The elegy usually contains a story, not too often a personal one that expresses the implied authors woeful state of mind. As a formal poetic convention it is used by poets to capture the mood of sadness and sorrow caused by a personal loss or a state of affairs that is outside the reach of the protagonist's influence. This is a somewhat simplistic account which understates the subtleties of the development of the elegy but its briefness is intentional - for the purpose of this essay we need to note that the elegy as a poetic form is governed by the idea of lamentation. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer thus falls conveniently in such a description of form. But it is remarkable how the poem initiates its story as a conventional elegy and it subsequently develops into a theological didacticism. The first-person narrative of the seaman lamenting his life at sea gives way to a religious admonition which gives the poem a feeling of incongruity and can lead one to believe that the second part could have been added at later stages. Although, on close reading the links between the seaman's insistence on life's transience in the first part and his subsequent emphasis on eternity in the second can be made obvious and serve to compound the poem into a structural and thematic whole.
The first half of The Seafarer's story illustrates the protagonist as a lonely figure dwelling more among arctic creatures than among his fellow kinsmen. He emphasizes his loneliness with a juxtaposition between the realms of men and the ones of nature:
At times the swan's song I took to myself as pleasure,
The Gannet's noise and the voice of curlew instead of the laughter of men,
The singing gull instead of the drinking of mead.
(lines 19b - 22)
But nature itself is not a pure source of comfort as the above lines may suggest for she throws snow and hail and wind at his vessel and at such times "no cheerful kinsman can comfort the poor soul" (ll. 25b - 26). It is an excursion through a hostile environment which is credited with being close to a peregrination, a journey of physical and spiritual endurance, as the protagonist confesses - a "path of exile". It should be noted that it is an intentional one. We read of him being physically on land but somewhat sea-restless, with his thoughts and heart still following the sea, desiring the moment when he would set off to meet the homelands of foreign people. "The cuckoo warns with a sad voice" (line 53) but still the seaman is eager to leave. The idea of the sea journey in the first half of the poem as peregrination, albeit a bit too subtle and only hinted at, is one of the links that provide continuity and coherence with the seemingly incongruent second part of the elegy.
The seaman's story develops structurally through an intense usage of oppositions. His narrative leaps back and forth from ship to land, sustaining the clash between the loneliness of the sea and the joys of the land. With the development of the poem, the opposition sea-land is given the overtone of a value judgment, bordering with a revelation acquired from the wisdom of seafaring. That one who has been distanced from the land is able to realize the temporariness of his or her life, and the futility of amassing treasures. The worldly preoccupations of the inhabitants on land are equated with futility, aimlessness, devoid of any governing idea whereas the life at sea is the antipode - the source of the semi-spiritual revelation. The one on land
has the joys of life, dwells in the city,
Far from terrible journey, proud and wanton with wine.
(lines 27a - 29a)
and he gives little credit to:
how I, weary, often have had to endure in the sea-paths
(lines 29b - 30b)
The juxtaposition between these two verbs is more than stylistical. For it serves to support the overall opposition between land/sea: the inhabitants of land are capable of actually living in an intoxicated conceit while the seafarer has to bear the troubles of his journey.
In a metonymic succession, the seaman declares himself heedless to the worldly occupations:
Not for him [the seaman] is the sound of the harp, nor the giving of rings
nor pleasure in woman, nor worldly glory -
nor anything at all unless the tossing of the waves,
but he always has longing, he who strives on the waves.
(lines 44a - 47b)
In my reading, the striving for the waves is a metaphoric enunciation of the credo of the pilgrim. The sea is the half-spiritual journey that enlightens one into seeing the transience of life on earth. For everything, as the seafarer declares, "always and invariably â€¦ will turn into uncertainty" and man is, as much he surround him or herself with worldly goods, "doomed to die". Earthly prosperity is transitory, life itself is only a short burst of existence and it is futile for one to account for his life with the accumulation of material goods.
Up to this moment the elegy is a somewhat traditional one, in that it present the lamentation of a single character over a troublesome state of affairs, in the case of The Seafarer, a semi-spiritual state of affairs. But with a powerful enunciation of his disbelief of the world's stability:
I do not believe that the riches of the world will stand forever.
(lines 66b - 67b)
the protagonist launches into a religious monologue in which he expounds his ideas of how one should live and act after knowing of his temporariness. At this textual moment, the poem perceptibly shifts from a heroic elegy to a didactic-theological one. The core that holds together
the poem is the opposition in the first part land/sea now evolved into transient/eternal and the feeling of melancholy.
Indeed hotter for me are the joys of the Lord
Than this dead life fleeting on the ground
(lines 64b - 66a)
What would then give joy and substance to one's life on earth so that it does merely fleet, or drag itself into death? The seaman passionately states that work, bravery, courage, which eventually inflame the power of his fame, might lead one to a communion with the glory of the angels, "joy with the hosts". In a telling parallel, the glory of life in eternity will come when the glory of kingdoms once powerful will set. The second part of The Seafarer is clearly more symbolically construed and the image of the kingdoms, I suspect, stands for the demise in importance of worldly values. So do the implicit pagan references in the image of the burial lined with gold and "a mass of treasure" for all of those are no longer of value in the eternal. Thus the road to eternity is illustrated as lined not with gold but with a balance in one's life, control of his passions, and wisdom in his relationships - all spiritual, metaphysical categories. The poem shows how the transience of life could be counteracted by following a series of semi-commandments (for all their rhetorical might they are still subjective, expressed through the viewpoint of the narrator-protagonist) that would lead into a blessed state of affairs in which
one's life is "belonging â€¦ in the love of the Lord, joy in the heavens" (lines 121a - 122b). The insecurity of a life on earth, with all its materials transient and mortal, is transformed through a theological didacticism into a security in the eternal.
The Seafarer is at first a sight an inconsistent poem with two delineated parts that are somewhat incongruous with each other. But the opposition sea/land which promotes the idea of a solitary, melancholic journey evolves into a metaphysical opposition between transitory/eternal
and thus is one of the brinks that bind the poem together. The idea of a pilgrimage in the first part is consistent with the religious overtones of the second and thus unites both of them into a textual unity that serves to promote a vision and philosophy of a life in a world marked by transience. The relation between the lamentation and the obvious didacticism fits loosely within the convention of the elegy but poem is held together by the interplay of recurrent, yet evolving oppositions and by the sincere authority of the protagonist himself.
1. The Seafarer