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The Seafarer -- Anonymous

This week's theme: a brief history of poetry.
(Poem #326) The Seafarer
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet's clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews' singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
        Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart's thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind's lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there's no mood-lofty man over earth's midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not ---
He the prosperous man --- what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood 'mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale's acre, would wander wide.
On earth's shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man's tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after ---
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth 'gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain 'mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life's-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
        Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Caesars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe'er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe'er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth's gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
-- Anonymous
Translated by Ezra Pound.

As a joint theme for the week, Martin and I have decided to run a
selection of poems from various points in time (and more importantly,
various poetic movements). We'll start with a style that's one of my
personal favourites, Old English alliterative verse.



Alliteration: Also called head rhyme or initial rhyme, the repetition of
the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in
neighboring words or at short intervals within a line or passage,
usually at word beginnings, as in 'wild and woolly'.
    Alliteration has a gratifying effect on the sound, gives a
reinforcement to stresses, and can also serve as a subtle connection or
emphasis of key words in the line, but alliterated words should not
'call attention' to themselves by strained usage.

[My favourite piece of alliteration is this:
    "To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
    In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
    Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
    From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"
from 'The Mikado', lyrics by W. S. Gilbert - t.]

Alliterative Verse: Poetry in which alliteration is a formal structural
element in place of rhyme; it was prevalent in a number of old
literatures prior to the 14th century, including Anglo-Saxon. In
alliterative verse, the first half-line is united with the second half
by alliterating stressed syllables; in the first half-line generally two
(but sometimes three) syllables alliterate, while in the second half
usually only one.
    Sometimes one alliterating sound is carried through successive
        In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
        I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
        In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
        Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
            -- William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman,
    To facilitate maintaining the alliterative pattern, poets made
frequent use of a specialized vocabulary, consisting of many synonymous
words seldom encountered outside of alliterative verse.
    By the 14th century, rhyme and meter displaced alliteration as a
formal element, although alliterative verse continued to be written into
the 16th century and alliteration retains an important function as one
of a poet's sound devices.

    -- Robert Shubinski
Glossary of Poetic Terms: [broken link]

Brittanica has this to say:

Alliterative Verse: early verse of the Germanic languages in which
alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of
words or stressed syllables, is a basic structural principle rather than
an occasional embellishment. Although alliteration is a common device in
almost all poetry, the only Indo-European languages that used it as a
governing principle, along with strict rules of accent and quantity, are
Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, Old Low German, and Old High German.
The Germanic alliterative line consists of two hemistichs (half lines)
separated by a caesura (pause). There are one or two alliterating
letters in the first half line preceding the medial caesura; these also
alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half line.
Alliteration falls on accented syllables; unaccented syllables are not
effective, even if they begin with the alliterating letter.

 The introduction of rhyme, derived from medieval Latin hymns,
contributed to the decline of alliterative verse. In Low German, pure
alliterative verse is not known to have survived after 900; and, in Old
High German, rhymed verse was by that time already replacing it. In
England, alliteration as a strict structural principle is not found
after 1066 (the date of the Norman-French conquest of Britain), except
in the western part of the country. Although alliteration was still very
important, the alliterative line became freer: the second half line
often contained more than one alliterating word, and other formalistic
restrictions were gradually disregarded. The early 13th-century poetry
of Layamon and later poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawayne and the
Grene Knight, and The Pearl use end rhyme extensively. Sometimes all the
verses rhyme; sometimes the succession of alliterative verses is broken
by rhymed verses grouped at roughly regular intervals. The last
alliterative poem in English is usually held to be "Scottish Fielde,"
which deals with the Battle of Flodden (1513).

and this:

Virtually all Old English poetry is written in a single metre, a
four-stress line with a syntactical break, or caesura, between the
second and third stresses, and with alliteration linking the two halves
of the line; this pattern is occasionally varied by six-stress lines.
The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and
phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of
characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the
eagle and wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and the
ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. In the
best poems such formulas, far from being tedious, give a strong
impression of the richness of the cultural fund from which poets could
draw. Other standard devices of this poetry are the kenning, a
metaphorical name for a thing, usually expressed in a compound noun
(e.g., "swan-road" used to name the sea); and variation, the repeating
of a single idea in different words, with each repetition adding a new
level of meaning. That these verse techniques changed little during 400
years of literary production suggests the extreme conservatism of
Anglo-Saxon culture.

    -- EB


12. mere-weary: sea-weary.
17. scur: storm.
20. gannet: sea-bird.
22. mews: seagulls.
34. Nathless: nevertheless.
39. fastness: stronghold.
49. bosque: thicket, small wood.
81. doughty: brave.

Note that Pound's translation isn't always perfectly faithful to the
original (though on the other hand, he does capture the _mood_ of the
anonymous Seafarer far better than do other more pedantically precise
translators. In this I'm sure Pound's own poetic skill played a not
inconsiderable role; see 'The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter', poem #70,
for another, equally brilliant example of Pound's 'translation without


Keep in mind that alliterative verse belongs to what was essentially an
oral tradition, propagated by bards and skalds and wandering minstrels
<grin>; hence the emphasis on sound/word pictures; hence, indeed, the
alliteration itself. As the availability of written material spread, so
the popularity of the old sagas waned... more's the pity.

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