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    The Seafarer

    A translation from the Anglo-Saxon by Charles Harrison Wallace

    THIS is the truth: the way I toiled
    distraught, for days on end
    enduring cares and bitter bale
    within my breast, my keel cleaving
    endless halls of heaving waves

    I would often at the bark's bows wake
    the strait night through, steering
    her clear of clashing cliffs

    Cold fetters froze my feet
    and hunger seared my heart
    with sore sea-weariness

    That man lolling on fair land
    has no earthly inkling of how I
    a wretched wreck on ice-cold seas
    weathered each winter
    exiled from kith and kin

    Hail scoured my skin, and hoar
    hung heavy

    All I ever heard along the ice-way
    was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty
    whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull
    were all my gaming, mead and mirth
    At tempest-tested granite crags
    the ice-winged tern would taunt
    spray-feathered ospreys overhead
    would soar and scream

    No kinsman near to fend off need
    no one to comfort or console

    That fine fellow, carefree in his cups
    set snugly up in town, cannot conceive
    the load I hauled along the sea-lanes

    The dark night deepens, northern snow
    hardens the soil and hail hits earth
    like cold corn

    Yet my heart hammers now, yearning anew
    wanting the steep salt-water road
    longing with lust to roam rough seas, alone
    to seek out some far foreign shore

    The mood to wander mills within my mind

    But none on earth may be so proud
    so prodigal or yare in youth
    nor so express in action
    nor smiled on by so mild a master
    that he embark with unconcern
    what end for him the Master may intend

    He will not heed the harp though
    and is not gladdened by gold rings
    nor woman's winning ways
    and wants no worldly joys
    only the rolling oceans urge him on
    the wave play pulls him and impels

    Then blossom decks the bower's bough
    the bothie blooms, the sea meads gleam
    the wide world racks the restless mind
    of him who on the full flood tide
    determines to depart

    And heralding his summer hoard of pain
    the gowk repeats his plaintive geck
    foreboding bitterness of breast

    Soft-bedded bloods cannot conceive
    what some men suffer as abroad
    they travel tracks of exile

    Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
    beyond my heart's cage now. Hot hunger
    keenly comes again. My mind is cast
    upon the sea swell, over the whale's world
    widely to course creation's coast
     


    THE lone call wails above on wing
    it steels the unarmed soul to start
    across the waters where the whale sways

    God's visions are to me more vivid
    than this dead life loaned out on land
    I know its leasehold will not last

    Still three things twist man's mind
    until the day his doom is sealed
    age, illness or some stroke of hate
    will seize sense from him

    So any noble spirit will aspire to earn
    an everlasting epitaph of praise
    for good deeds done on earth, bold blows
    dealt at the Devil and against fell foes
    before his passing, that posterity
    delights enjoyed for ever by the brave
    among the angels may perpetuate

    The days of glory have decayed
    the earth has spilled its splendour
    there are no captains now, no kings
    gold givers such as once there were
    when lordly feats would garner fame
    and each man lived for utmost laud

    Virtue is fallen, visions are faded
    the weak are left to hold this world
    worn low. The flower of the field is old
    the leaf is withered and the laurel sere
    Throughout this middle isthmus man
    meets age hoar-headed, bleak of face
    by former friends forsaken, grieving over
    scions of lineage long since gone

    Life ebbs, the flesh feels less
    and fails to savour sweet or sour
    is frail of hand, feeble of mind
    Though men may bury treasured pelf
    beside their brother's born remains
    and sow his grave with golden goods
    he goes where gold is worthless

    Nor can his sinful soul, quaking before his God
    call hoarded gold or mortal glory to his aid
    that Architect is awesome
    Whose might moves the world
    Whose hand has fixed the firmament
    earth's vaults and vapours

    Dull is the man who does not dread the Lord
    on him will death's descent be sudden
    blissful the man that meekly lives
    on him will heaven benisons bestow.

    A mind was given man by God to glory in his might

    A man should steer a steadfast course
    be constant, clean and just in judgement
    a man should curb his love or loathing
    though flame consume his comrade
    and fire the funeral pyre
    for fate is set more surely
    God more great, than any man surmise

    Come, consider where we have a home, how
    we can travel to it, how our travail here
    will lead us to the living well-head
    and heaven haven of our Lord's love

    Thus let us thank His hallowed name
    that He has granted us His grace
    Dominion enduring, the Ancient of Days
    for all time

    Amen

     

    The author of this work is unknown. The Anglo-Saxon manuscript, untitled and unique, was inscribed in about 975 AD and survives on four pages of the Exeter Anthology, a codex bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral, England, by Archbishop Leofric, who died in 1072 AD. This Modern English interpretation has been revised and completed from the version published in ARTES International, Stockholm and New York, in 1996. It is much indebted to the generous advice of Jonathan Backhouse, Pamela Church Gibson, Laura and Franklin Reeve.

    © Charles Harrison Wallace 1999

    all rights reserved

     

    From Charles Harrison Wallace's Seafarer site, with commentary and other material as well as this translation.