18 February 2016

Poetry Thursday - The Seafarer

... 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-scud 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 ...

(translation by Ezra Pound, 1912)

The 124 lines that constitute The Seafarer are recorded only in the Exeter Book, a tenth-century anthology of poetry housed since 1072 at Exeter Cathedral. It is regarded as the greatest collection of poetry of its time in existence, says Simon Winchester in "Atlantic". He goes on:

"The precious little volume has had a life as tough as it has been long. The book's original cover is missing, and of its 131 pages, eight have been lost, one was evidently once used as a wine coaster, others were singed by fire, and still others incised with notches suggesting they were used as cutting boards. Yet to the thanks of all, it is a survivor, and the Exeter Book is now recognised to hold about one-sixth of all the Anglo-Saxon poetry ever known to have been written. A single scribe is believed to have copied out all of the poems sometime in the tenth century, using brown ink on vellum, and wielding his quill with an impeccable, monastically steady hand. ...

"The Seafarer is dominated, at least in its first half, by a lengthy and mournful meditation on the trials of the sea. It is in truth an elegy to the Atlantic, in the voice of a man - though no one knows his name - who has suffered hard times winning a living from its waters, but yet who, when he is away from it, yearns for the ocean life more than he could ever imagine.

"But then, in an instant, even though the summer on shore is fast coming, the mariner's mood changes to one of longing, a mood that all old salts will also know well:

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 he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing ...
So that but now my heart burst from my breastlock
My mood 'mid thew mere-flood,
Over the whale's acre, would wander wise."

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