The Two Voices of The Seafarer
There is much argument in the literary field as to whether there is more than one speaker in the Old English poem The Seafarer. In this brief essay we will look at some of the previous criticisms of the last two centuries, and through them attempt to prove that the speaker of the poem is the same one throughout.
The author of The Seafarer is unknown. Its manuscript is untitled and unique, and is thought to have been inscribed around 975 AD. It survives on four pages of the Exeter Anthology which was given to the Exeter Cathedral in England, by the Archbishop Leofric, who died in 1072 AD.
The Seafarer is a poem about an Anglo-Saxon man who, having apparently been banished from his home, has taken to the sea. John Pope, one of the foremost critics of the poem, postulated, and it is now generally accepted, that it is composed of three parts. Part A1, covering lines 1 through 33a, is believed to be the story of an inexperienced young sailor who tells of his hardships at sea. Part A2, lines 33b to 64a or 66a, and part B, 64b or 66b through 124, is told by an eager young sailor who loves the sea. An epilogue is usually believed to be contained in lines 103 through 124 (Pope, 177). Jove Pope’s greatest critical adversary, Stanley Greenfield, believed that A1 is details a voyage the speaker was forced to undergo, and that the purpose of A2 is to emphasize the speakers choice to undertake a current journey (Greenfield, 107).
The poem begins by telling us of how the young seafarer has “often suffered times of hardship / and have experienced / bitter anxiety.” He is journeying into a world of loneliness and a destiny away from his comitatus, his meadhall, and his lord. At times he despises his life at sea: “Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost / In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot / About my heart, and hunger from within / Tore the sea-weary spirit…” (The Seafarer, Line 8). At others, he celebrates it: “…Even now my heart / Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts / Over the sea, across the whale’s domain, / Travel afar the regions of the earth, / And then come back to me with greed and longing. / The cuckoo cries, incites the eager breast / On to the whale’s roads irresistibly, / Over the wide expanses of the sea,” (The Seafarer, Line 58).
In Anglo-Saxon society a warrior believed in lof: he received glory by his valor in battle; his accomplishments in life. If his deeds were sufficiently notable his name would live on long after he died, granting him immortality. The Seafarer believes that “Sickness, old age, the sword, each one of these/ May end the lives of doomed and transient men. / Therefore for every warrior the best / Memorial is the praise of living men ” (The Seafarer, Line 68).
Halfway through the poem we see a drastic turn. Part A has mentioned almost nothing spiritual, only speaking of the hard life of a man who lives at sea. In the beginning of part B, in line 64b, however, he changes his thus far Anglo-Saxon tone to that of a pious Christian: “Because the joys of God mean more to me / Than this dead transitory life on land.”
The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England was relatively quick. It went from a culture which had a comitatus conscience to one that was dominated by an individual, Christian conscience. Even during his musings on God, the speaker still laments “The singing gull instead of mead in hall” (The Seafarer, 23), the loss of “dear friends,” (The Seafarer, 15), and the lord he once had. At times it seems like the poet is attempting to reconcile the tensions between the two different cultures.
In one of the first know criticisms of the poem, Max Rieger in 1869 postulated that the poem is of one writer and speaks of a dialogue between two individuals; an eager young sailor and an older more cautious one (Rieger, 313). He believed that the poem is an example of the collision of Christianity with the Anglo-Saxon folktale tradition. Friedrich Kluge later speculated that the poem is actually two speeches, and that the entirety of part B, having apparently no correlation to the first, was the later addition of a “mediocre homilist” (Kluge, 322). C. C. Ferrell, in agreement with Kluge, believed that the poem was essentially pagan in sentiment, but since Christian monks were usually the transcribers of these early poems, he believed that the Christian scribe who copied it down made additions. The most notable of which is the homiletic ending (Ferrell, 402).
The first to attack the theory of multiple voices was William Lawrence in 1902. Lawrence believed that the poem is completely of one speaker. In his very influential article he examines the monologue theory which would prevail to the present day. Lawrence considers the poem the lyric utterance of one man (Lawrence, 462). Earlier critics, Lawrence claims, had divided the poem because of the interpretation of the word for?on (The Seafarer, 33b) which connects the speaker’s description of his suffering at sea and his desire to return to his seafaring. The word for?on had previously been translated as because, which suggests that the seafarer wishes to return to the sea because of his suffering there. From this apparent contradiction, the earlier critics had concluded that these were two different poems. Lawrence argues that for?on does not necessarily need to be interpreted as because, and suggests that the seafarer’s past suffering does not necessarily contradict his present longing.
Another interesting theory comes from Gustav Ehrismann in 1909. Ehrissmann postulates, in agreement with Lawrence , that there is only one speaker, but that lines 1 through 64a are meant to be read as an allegory. He believed that the seafarer’s journey is symbolic of man’s state of “exile” due to Original Sin (Ehrissman, 213). O. S. Anderson later agreed with Ehrissmann`s theory on the allegorical nature of lines 1 through 64a, but that the rest of the poem had been a later addition (Anderson, 17).
In 1950 Dorothy Whitelock greatly affected the literary criticism movement of The Seafarer. Whitelock volunteered the “Peregrinus Theory.” This theory utilizes the fact that “wandering ascetics” were common in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of the poem. Using this reasoning, she explains that The Seafarer is actually a unified monologue of one man (Whitelock, 261). She believes that the man in the poem has voluntarily abandoned society for the love of God, and is preaching the love of God over the love of society. I. L. Gordon later denounced Whitelock?s theory on the basis that the tone of the poem is “cold and desperate” compared with the “warmth” of other works that deal with the asceticism of the time (Gordon, 1).
We believe that the speaker is meant to represent one speaker partially because of its subtle movement from part A to part B. There is a gradual transformation on the part of the speaker from a godless, embittered young seafarer, to a more experienced seafarer with a strong faith in God. The major difficulty in proving that there is only one speaker occurs between the descriptive first 64 lines, and the homiletic conclusion (Campbell, 235). A. P. Campbell attributed this to the theory of Anglo-Saxon “wanderlust.” He claims that the first 33 lines describe the seafarer’s suffering at the sea, as contrasted with the comfortable life of the townsman. There is a sense of mystery about his choice to roam the seas. He says the word “cunnian” (The Seafarer, 35b) contains a sense of exploring or trying out, which does not coincide with a penitential journey, but reflects the speaker’s excitement for travel. It exemplifies the Anglo-Saxon fascination with strange lands. Lines 39 through 49, that many previous critics had argued were pessimistic, he says, can be attributed to the hardship that everyone at the time would have had to suffer while at sea. Campbell argues that the reference to the cuckoo, a migratory bird, and its mournful call (The Seafarer, 53a), along with the coming of spring, emphasizes the speaker’s growing wanderlust. Using this line of thought, the controversial lines 55 through 64 can be thought to merely depict the speaker’s imaginative journey of the lands he will one day travel to. His wanderlust causes the speaker obvious discomfort, which leads him to the conclusion that he would rather have the joys of God mean more to me / than this dead transitory life (The Seafarer, 64). At this point the speaker realizes that the basis of his wanderlust is the desire to find his home in heaven.
The Seafarer is one of the most written about poems in the English language. As we have seen there are many arguments for the case of one speaker, and many against it. This point will almost certainly never be agreed upon, but we believe that the speaker is the same one throughout.