On “The Seafarer”

My commentary on “The Seafarer” for Unlikeness. Kinda long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his “Seafarer” for you. At the bottom of the post, there’s a special mp3 treat.


For literary translators of OE – not so much for scholars – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. Indeed, his “Seafarer” is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with Zukofsky’s Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after his must contend with that garrulous maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound wrote of three ways to charge words with poetic meaning: melopoeia (handling sounds), phanopoeia (throwing an image toward the mind’s eye), and logopoeia (setting a word in a new relation to its usage) (ABC 37). Hearing, vision, thought: three sites where one could add by shaping (shared ground of the Greek word for poet, poietes, and the AS word, scop) to the world’s store of meaning by words. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and liberally around thought. Since the three are co-equal in meaning-making – are the three legs of the unwobbling stool the poem is – it is for a poet a perfectly defensible choice.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:

   x   –        x         –    –              –    x    –       x      –
bitre brēostceare          gebiden hæbbe,

   –    x       –     –     x    –                x      –    –    x  –
gecunnad in cēole          cearselda fela,

–   –   x   –    –     x                      –          –     x      –    –
atol ȳþa gewealc,          þǣr mec oft bigeat

    x    –    x         –   –              –      x    –        x      –
nearo nihtwaco          æt nacan stefnan,

   –             –    –      x   –           x     –
þonne hē be clifum cnossað. (4­–8)

(x = primary stress)

    x   –        x            –               x      –  –  x    –
Bitter breast-cares | have I abided,

       x          –       –      x            x    –   –    x           x
Known on my keel | many a care’s hold,

 –          –        x       x                 –           –      –  x         x
And dire sea-surge, | and there I oft spent

    x     –        x            –                x         –        –          x
Narrow nightwatch | nigh the ship’s head

       –         –      –                x        –     x
While she tossed close to cliffs.

He does far more than catch the feel of AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the hemistich. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too. When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the line, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise. When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too. In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved – in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line, and does so because in a given pattern, a given intelligence is to be found, through which articulations not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll call this a rose in the steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS scop, his line and his seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. The image gets its power through the speed of its arrival. In “The Seafarer” Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:

Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan,          þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera;          ful oft þæt earn bigeal
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.

An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image is seen dimly through the latter, the force brought to bear on a whole cliff-face is momentarily concen­trated on the fragile hull of the boat. “In icy feathers” then lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm a sense of something animate, almost delicate; then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own feathers; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feath­ered) spray on the eagle’s own wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the vortex comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, an abortive movement but prelude to the Cantos, and doing in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein worked out in pictures – both of them, as it happens, working from Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, though with Kenner I think Pound got some of his mojo from the Seafarer poet. It’s a lovely montage, one of many here, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It did come though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn, “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the scop‘s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks cities (byrig) into berries.

Bearwas blōstmum nimað,          byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað,          woruld ōnetteð (48-49)

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker

Faithful as a dog to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though we know most of a poem’s meaning is outside its words’ denotations, we’re meaning junkies anyway and cry foul – or fool – when the straitened sense of the dictionary is sidelined. As here:

“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “sur­faces” or “corners”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”

One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? Maybe we can find a reason for any given departure – this one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connec­tive tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back toward what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins – but when we take the glary errors all together, it seems we may have to say, Pound didn’t greatly value the semantic meanings of the poem’s words: not more than the sound matrix they belonged to, anyway, or the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most in the poem so he translated those foremost. Or maybe just on an equal footing with sense, but the loss of sense stands out more to us. Perhaps we forgive or miss a loss of cadence or a diminution of image—those embodied, experiential aspects of the poem—more easily because we are in the end meaning junkies. Perhaps we are as greedy and eager for a paraphrasable meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent meaning, and as ready as he to travel off in mōd from our lived experience to an abstract construction elsewhere.

Where the poem commits fully to its abstract construction – Heaven – Pound makes his boldest change. He stops. He cuts the last 23 lines of the poem, sure they’re the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in thinking so or in wanting to save an original pagan poem from a later Christian overlay. And a number of things do change at this point: The folio ends. So, at the same moment, do the sentence and the larger thought. At the start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in, the Christian content intensifies, and there’s arguably a loss of poetic invention. For these reasons some have concluded that “The Seafarer” ends at the end of 82v, cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on 83r is some other less interesting poem.

But the move to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. Indeed, the shift fits the arc of the poem as a whole and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in a “pure” condition. While that impetus has long since expired, arguments that the poem is composite have not. Pope and Fulk:

[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)

They like the question for being unanswerable, the sort of indeterminacy special to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I am not one not to cheer thrice for indeterminacy. Still, novice and outsider that I am, I see a single poem, a single author. The hypermetric lines are not the first in the poem; the shift to them doesn’t last long; and six-stress lines come and go for no clear reason in a number of other Exeter poems. The switch to preacher voice, as said, fits, indeed completes, the dramatic, emotional, moral, and metaphysical arcs of the poem. What would be odd would be not to go there: you’d expect a poem that forswears the world of the living at some point to leave the life-world behind. And these closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the very last few are sententious, but many other OE poems of the first order have like passages, and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them slightly apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at line 103 is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into question. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of vivid material details that resist the point-for-point calculus of allegory mind – an ice-clotted beard, a mewgull’s cries; and yet accumulating misfires in the seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the voyage with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into an allegorical reading, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. Middle of the last century, Whitelock tried to solve the problem by levelling it: she presented the journey as, despite appearances, literal from start to end, and compiled a body of historical evidence that religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices. It was a persuasive case to many but didn’t end the discussion. Marsden argues the other side: the journey stands for the spiritual pilgrim’s journey from the earthly city to the heavenly city of Augustine. By this reading, the seafarer’s true exile is not his voluntary remove from the towns of women and men, but the distance between him and his “ancestral heavenly home” (221). I am always both-and and to me it seems the poem undergoes a conversion from literal to allegorical: the journey itself metamorphoses: it starts as journey-as-journey and gradually becomes journey-as-trope. Travelling itself travels; it’s a tropic trope; I’ll stop now. But part of its subtlety is, there’s no one point where it can be said to have changed condition. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.

A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon, “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have led some readers to treat the poem as a dialogue. However, as Pope and Fulk point out (99), OE narrative poetry has very formal ways of announcing new speakers, and there are none such here. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living from mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, problem solved. In fact, what’s interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem, in the first place. Belonging to print and internet culture, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Henry James, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In “The Seafarer” oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, I know, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the boy’s mind. So some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the scop’s use of logopoeia in putting the word forþon in a highly charged relation to its ordinary usage. At any rate, the notion that there’s more than one speaker here, which had currency for a while, has by now been discarded.

There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the voice he has been voyaging to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.

And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).

 

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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