The Seafarer 

translated by Burton Raffel 

            This tale is true, and mine. It tells 
            How the sea took me, swept me back 
            And forth in sorrow and fear and pain, 
            Showed me suffering in a hundred ships, 
5          In a thousand ports, and in me. It tells 
            Of smashing surf when I sweated in the cold 
            Of an anxious watch, perched in the bow 
            As it dashed under cliffs. My feet were cast 
            In icy bands, bound with frost, 
10        With frozen chains, and hardship groaned 
            Around my heart. Hunger tore 
            At my sea-weary soul. No man sheltered 
            On the quiet fairness of earth can feel 
            How wretched I was, drifting through winter 
15        On an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow, 
            Alone in a world blown clear of love, 
            Hung with icicles. The hailstorms flew. 
            The only sound was the roaring sea, 
            The freezing waves. The song of the swan 
20        Might serve for pleasure, the cry of the sea-fowl, 
            The death-noise of birds instead of laughter, 
            The mewing of gulls instead of mead. 
            Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed 
            By icy-feathered terns and the eagle’s screams; 
25        No kinsman could offer comfort there, 
            To a soul left drowning in desolation. 
            And who could believe, knowing but 
            The passion of cities, swelled proud with wine 
            And no taste of misfortune, how often, how wearily, 
30        I put myself back on the paths of the sea. 
            Night would blacken; it would snow from the north; 
            Frost bound the earth and hail would fall, 
            The coldest seeds. And how my heart 
            Would begin to beat, knowing once more 
35        The salt waves tossing and the towering sea! 
            The time for journeys would come and my soul 
            Called me eagerly out, sent me over 
            The horizon, seeking foreigners’ homes. 
            But there isn’t a man on earth so proud, 
40        So born to greatness, so bold with his youth, 
            Grown so brave, or so graced by God, 
            That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl, 
            Wondering what Fate has willed and will do. 
            No harps ring in his heart, no rewards, 
45        No passion for women, no worldly pleasures, 
            Nothing, only the ocean’s heave; 
            But longing wraps itself around him. 
            Orchards blossom, the towns bloom, 
            Fields grow lovely as the world springs fresh, 
50        And all these admonish that willing mind 
            Leaping to journeys, always set 
            In thoughts traveling on a quickening tide. 
            So summer’s sentinel, the cuckoo, sings 
            In his murmuring voice, and our hearts mourn 
55        As he urges. Who could understand, 
            In ignorant ease, what we others suffer 
            As the paths of exile stretch endlessly on? 
            And yet my heart wanders away, 
            My soul roams with the sea, the whales’ 
60        Home, wandering to the widest corners 
            Of the world, returning ravenous with desire, 
            Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me 
            To the open ocean, breaking oaths 
            On the curve of a wave.     
            Thus the joys of God 
65        Are fervent with life, where life itself 
            Fades quickly into the earth. The wealth 
            Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains. 
            No man has ever faced the dawn 
            Certain which of Fate’s three threats 
70        Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy’s 
            Sword, snatching the life from his soul. 
            The praise the living pour on the dead 
            Flowers from reputation: plant 
            An earthly life of profit reaped 
75        Even from hatred and rancor, of bravery 
            Flung in the devil’s face, and death 
            Can only bring you earthly praise 
            And a song to celebrate a place 
            With the angels, life eternally blessed 
            In the hosts of Heaven. 
80             The days are gone 
            When the kingdoms of earth flourished in glory; 
            Now there are no rulers, no emperors, 
            No givers of gold, as once there were, 
            When wonderful things were worked among them 
85        And they lived in lordly magnificence. 
            Those powers have vanished, those pleasures are dead. 
            The weakest survives and the world continues, 
            Kept spinning by toil. All glory is tarnished. 
            The world’s honor ages and shrinks. 
90        Bent like the men who mould it. Their faces 
            Blanch as time advances, their beards 
            Wither and they mourn the memory of friends. 
            The sons of princes, sown in the dust. 
            The soul stripped of its flesh knows nothing 
95        Of sweetness or sour, feels no pain, 
            Bends neither its hand nor its brain. A brother 
            Opens his palms and pours down gold 
            On his kinsman’s grave, strewing his coffin 
            With treasures intended for Heaven, but nothing 
100      Golden shakes the wrath of God 
            For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing 
            Hidden on earth rises to Heaven. 
            We all fear God. He turns the earth, 
            He set it swinging firmly in space, 
105     Gave life to the world and light to the sky. 
            Death leaps at the fools who forget their God. 
            He who lives humbly has angels from Heaven 
            To carry him courage and strength and belief. 
            A man must conquer pride, not kill it, 
110      Be firm with his fellows, chaste for himself, 
            Treat all the world as the world deserves, 
            With love or with hate but never with harm, 
            Though an enemy seek to scorch him in hell, 
            Or set the flames of a funeral pyre 
115      Under his lord. Fate is stronger 
            And God mightier than any man’s mind. 
            Our thoughts should turn to where our home is, 
            Consider the ways of coming there, 
            Then strive for sure permission for us 
120     To rise to that eternal joy, 
            That life born in the love of God 
            And the hope of Heaven. Praise the Holy 
            Grace of Him who honored us, 
            Eternal, unchanging creator of earth. Amen.

 

Making Meanings 

First Thoughts 

1. What is your first impression of the speaker in this poem? What is his life like? What does he believe in and hope for? 

Shaping Interpretations 

2. What passages in the poem explain why the seafarer seeks the rigors of the sea rather than the delights of the land? Does he find what he looked for at sea? 

3. Lines 58–64 suggest that the poet is beginning to talk about the glories of adventuring at sea, but then he changes direction. What does he turn his attention to over the next sixteen lines? 

4. In line 80, the speaker begins to talk about the present state of the world—what does he think of it? How do these thoughts contribute to the poem’s elegiac tone

5. The poem ends with a statement of the poet’s beliefs. What are they? 

6. This short lyric is full of striking metaphors—for example, “frozen chains” in line 10. Select three of these metaphors, and explain what is being compared in each one. What emotional effect does each metaphor create? 

7. What do you think the seafarer is searching for? 

Connecting with the Text 

8. In line 88, the poem’s speaker says, “All glory is tarnished.” Do you think this idea also applies to today’s heroes and to present-day life? Explain your response. 

Extending the Text 

9. Could the sentiments expressed in this poem be applied to the homeless today? Find passages in the poem to support your answer.

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