The Seafarer

An Abridged Version, Translated from the Anglo-Saxon

The boat drave with a sudden wind across the deeps

‘The boat drave with a sudden wind across the deeps’
Idylls of the King (p52, 1898) - Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892
The British Library

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.


Translator’s Note: This is an abridged version. I have concluded with line 99, as did Pound, for artistic coherence, and from lack of sympathy with the undistinguished ending of the manuscript. Instead of displaying the caesura between half-lines of the original Exeter Book (which is dated prior to 1050AD), or running the two halves of each line together as in Pound’s translation, I have preferred, for clarity and impact, to give each half-line as a separate full line. The original Old English text may be found online here.


The Seafarer

May I of my own self 1

Truth’s song reckon,

Tell of my traverse,

How I oft endured

Days of hardship

Times of trouble,

Bitter the breast-care

That I suffered,

Known at my keel 5

Many a care’s hold,

Dread wave-fall

When wary night-watch

Found me often

There at the ship’s stem,

Wave-tossed, by cliff-wall.

Cold-fettered

My feet

Frost-bound

In cold clasp, 10

Where cares seethed then

Hot at the heart;

Hunger within tore

The sea-weary soul.

This knows he not

Who on land

Lives lightly,

How I care-wretched

On ice-cold ocean

Weathered winter 15

In ways of exile,

Bereft of my brethren,

Hung with ice-shards;

Hail showers flew.

There I heard naught

But sea roaring,

Ice-cold wave.

Whiles the swan’s song

Had I for pleasure; 20

Gannet’s clamour,

Curlew’s crying,

For men’s laughter;

The mew’s singing

For mead-drinking.

Storms beat on stony cliffs

Where spoke the tern,

Icy-feathered;

Full oft the eagle screamed

Sea-foam-feathered; 25

No bright companion

There to comfort

The careworn soul.

For he treats as light,

Who drinks life’s joys,

And bides in burgh,

Far from baleful journey,

Wine-proud and wanton,

How I weary oft

On brine-paths 30

Must abide.

Night-shadows neared,

Snow from the north,

Rime bound the land,

Hail fell on earth,

Coldest of crops.

Now are they troubled,

The thoughts of my heart,

That I on high streams

With salt-surge 35

Should strive –

Mind-lust urging

In every moment,

That spirit fare onward,

Seeking afar

The fastness

Of foreign folk.

For there’s none so proud-minded

No man on this earth,

Nor so generous of goods, 40

Nor so bold in his youth,

Nor so dread in his deeds,

Nor so dear to his Lord,

That he in sea-faring

Has never a care

As to what Fate

May will for him.

Not for him harp-hearing,

Ring-giving,

Wife-winning, 45

Nor worldly glory,

Nor ever aught else

Lest it be wash of the wave;

But he ever has longing,

Who strives on the sea.

Grove bears blossom,

Burghs grow fair,

Fields show fruitful,

World seems new.

All spurs on 50

The eager-minded

Spirit to sail,

In one who seeks

On flood-ways

His faring.

So cuckoo admonishes

With sorrowful voice,

Sings, summer’s guardian,

Boding sorrow

Bitter in breast-hoard. 55

This he knows not,

The well-found warrior,

What some must endure,

Who, wretched outcasts,

Widest must wander.

For now my heart writhes

Out of my breast,

My mind’s gone

Mid mere-flood,

Over the whale’s path, 60

Widely wandering

All earth’s corners.

Comes oft to me

Greedy and eager,

Lone-flyer screeching

Whets for the whale-road

The heart unwearied,

Over the sea’s hold.

Far brighter for me

Are the joys of my Lord, 65

Than this dead life

Lingering on land.

I’ll not believe

That the world’s weal

Will stand.

Always, ever will one

Of these three things

Ere a man’s ending

Turn towards doubt:

Age or sickness 70

Or sword-hatred,

Tear the frail life

From the fated.

So for every man

After-praise

Of the living,

Last word and best,

He must work for,

Before he be gone;

Fearless in fold 75

Against fiend’s malice,

Daring in deeds

Against devil,

So men’s sons

Shall praise him after,

And his fame ever

Live with the angels,

On and forever,

In life eternal

A joy among many. 80

The days are gone,

All of the glory

Of earthly riches;

Now are no kings

Nor Caesars

Nor gold-givers

As once there were,

When the most among them

Marvels performed,

And lived in majesty 85

The most lordly.

Gone are the old watch

Their joys are over,

Now wane the weaker

And yet hold the world,

With sweat, they enjoy.

Fled is the glory;

Earth’s nobility

Ages, grows sear,

As so mid earth 90

Now does every man.

Age fares on him,

Pale grows his face,

Grey-haired he groans,

Knowing friends past,

Men nobly born,

To earth now given.

Nor may he nourish his flesh,

As life leaves him,

Nor taste the sweetness 95

Nor feel the painfulness,

Nor raise his hand high,

Nor think with his mind.

Though the grave

With gold he would strew,

Brother, for kinsmen;

With the dead bury

Masses of treasure;

Naught shall that win.