Seafarer Cruxnotes

[The Central Crux of The Seafarer]

notes & references


note a: dictionary excerpts:

Grein, C.W.M.; Bibliothek der Angelsächsischen Poesie mit vollständigem Glossar; Cassel/Göttingen 1864:

unvearnum adv: unwiderstehlich. [B.741; Seef.63]

vearn f.: 1) Verweigerung, Versagen. [B.366]; 2) Widerstand: s unvearnum.; 3) Vorwürfe

vearnion, varnian: sich wahren, sich wovor hüten, sich etwas versagen.

Bosworth, J.; A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary; Soho Square, 1868:

unwær: Unaware, unwary, unexpected

unwáres: Unawares

unwearnum: Without warnings, unawares

wearn, e: f. 1. A keeping off, hinderance, obstacle, a contrariety, resistance. 2. A refusal, denial.

nb: "a keeping off" could perhaps as easily have been glossed "a defence".

Leo, Heinrich; Angelsächsisches Glossar; Halle; 1872:

vearn f.: die Abwehr, das Versagen, obstaculum, impedimentum

vearn adj.: der sich hütet, der sich einer Sache versieht

unvearn adj.: der sich nicht hütet, sich einer Sache nicht versieht: Seef. 63

varnian (vernan, vyrnan): caus. v. warnen; sich hüten

þäs landes vyrnan: sich im Besitz eines Landgütes vertheidigen, behüten, abwehren;

varna þe sylfne: hüte Dich selbst

sumum sumhvät vyrnan: einem Etwas abwehren, auch: einem Etwas versagen

vearnung: Abwehr, Vermeidung

vyrd oþþe varnung: Schicksal oder Widerstand dagegen

vär (var, ver, vor): das Wehr (im Flusse)

nb: Grein and Leo transcribe the Anglo-Saxon letter wynn as "v"; and the letter æ as "ä".

Sweet, Henry; Anglo-Saxon Reader, 1876:

unwearnum: irresistibly. Glossed under "words or meanings peculiar to poetry"

wær f: security, treaty

wearn: glossed "resistance"

Harrison, James A, (& Sharp, Robert); Beowulf; Boston 1883:

unwearnum: adv. instr. pl., unawares, suddenly, (unresistingly?), 742

Sweet, Henry; The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, OUP 1896:

unwær: not on one's guard; heedless

unwaran (=-um) av: unexpectedly

unwearnum: irresistibly, without hindrance.

warnian, waren-, wearn-: warn? rfl: take warning; beware of

warnung f: warning

wearn nf: refusal, hindrance, rebuke [cf Grein above]

Bosworth & Toller; Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; OUP 1898:

unwearnum: adv: without hindrance: Beowulf Th 1487; B 741; Exon Th 309, 27; Seef 63. v wearn

wearn: e f.: a hindrance, obstacle, difficulty [cf Grein, Leo, above]. [Icel. vörn a defence.]

Clark Hall, J.R.; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; rev ed 1931; University of Toronto Press 1960:

unwær: incautious, careless, unthinking, foolish: unaware, unexpected.

unwæres: unawares, suddenly

unwærlic: unwary, heedless ["unwarely"]

unwearnum: adv irresistibly, suddenly, in a moment

warian: I. to be wary, beware: guard, protect, defend: warn: hold, possess, attend: inhabit. II. to make a treaty (with).

wearn: I. f. reluctance, repugnance, refusal, denial, CP; resistance: reproaches, abuse.

[CP indicates King Alfred's translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care. This source needs checking to see if the context convincingly justifies a reading of "refusal" for wearn. Clark Hall's other definitions for wearn seem somewhat extreme.]

Bessinger, J.R.Jr.; A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry; University of Toronto Press 1960:

warian II: be wary, alert; keep, defend; inhabit

wearn nf: refusal, hindrance, rebuke [cf Grein above.]

wearnian v: warn, take warning, be on guard

wearnung warning, foresight

unwær aj: incautious

unwearnum av.dat: without restraint, irresistibly

Skeat W.W.; Etymological Dictionary; revised edition 1909:

WARN: to caution against, put on one's guard. (E) ME warnien, warnen, Chaucer, C.T. 3535. AS wearnian, warnian, (1) to take heed, which is the usual sense, Luke, xi, 35; (2) to warn, Gen. vi. 6; cf warnung, a warning, Gen xli. 32. Cognate with OHG. warnon, to provide for oneself against, used reflexively, whence G. warnen, to warn against, to caution against. Further allied to beware and wary; see WARY.

Distinct from the AS sb wearn, a refusal, denial (Grein), an obstacle, impediment (Bosworth ?); the orig. sense being a guarding of oneself, a defence of a person on trial, as in Icel. vörn, a defence; cf Icel. varna, to warn off, refuse, abstain from.

Partridge Eric; ORIGINS: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English; RKP 4th ed 1966:

WARN: OE wearnian, warnian, is very closely related to OE wearn, a hindrance or obstacle (? hence) a denial or a refusal, and related also to OFris warna, werna, OS warnian, wernien, ON varna, to refuse, and OHG warnon, MHG-G warnen, to warn -- therefore prob, further off, MHG warn, to observe, G wahren, to preserve, ON vara, to warn, and therefore perh ult the E WARD. But the interrelationships of all these words are still imprecise. [Very true, Eric].

Griffiths, Bill; A User-Friendly Dictionary of Old English; Heart of Albion Press 1989:

unwearnum adv: unstoppably.

Oxford English Dictionary; 2nd edition, 1989:

Warn, sb. [f. WARN v.1 (The OE. wearn refusal, is a different word: see WARN v. 2).]

Warn v. 2 [Two formations: (1) OE. wiernan -- OTeut. *warnjan; (2) OE. wearnian (also warnian, warenian, by confusion with WARN v.1) --- OTeut. *warnojan. The two OTeut. types are f. *warno fem. (OE. wearn) obstacle, refusal etc, f. the root *wer-; *war- to obstruct, defend.]

Oxford English Dictionary; micrographic edition, 1979:

Bar, sb 1. --- late Latin barra of unknown origin. The Celtic derivation accepted by Diez is now discredited: OIr. barr 'bushy top', and its cognates, in no way suit the sense; Welsh bar 'bar' is from Eng., and Breton barren 'bar' from Fr. (The development of sense had to a great extent taken place before the word was adopted in English.)

*** *** ***

Those demented enough to have followed me thus far are likely to be lexicologicomaniacs themselves, and will have reached their own conclusions. For what they may be worth, however, these are mine:

a. The Modern English word "bar" derives from late Latin "barra", which is not itself a Latin word.

b. Late Latin "barra" very probably derives from the Old Teutonic root *war- to defend.

c. "Bar" and wearn share common ancestry and carry meanings which are very similar if not identical.

d. The sense "refusal" attributed to wearn, if not non-existent, is a red herring.

e. The senses "refusal" for wearn, and "irresistibly" for unwearnum, were introduced by Grein, who misinterprets both Beowulf and The Seafarer.

f. Grein has been followed uncritically by Sweet, Bosworth & Toller (cf spelling of reference: Seef. 63), Clark Hall, Bessinger, Griffiths.

g. Leo is more accurate than Grein.

h. The oracular Oxford English Dictionary has confirmed these errors, and set them in concrete.

i. Unwearn is an adjective, and unwearnum expresses the case of attendant circumstance.

j. A "bar" has two functions. For those on one side, it is an obstacle/impediment. To those on the opposite side, it is a defence.

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note b : The published text of this paper appended a list of 37 variant translations of ll.62b-64a. Five of these have some bearing on the disputed interpretation of onwæl weg, and are discussed.

Benjamin Thorpe 1842:

gielleð an-floga ------------------ yells the lone bird
hweteð on (h)wæl-weg --------- urges on the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum --------------- nathless suddenly
ofer holma gelagu --------------- over ocean's flood:

C.W.M.Grein 1857:

                                es gellt der Einsamfliegende
und treibt unwiderstehlich mich auf den Todesweg
über der Holmflut Masse;

Henry Sweet 1871:

... my mind ... screams in its solitary flight, impels me irresistibly on the path of death over the ocean waters.

Henry Sweet 1888:

My mind departs out of my breast like a sea-bird, screams in its lonely flight, returns to me, fierce and eager, impels me irresistibly over the wide wastes of waters, over the whale's path.

A.D.Horgan 1979:

(Here's why my soul) ......, why the lone flyer
Urges my soul resistlessly upon destruction's
Path, across the expanse of waters.

Thorpe's pioneering literal translation is clearly wrong in his interpretation of hreþer, but approximately right on unwearnum. He sets the mould for almost all future readings of an-floga as "lone bird, lone flier", and introduces the initial emendation of on (h)wæl-weg for the manuscript onwæl weg. Grein, rejecting Thorpe's emendation, is confident that wæl weg means Todesweg, "death-way" and not "whale-way", but he introduces the first reading of unwiderstehlich, "unwithstandably", for unwearnum. Fourteen years later Sweet is content to follow Grein, with "path of death", but after another seventeen years he has changed his mind, and reverts to Thorpe's reading, with "whale's path". It takes a further 91 years before Horgan, in a closely argued but in my view otherwise off-target analysis of the poem's structure, is inspired to reinterpret wæl weg, and offer "destruction's path".

The word valplats (place of death) is still in current Swedish usage as a slightly heightened term for "battlefield". It is the place where the valkyria can still be envisioned as selecting those doomed to die. Some additional confusion arises from the fact that val in Swedish can also mean "choice", whereas the sense of "selection" in valkyria is predominantly carried by the element -kyria. Kyria survives in the Swedish word kora which means "choose, select" and sometimes "elect"; cf German Kurfürst, "Elector".

It is noteworthy that Clark Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary lists 67 (!) compound words with the initial element wæl-. H.D.Meritt supplements the list with another three, of which one, wælgenga, is confirmed in Cark Hall's translation of "sea-monster". In this word the element wæl-, with a variant pronunciation, carries the meaning of wæl: "whirlpool, sea, flood", cf modern "well" in the sense of an upsurge of water. Omitting wælgenga, we thus have a total of 69 Anglo-Saxon compound words starting wæl-. In 68 of these instances wæl- connotes "death". The one exception in Clark Hall's dictionary is, quote: "wælweg (SEAF 63) = hwælweg".

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note c

Rev. Clair McPherson 1987:

the lone flier screams

Whets the heart unawares on to the whale-way

Over the sea's expanse;


Of the 37 versions I had managed to find by 1995, dated between 1842 and 1991, McPherson's was the only one since Thorpe to tackle unwearnum correctly. Rudolf Imelmann had a long struggle with it, trying unweigerlich in 1908, and das sich nicht weigern darf in 1920, but seems mesmerised by its (to me) chimerical connotation of "refusal". Ten of the other translators must have sensed something amiss with "irresistibly", with six of them evading the issue by omitting the word altogether. In my respectful opinion, the 150 year history of this microcosmic matter offers a remarkable object-lesson in the pitfalls of scholarship. For want of a nail, the battle was lost.


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Arngart O.S.; "The Seafarer: A Postcript", English Studies, No 60, Amsterdam: 1979; pp.249-253. Also (as Anderson O.S.): "The Seafarer: An Interpretation", Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet i Lunds Årsberättelse 1, Gleerups Lund 1937; pp.1-49.

Auden W.H., and Taylor P.B.; Norse Poems, Faber & Faber, London 1983; p.136.

Browning R.; "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix".

Clark Hall, J.R.; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, with a Supplement by H.D.Meritt; 4th edition, reprinted 1993, University of Toronto Press.

Collinder B.; trans. Beowulf; Natur & Kultur, Stockholm 1954; l.741.

Dee J.; "A Letter, Containing a ..... Discourse Apologeticall"; draft shown to Queen Elizabeth in 1592, written 1595, published 1604. Quoted by Frances Yates in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1983; p.90.

Dudley L.; "The Egyptian Elements in the Legend of the Body and the Soul", Bryn Mawr College Monographs; Monograph Series Vol 7-9; J.H.Furst and Co., Baltimore 1911; p.50.

Eliot, T.S.; Selected Essays, Faber & Faber 1951; Dante II, p.265.

Grein, C.W.M; trans. Dichtungen der Angelsachsen, stabreimend übersetzt, ,Vol II, 1857. p.248.

Harrison, J.A. & Sharp, R.; ed. Beowulf; Ginn Heath & Co; Boston 1883.

Horgan, A.D.; "The Structure of The Seafarer" in Review of English Studies, ns 30, 1979, pp.41-49.

Klaeber Fr.; ed. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd edition 1950; Boston: D.C.Heath & Co., 1922.

Longfellow H.W.; (unsigned review); North American Review; Vol XLV; no XCVI; 1837, p.149; excerpt quoted by G.Stephens in the Preface (p.vii) to his translation (published London and Stockholm, 1839) of Frithiof's Saga, by Esaias Tegnér; Llanerch facsimile reprint 1994.

Luther M.; "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott/Ein gute Wehr und Waffen"; Klug'sche Gesangbuch 1529.

McPherson C.; "The Sea a Desert: Early English Spirituality and The Seafarer", American Benedictine Review 38, 1987; pp.115-126.

Pound E.; quoted by P.Brooker in A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, London: Faber Paperbacks, 1979; p.68.

Scott Moncrieff, C.K.; trans.Widsith, Beowulf, Finnsburgh, Waldere, Deor, London Chapman & Hall, 1921; p.30.

Sigurðsson, Arngrímur; Islensk-Ensk Órðabók, Reykjavik 1994.

Skeat, W.W.; A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford 1882.

Smithers G.V.; "The Meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer", Pt.1 Medium Ævum No.26 (1957); pp.137-153; Pt.2 No.28 (1959) pp.1-22; Appendix; No.28 pp.99-104.

Spenser E.; stanza quoted by N.Tolstoy in The Quest for Merlin, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985; p.14.

Sweet, Henry; trans. of lines 44-64 in History of English Poetry,Vol II, T.Warton, 1871; pp.17-18.

Sweet, Henry; trans 1888 from a paper in Collected Papers, arranged by H.C.Wyld; London 1913.

Thorpe, Benjamin; ed. Beowulf, The Scôp or Gleeman's Tale, and The Fight at Finnesburg, with a literal translation etc, London 1875.

Thorpe, Benjamin; ed. Codex Exoniensis; London 1842.

Tolkien J.R.R.; Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics, Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture; British Academy, 25 November 1936; Oxford: OUP 1971; p.31.

Tolkien, J.R.R.;Prefatory Remarks; in Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment, trans. by J.R.Clark Hall, ed. by C.L.Wrenn; London, Allen & Unwin, 1950; p.31.


I was greatly aided in the genesis of this paper by the opportunity to discuss many of its points with Jonathan Backhouse, who must have had better things to do at the time; and also by Peter Skinner, of New York, who was of unstinting assistance and endured my epistolary ruminations on these matters for many months.

The basic premises of the paper were first presented at "The Linguistic Foundations of Translation: Literary Translation and the Translation of Sensitive Texts" an international conference held at the University of Liverpool, England, on 15-16 September 1995.



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