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Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Seafarer

The following anglo-saxon poem is one of my favourites, its harsh gloomy mood speaks down to us through the centuries, the misery of cold and ice and dangers faced are captured clearly. The strength of the spoken language comes over vividly. Michael Alexander in his book Earliest English poetry, stresses the fact that these Saxon poems come from a much earlier tradition of bardic poetry, it has the same strong echoes that are found in the early British poet Taliesin. To read them out loud, one must remember that they were delivered in a great smoky timbered hall to the assembled company as they feasted. Because they are spoken, the person who recites them can alter the words to suit the moment, the drama of the words are underlined by the half-line rendition; between these two half-lines one must imagine the sound of a harp giving the dramatic pause of a story in the telling. Also, like Shakespeare, there are rich metaphoric images, so that the sun is woruld candel the sea is swan-rud (swans riding).

Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,

siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days

earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
Hardship endured oft

bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,

gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
Known on my keel many a care's hold

atol yþa gewealc, þær mec oft bigeat
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent

nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head

þonne he be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
While she tossed close to cliffs.
Coldly afflicted

wæron mine fet, forste gebunden,
My feet were by frost benumbed

caldum clommum, þær þa ceare seofedun
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs

hot'ymb heortan; hungor innan slat
Hew my heart round and hunger begot

merewerges mod. þæt se mon ne wat
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not

þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,

hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,

winter wunade wræccan lastum,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast

winemægum bidroren,
Deprived of my kinsmen; .

bihongen hrimgicelum; hægl scurum fleag.
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,

pær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ
There I heard naught save the harsh sea

iscaldne wæg. Hwilum yifete song
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries

dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleo€or
Did for my games the gannet's clamour,

ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter

mæw singende fore medodrince.
The mews' singing all my mead-drink

Stormas pær stanclifu beotan. €ær him stearn oncwæõ
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern

isigfe€era; ful oft €æ earn bigeal,
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed

urigfe€ næra; nænig hieomæga
With spray on his pinion.

Anglo Saxon transcribed by Alan Watson
English by Ezra Pound

The rest of the poem can be found here.


  1. The Watson/Pound rendition is a good one, though I always find myself coming back to Michael Alexander who interprets the first few lines of The Seafarer as -

    The tale I frame shall be found to tally:
    the history is of myself.
    Sitting day-long
    at an ore's end clenched against clinging sorrow...

    There's a Thump, Thump - Thump to Alexander's renditions that not even Ezra Pound can match. Somewhere, Alexander writes that this is the heartbeat rhythm of the English language. Shakespeare uses it all the time - often it's found alliterated as in, "Death lies on her like an untimely frost Upon the sweetest flower of all the field..."

  2. Tis true, Alexander's is probably the better rendition, but think how it would have been in real a/s language, it would have been very atmospheric - the storyteller would have brought the sea and the man to life, it would have captivated the audience.
    Trying to get to grips with The Ruin,and how it applies to Bath, but my mind keeps getting clogged up with battles and churches - this poem also has the same theatricality - fallen roman buildings, beheaded statues, layers of dust, people squatting in disused buildings, the smell and another set of gods displaced ;)


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