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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.