lone flier; hweteð - urges; on (h)wælweg - on the whale way; hreþer - the heart; unwearnum - irresistibly. None of these readings, in my opinion, is fundamentally correct; although, since the Seafarer poet was a consummate master of poetic ambiguity, he may have intended an additional, secondary reading along these lines.

I will deal rapidly with the words preceding unwearnum. I follow G.V.Smithers in reading anfloga not as the "lone flier", but as the "on-flier" or "approaching flier"; and onwæl weg (thus in the ms) not as "on the whale way"; but as "on the path of death" (cf Grein 1857, Sweet 1871, and also Horgan 1979.) [b] Hweteð does not primarily mean "urges" in this context, but retains its obvious meaning "whets"; implying "makes ready" or "prepares". Sweetís Studentís Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon (1896) offers "breast, womb, heart, mind" for hreþer; and, for hreþ: "victory, glory". Thus hreþer would seem to connote vitality, the life-force triumphant over death. I would translate it "soul", or "spirit", since "wraith", which may not impossibly number hreþer among its ancestors, has become too etiolated.

We come now to unwearnum, which cannot mean "irresistibly". I would read this word as "in a defenceless, or unprotected state". Its conceptual root is wearn, a noun I would suggest translates best as "bar", "barrier", "barricade"; or even "rampart/bulwark". The word is cognate with Ic vörn, Nor vern, and Sw värn; all of which connote "defence". However, a "bar" or a "barrier" are neutral in effect and do not necessarily imply either "hindrance" or "defence". An attacker, or "on-flier", would conceive of a barrier as a "resistance, obstacle, impediment", but for a defender it would be a "defence" or "shield".

The absence of a barrier cannot be expressed as a noun; and unwearn must therefore be thought of as an adjective, which can only be rendered as "defenceless", or possibly "unresisting"; but certainly not "irresistible". In the context of the statement gielleð anfloga hweteð onwæl weg hreþer unwearnum the adjective unwearn can only apply to the hreþer, and must be understood to be describing it as either "defenceless" or "unresisting" or, what on further reflection seems to me here the closest equivalent, "vulnerable". It makes no sense to apply unwearn to the anfloga, and still less to the weg.

The suffix -um, however, is a dative case ending producing an adverbial effect; and unwearnum, to satisfy a simple rule of classical grammar, must apparently modify the nearest verb, hweteð. Since hweteð seems to express the action of the anfloga, the cluster of meaning attaching to unwearn is, as it were, attracted away from the hreþer to the anfloga. The neutral barrier between these entities becomes an impediment or obstacle, negated because overwhelmed or removed. The transitive action, the "whetting", apparently performed by the anfloga, is therefore misconstrued as being conducted "irresistibly": hence the anomalous translations offered by the dictionaries. An indication of the force of this particular application of the Anglo-Saxon case ending -um is provided by I.L.Gordon's note to geswincdagum, in line 2 of her edition of The Seafarer, 1960, where she refers to the "use of the dative to give attendant circumstances". The attendant circumstances of the hreþer in this context are that it is unprotected.

There are only some 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon verse extant, and unwearnum only occurs in verse, and then only twice; here and in Beowulf, line 741: slæpendne rinc slat unwearnum. In Beowulf the word would also be better translated as "defenceless" or "vulnerable", or in this instance perhaps, "unsuspecting". This sense is given in Björn Collinderís Swedish translation of Beowulf, Stockholm 1954: slet sönder den värnlöse ("tore asunder the defenceless/vulnerable/unsuspecting man"). Klaeberís 1950 edition of Beowulf glosses unwearnum as: "without hindrance, irresistibly" and also as "eagerly, greedily"; but all these glosses, and especially the last two, seem to have been infected by the text of The Seafarer, in which the word gielleð is immediately preceded by the phrase gifre ond grædig, ie "eager and greedy". This adjectival phrase is somewhat loosely positioned. It is ambiguous and unattached, and may be understood as referring back to two or three earlier substantives as well as forward to the anfloga.

The situations in the two poems are alike. In both cases humanity is being set upon by sinister and heathen forces. In The Seafarer the anfloga is a yelling, flying harbinger of death, an apparition suggestive of the Valkyrie of Norse mythology, the wælcyrie of the Anglo-Saxons, the bhean sidhe (Banshee) of the Irish; or even, more remotely, the god Horus of ancient Egypt, who conveys the ring of eternity to the dying in the guise of a bird of prey, sometimes a vulture. The influence on early Christianity of the eschatalogical imagery of Coptic Egypt was analysed by Louise Dudley, in her illuminating thesis "The Egyptian Elements in the Legend of the Body and the Soul". Some of the wording she quotes, eg "The lamentations of his friends do not help a man to be consoled in the tomb. ... no man carries his possessions with him when he dies", if commonplace, is certainly reminiscent of ll.97-99 of The Seafarer.

In Beowulf the sleeping warrior (1335 lines later in the poem we learn his name was Hondsciô) is consumed by the bog-monster of heathendom, Grendel. Both the wording of the lines and the visualisation of the incident appear to be closely matched by a line in Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590), III iii VIII: "For fear the cruell Feends should thee vnwares deuowre". "Unwares" seems to function here in Spenser's line as an adverb of attendant circumstance.

Four translators of The Seafarer try "resistlessly" for unwearnum, which recognizes the difficulty; but the Rev. Clair McPherson, 1987, perhaps comes closest to its true meaning with "unawares". [c] C.K.Scott Moncrieff, in his 1921 translation of Beowulf, rendered unwearnum as "unawares"; and this perhaps now faintly archaic word features as the preferred reading of unwearnum in Harrison & Sharp's edition of Beowulf, 1883. Benjamin Thorpe's glossary to his Beowulf, London 1875, also favours "unawares" (given under wearn). Later luminaries may be thought to have ignored these early Anglo-Saxon scholars at their peril. However, within the context of The Seafarer in its entirety, for reasons set out below, hreþer unwearnum is still best translated as "the undefended, unprotected, unprepared, or vulnerable soul".

Before coming to these reasons, it is necessary to consider the role of the verb, hweteð. Is a sentence such as "the anfloga irresistibly whets the hreþer"; really acceptable? Can anything "irresistibly whet" something else? Possibly: but the concept implies resistance on the part of the object which is being whetted, whereas the dominant mental image here is of the hreþer positively wanting to be keen and alert. It seems to me that in many a transitive verb there lurks the shadow of a potentially intransitive application, and in this context there is an insistent sense of the hreþer intransitively (or reflexively) preparing itself. Verse seems especially prone to condone this kind of handling of a normally transitive verb; as here in Browningís lines:

"Good Speed!" cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through;

where the gate-bolts, via the elision of a pronoun for the watch, have acquired a volition of their own.

In spite of the fame of Ezra Poundís version, first published in 1911, his command of Anglo-Saxon was less than total, as his "Philological Note" ('The text of this poem is rather confused') admits. Nevertheless he was a poet, hélas, and his early essay in "sincere self-expression" contains memorable lines, not least of which is: "Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly". It is notable that by setting the "crying lone-flyer" between parenthetical commas, and by faithfully following the word-order of the Anglo-Saxon, he succeeds in imparting almost exactly the right touch of intransitive self-motivation to "whets".

Since making the bald assertion, above, that "hweteð does not [primarily] mean 'urges' [in this context], but retains its obvious meaning 'whets'; implying 'makes ready' or 'prepares'," I have come to appreciate that hweteð requires deeper cogitation. The word occurs in Old Norse, prominently in Gudrunarhvöt, which was translated by Auden and Taylor in 1981 as "Gudrun's Inciting". A modern Icelandic dictionary gives: "impulse, spur, inducement, motive; incentive, drive; desire; goad" for hvöt. It is clearly also linked with hvat-, connoting vigour, action and recklessness. Skeat derives Modern English "whet" from Anglo-Saxon hwettan, "to sharpen", and also mentions hwæt, "keen, bold, brave"; and there are overtones of "encouragement" in its root sense of "to impart courage". There appears to be a certain imprecision of concept in the basic metaphor, which has been exploited by the Seafarer poet, and may be examined more rigorously elsewhere. "Whetting" merges at least two visual images: the sharpening of a knife, say, and the stropping action which accompanies it. A sense of "foretaste" is also present. A whetted knife would be good for whittling a wooden goad. The mind involuntarily turns towards the symbolic whetstone found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial.

Finally, however, we should consider the intentions of the poet, and the superstitions of his audience. A major reason for adopting the reading proposed below is that a soul bracing itself at the audible onset of some airborne denizen of the Otherworld (or, in other words, a man contemplating his own approaching death) might justifiably feel the need of a secure, invulnerable haven. He would feel unwearn: and his new religion would be offering him the promise of what Luther later called "ein feste Burg ... ein gute Wehr".

The poet Longfellow once noted: "In every mysterious sound that fills the air, the peasant still hears the trampling of Odinís steed, which many centuries ago took fright at the sound of a church bell." The Seafarer, as Professor Arngart of Lund pointed out in 1979, is a kind of poetic sermon; and the passage we have been examining marks, with a sense of impending menace, the poetís transition from paganism to Christianity. Immediately after this central crux, on which the whole poem turns, he metaphorically rings his church bell, and invokes his Biblical God.

In the precisely measured first half of The Seafarer the poet is recording a pagan past, as well as a sea-going life of personal endurance and endeavour, both vividly realistic and allegorical. In the second half he invites his listeners to reflect on and accept the ending, not only of their temporal lives, but also their pagan apprehensions of the life to come. The members of his congregation are still half heathen, and only half converted. The poemís final 25 lines prescribe for them a frame of mind, and a course of conduct upon earth, to ensure their heavenly future. The old gods are slowly being demonised, and the earlier domain of the pagan dead, Hel, is turning into a burning, fiery furnace; although these changes should be thought of as an unobtrusive backdrop to the poem's texture.

More important is the tone of its dying fall (en la sua voluntade è nostra pace, as T.S.Eliot's quotation from Dante puts it), and for those who know The Seafarer in its entirety, I cannot resist quoting a strangely appropriate extract from a letter written by Dr John Dee, in 1592: "... gradatim, from things visible, to consider of things inuisible; from things bodily, to conceiue of thinges spirituall: from thinges transitorie, and momentarie, to meditate of things permanent: by thinges mortall ... to have some perceiuerance of immortality. And to conclude, most briefeley, by the most meruailous frame of the whole world, philosophically viewed, and circumspectly wayed, numbred, and measured ... most faithfully to loue, honor, and glorifie alwaies, the Framer and Creator thereof."

These are only a few comments on a fractional portion (but, in my view, the keystone) of a true masterpiece of verbal craftsmanship, a timeless monument of poetic masonry. The poemís structure is analogous to that of Beowulf: A + B; Life + Death; and its single, unifying theme is mankindís desire for survival, first physical, then spiritual. This is not an opinion I have seen expressed elsewhere; but I am not the first to make plain a conviction that its framer and creator, or, perhaps more accurately, the last unknown contributor to its evolution, can rest assured of his nameless immortality.

*** *** ***

Suggested readings of ll.62b-64a:

"The approaching flier screams. The vulnerable soul prepares for the road of death, across the waters of the seas."

More comprehensively, and in the wider context: "Time's winged chariot, bearing the angel of death, is hurrying near: the keening, wailing birdcall of the banshee and the valkyrie, bodied forth from within the casing of the human mind and spirit, goad and spur the naked, wreathing wraith, or nimbus, to make ready for its one-way voyage beyond the skerries and over the spreading oceans where the whale holds sway."

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© Charles Harrison-Wallace 1999/2010/2014


updated 9/9/1999

See further notes on anfloga and unwearnum

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