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The Seafarer
English
Old English
Manuscript

Mæg ic be mé sylfum sóðgied wrecan,
Mæg ic be mé sylfum sóðgied wrecan,
I can narrate a true story about myself,
síþas secgan, hú ic geswincdagum
síþas secgan, hú ic geswincdagum
speak of the journey, how, in days of toil, I
earfoðhwíle oft þrowade,
earfoðhwíle oft þrowade,
often suffered a time of hardship.
bitre bréostceare gebiden hæbbe,
bitre bréostceare gebiden hæbbe,
Grievous heartfelt anxiety I have experienced,
gecunnad in céole cearselda fela,
gecunnad in céole cearselda fela,
explored in a boat many places of sorrow,
atol ýþa gewealc, þǽr mec oft bigeat
atol ýþa gewealc, þǽr mec oft bigeat
dreadful tossing of waves, where the anxious night-watchful
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
often held me at the prow of the boat
þonne hé be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
þonne hé be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
when it crashes beside the cliffs. Afflicted by cold
wǽron míne fét, forste gebunden,
wǽron míne fét, forste gebunden,
were my feet, frost bound
caldum clommum, þǽr þá ceare séofedun
caldum clommum, þǽr þá ceare séofedun
by cold fetters, where the sorrows surged
hát ymb heortan; hungor innan slát
hát ymb heortan; hungor innan slát
hot about the heart. Hunger within tore
merewérges mód. Þæt se mon ne wát
merewérges mód. Þæt se mon ne wát
the spirit of the sea-weary. The man who lives most happily
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
on land does not know this:
hú ic earmcearig íscealdne sǽ
hú ic earmcearig íscealdne sǽ
how I, wretched and sad, dwelt a winter
winter wunade wræccan lástum,
winter wunade wræccan lástum,
on the ice-cold sea on the paths of the exile,
winemǽgum bidroren,
winemǽgum bidroren,
deprived of dear kinsmen,
bihongen hrímgicelum; hægl scúrum fléag.
bihongen hrímgicelum; hægl scúrum fléag.
hung around with icicles; hail flew in storms.



Þǽr ic ne gehýrde bútan hlimman sǽ,
Þǽr ic ne gehýrde bútan hlimman sǽ,
There I heard nothing but the roar of the sea,
íscaldne wǽg. Hwílum ylfete song
íscaldne wǽg. Hwílum ylfete song
the ice-cold wave. Sometimes, the song of the swan
dyde ic mé tó gomene, ganetes hléoþor
dyde ic mé tó gomene, ganetes hléoþor
I had as my entertainment, the cry of the gannet,
ond húilpan swég fore hleahtor wera,
ond húilpan swég fore hleahtor wera,
and the curlew’s sound instead of the laughter of men;
mǽw singende fore medodrince.
mǽw singende fore medodrince.
the seagull singing in the place of mead-drinking.
Stormas þǽr stánclifu béotan,
Stormas þǽr stánclifu béotan,
Storms beat the rocky cliffs there,
     þǽr him stearn oncwæð
     þǽr him stearn oncwæð
     where the tern calls out to them
ísigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
ísigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
icy-feathered; very often that sea-eagle cries in response,
úrigfeþra; nǽnig hléomǽga
úrigfeþra; nǽnig hléomǽga
wet-feathered. No protective kinsman
féasceaftig ferð fréfran meahte.
féasceaftig ferð fréfran meahte.
might comfort the desolate spirit.
Forþon him gelýfeð lyt, se þe áh lífes wyn
Forþon him gelýfeð lyt, se þe áh lífes wyn
Thus he little believes, he who possesses life’s joy,
gebiden in burgum, bealosíþa hwon,
gebiden in burgum, bealosíþa hwon,
lives in the city, free from dangerous journeys,
wlonc ond wíngál, hú ic wérig oft
wlonc ond wíngál, hú ic wérig oft
pround and merry with wine, how, weary, I had often
in brimláde bídan sceolde.
in brimláde bídan sceolde.
to survive in the sea-path.
Náp nihtscúa, norþan sníwde,
Náp nihtscúa, norþan sníwde,
The shadow of night grew dark, it snowed from the north,
hrím hrusan bond, hægl féol on eorþan,
hrím hrusan bond, hægl féol on eorþan,
frost gripped the earth, hail fell on the ground,
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nú
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nú
the coldest of grains. Therefore now the thoughts of my heart
heortan geþóhtas, þæt ic héan stréamas,
heortan geþóhtas, þæt ic héan stréamas,
are troubled whether I should try out for myself
sealtýþa gelác sylf cunnige;
sealtýþa gelác sylf cunnige;
the deep seas, the tossing of the salty waves;
monað módes lust mǽla gehwylce
monað módes lust mǽla gehwylce
the mind’s desire at all times prompts
ferð tó féran, þæt ic feor heonan
ferð tó féran, þæt ic feor heonan
the spirit to travel so that, I, far from here,
elþéodigra eard geséce.
elþéodigra eard geséce.
might seek the home of those living in a foreign land.



Forþon nis þæs módwlonc mon ofer eorþan,
Forþon nis þæs módwlonc mon ofer eorþan,
Therefore there is no man so proud-hearted on the earth,
ne his gifena þæs gód,
ne his gifena þæs gód,
so generous in his gifts,
     ne in geoguþe tó þæs hwæt,
     ne in geoguþe tó þæs hwæt,
     so keen in youthfulness,
ne in his dǽdum tó þæs déor,
ne in his dǽdum tó þæs déor,
in his deeds so brave,
     ne him his dryhten tó þæs hold,
     ne him his dryhten tó þæs hold,
     nor his lord so gracious to him,
þæt hé á his sǽfóre sorge næbbe,
þæt hé á his sǽfóre sorge næbbe,
that he will never be anxious in his sea voyage
tó hwon hine dryhten gedón wille.
tó hwon hine dryhten gedón wille.
about what the Lord will bring to him.
Ne biþ him tó hearpan hyge ne tó hringþege,
Ne biþ him tó hearpan hyge ne tó hringþege,
Nor is his thought on the harp nor on the receiving of rings,
ne tó wífe wyn ne tó worulde hyht,
ne tó wífe wyn ne tó worulde hyht,
nor on pleasure in a woman nor the joy of worldly things,
ne ymbe ówiht elles, nefne ymb ýða gewealc,
ne ymbe ówiht elles, nefne ymb ýða gewealc,
nor about anything else except the tossing of the waves;
ac á hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.
ac á hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.
but he always has a longing who sets out on the sea.
Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
The groves assume blossoms, they adorn the cities,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
the meadows grow beautiful, the world quickens;
ealle þá gemoniað módes fúsne
ealle þá gemoniað módes fúsne
all of this urges those eager of spirit,
sefan tó síþe, þám þe swá þenceð
sefan tó síþe, þám þe swá þenceð
the spirit of the journey, to him who is so inclined
on flódwegas feor gewítan.
on flódwegas feor gewítan.
to venture far on the paths of the sea.
Swylce géac monað géomran reorde,
Swylce géac monað géomran reorde,
Likewise the cuckoo urges him with a melancholy voice,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge béodeð
singeð sumeres weard, sorge béodeð
the watchman of summer sings, announces sorrow
bitter in bréosthord. Þæt se beorn ne wát,
bitter in bréosthord. Þæt se beorn ne wát,
bitter in his heart. This the warrior does not know,
eftéadig secg, hwæt þá sume dréogað
eftéadig secg, hwæt þá sume dréogað
the man blessed with luxury, what some endure,
þe þá wræclástas wídost lecgað.
þe þá wræclástas wídost lecgað.
those who travel furthest on the paths of the exile.



Forþon nú mín hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
Forþon nú mín hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
And yet now my spirit roams beyond the enclosure of the heart,
mín módsefa mid mereflóde
mín módsefa mid mereflóde
my thought of mind, along with the sea-flood,
ofer hwæles éþel hweorfeð wíde,
ofer hwæles éþel hweorfeð wíde,
travels widely over the whale’s haunt,
eorþan scéatas, cymeð eft tó mé
eorþan scéatas, cymeð eft tó mé
over the world’s expanse; it comes again to me
gífre ond grǽdig, gielleð ánfloga,
gífre ond grǽdig, gielleð ánfloga,
eager and greedy; the solitary flier yells,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
incites the spirit irresistibly on the whale’s path,
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hátran sind
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hátran sind
over the sea’s expanse. Thus the joys of the Lord are
dryhtnes dréamas þonne þis déade líf,
dryhtnes dréamas þonne þis déade líf,
warmer to me than this dead life,
lǽne on londe. Ic gelýfe nó
lǽne on londe. Ic gelýfe nó
transitory on land. I do not believe
þæt him eorðwelan éce stondað.
þæt him eorðwelan éce stondað.
that earthly happiness will endure eternally.
Simle þréora sum þinga gehwylce,
Simle þréora sum þinga gehwylce,
Always, in all conditions, one of three things
ǽr his tíddege tó twéon weorþeð;
ǽr his tíddege tó twéon weorþeð;
hangs in the balance before his final day:
ádl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
ádl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
disease or old age or attack by the sword
fǽgum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð.
fǽgum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð.
will wrest life for those doomed to die, on their way hence.



Forþon bið eorla gehwám æftercweþendra
Forþon bið eorla gehwám æftercweþendra
Therefore for every man, praise from those who speak of him afterwards,
lóf lifgendra lástworda betst,
lóf lifgendra lástworda betst,
from the living, is the best memorial
þæt hé gewyrce, ǽr hé on weg scyle,
þæt hé gewyrce, ǽr hé on weg scyle,
that he might earn before he must depart,
fremum on foldan wið féonda níþ,
fremum on foldan wið féonda níþ,
achievements on earth against the wickedness of enemies,
déorum dǽdum déofle tógéanes,
déorum dǽdum déofle tógéanes,
opposing the devil with brave deeds
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen,
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen,
so that the children of men might praise him afterwards,
ond his lóf siþþan lifge mid englum
ond his lóf siþþan lifge mid englum
and his glory will live then among the angels,
áwa tó ealdre, écan lífes blǽd,
áwa tó ealdre, écan lífes blǽd,
always forever in the glory of eternal life,
dréam mid dugeþum. Dagas sind gewitene,
dréam mid dugeþum. Dagas sind gewitene,
joy among the host. The days are gone
ealle onmédlan eorþan ríces;
ealle onmédlan eorþan ríces;
of all the pomp of the kingdoms of earth;
nearon nú cyningas ne cáseras
nearon nú cyningas ne cáseras
there are now no kings or emperors
ne goldgiefan swylce iú wǽron,
ne goldgiefan swylce iú wǽron,
or gold-givers such as there formerly were,
þonne hí mǽst mid him mǽrþa gefremedon
þonne hí mǽst mid him mǽrþa gefremedon
when they most performed glorious deeds among themselves,
ond on dryhtlícestum dóme lifdon.
ond on dryhtlícestum dóme lifdon.
and lived in magnificent renown.
Gedroren is þéos duguð eal,
Gedroren is þéos duguð eal,
The whole of this noble band has fallen;
     dréamas sind gewitene,
     dréamas sind gewitene,
     joys are departed.
wuniað þá wácran ond þás woruld healdaþ,
wuniað þá wácran ond þás woruld healdaþ,
Inferior ones live and possess the world,
brúcað þurh bísgo. Blǽd is gehnǽged,
brúcað þurh bísgo. Blǽd is gehnǽged,
they enjoy it by way of toil. Glory is brought low.
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond séarað,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond séarað,
The earth’s nobility grows old and withers,
swá nú monna gehwylc geond middangeard.
swá nú monna gehwylc geond middangeard.
as does each man now throughout the earth:
Yldo him on fareð, onsýn blácað,
Yldo him on fareð, onsýn blácað,
old age overtakes him, his face grows pale,
gomelfeax gnornað, wát his iúwine,
gomelfeax gnornað, wát his iúwine,
a gre-haired one laments; he knows that his friends of old,
æþelinga bearn, eorþan forgiefene.
æþelinga bearn, eorþan forgiefene.
the children of princes, have been consigned to the earth.
Ne mæg him þonne se flǽschoma,
Ne mæg him þonne se flǽschoma,
Nor when his life is lost
     þonne him þæt feorg losað,
     þonne him þæt feorg losað,
     will his body
ne swéte forswelgan ne sár gefélan,
ne swéte forswelgan ne sár gefélan,
taste sweetness of feel pain,
ne hond onhréran ne mid hyge þencan.
ne hond onhréran ne mid hyge þencan.
or move a hand, or think with the mind.
þéah þe græf wille golde strégan
þéah þe græf wille golde strégan
Though a brother might wish to scatter the grave
bróþor his geborenum, byrgan be déadum,
bróþor his geborenum, byrgan be déadum,
with gold for his sibling, to bury with the dead
máþmum mislícum þæt hine mid wille,
máþmum mislícum þæt hine mid wille,
various treasures that he would wish to have with him,
ne mæg þǽre sáwle þe biþ synna ful
ne mæg þǽre sáwle þe biþ synna ful
the gold that he hid before while he lived here
gold tó geóce for godes egsan,
gold tó geóce for godes egsan,
cannot be a help to the soul which is full of sins
þonne hé hit ǽr hýdeð þenden hé hér leofað.
þonne hé hit ǽr hýdeð þenden hé hér leofað.
when it comes in the presence of the terrible power of God.



Micel biþ se meotudes egsa,
Micel biþ se meotudes egsa,
Great is the terrible power of the Ordainer
     forþon hí séo molde oncyrreð;
     forþon hí séo molde oncyrreð;
     before which the earth will quake;
se gestaþelade stíþe grundas,
se gestaþelade stíþe grundas,
he established the firm ground,
eorþan scéatas ond uprodor.
eorþan scéatas ond uprodor.
the expanse of the earth and the heavens above.
Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrǽdeþ;
Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrǽdeþ;
Foolish is he that does not fear his Lord:
     cymeð him se déað unþinged.
     cymeð him se déað unþinged.
     death will come to him unexpectedly.
Éadig bið se þe éaþmód leofaþ;
Éadig bið se þe éaþmód leofaþ;
Blessed is the man who lives humbly:
     cymeð him séo ár of heofonum,
     cymeð him séo ár of heofonum,
     the favour of heaven will come to him.
meotod him þæt mód gestaþelað,
meotod him þæt mód gestaþelað,
God established that spirit in him
     forþon hé in his meahte gelýfeð.
     forþon hé in his meahte gelýfeð.
     because he believes in his power.
Stíeran mon sceal strongum móde,
Stíeran mon sceal strongum móde,
A man must control a headstrong spirit
     ond þæt on staþelum healdan,
     ond þæt on staþelum healdan,
     and hold that firmly,
ond gewis werum, wísum clǽne,
ond gewis werum, wísum clǽne,
reliable in his pledges and clean in his ways.
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
Every man should act with restraint
wiþ léofne ond wið láþne bealo,
wiþ léofne ond wið láþne bealo,
towards both friend and foe,
þéah þe hé hine wille fýres fulne
þéah þe hé hine wille fýres fulne
although he might want him filled with fire,
oþþe on bǽle forbærnedne
oþþe on bǽle forbærnedne
or consumed on the pyre,
his geworhtne wine. Wyrd biþ swíþre,
his geworhtne wine. Wyrd biþ swíþre,
this friend that he had made. Fate is greater,
meotud meahtigra þonne ǽnges monnes gehygd.
meotud meahtigra þonne ǽnges monnes gehygd.
the Lord more mighty than any man’s conception.



Uton wé hycgan hwǽr wé hám ágen,
Uton wé hycgan hwǽr wé hám ágen,
Let us consider where we might have a home,
ond þonne geþencan hú wé þider cumen,
ond þonne geþencan hú wé þider cumen,
and then reflect upon how we could come there
ond wé þonne éac tilien, þæt wé tó móten
ond wé þonne éac tilien, þæt wé tó móten
and then we may also strive so that we should come there
in þá écan éadignesse,
in þá écan éadignesse,
into that eternal blessedness,
þǽr is líf gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
þǽr is líf gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
where there is life to be obtained in the love of God,
hyht in heofonum. Þæs sý þám hálgan þonc,
hyht in heofonum. Þæs sý þám hálgan þonc,
hope in heaven. Thanks be to the Holy One
þæt he úsic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
þæt he úsic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
that he has exalted us, Prince of glory,
éce dryhten, in ealle tíd.
éce dryhten, in ealle tíd.
eternal Lord, through all time.



Amen.
Amen.
Amen.

Commentary
Preserved in the Exeter Book, an important collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 10th century, The Seafarer is altogether an elegy and a moral poem. In a first part, a narrator tells of the hardships of sea travel compared to a settled life, yet acknowledges his fascination and deep longing for the ocean. The poem then moves towards the themes of the transience and insignificance of earthly life compared to divine power, and ends with a moral exhortation and a hope of eternal bliss. This second, more didactic part also retrospectively colours the first one with a figurative meaning of the ordeal endured by a soul yearning for God. We used the online edition of Corey Owen and added acute accents on long vowels and diphthongs. The modern English translation is by Elaine Treharne.

Tolkien planned to use echoes of this poem in his unfinished novels The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. Both are attempts at reworking the myth of Atlantis into what was to become the matter of Númenor, as well as exploring the theme of time travel by way of dreams, recollections and inheritance.

The text’s transcription emulates the Insular script, a style of the Latin alphabet of Irish origin, used in most Old English manuscripts. We made use of Peter S. Baker’s typeface Beowulf1.

References
Owen, Corey (ed.). The Seafarer: A Hypertext Edition. 🌍 The University of Saskatchewan.
Old and Middle English Poetry. Edited by Duncan Wu. Based on Old and Middle English: an anthology, edited by Elaine Treharne. Oxford; Malden (Mass.): Blackwell, 2002. 174 p. (Blackwell Essential Literature). ISBN 0-631-23073-4.

The works of John Ronald Reuel and Christopher Tolkien are under the copyright of their authors and/or rights holders, including their publishers and the Tolkien Estate.
Quotations from other authors, editors and translators mentioned in the bibliography are under the copyright of their publishers, except for those whose copyright term has ended.
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