Not satisfaction, but dissatisfaction urges his heart and mind “over the stretch of seas.” This yearning leads him to the “joys of the Lord,” which are not earthly.
There are three things that are always uncertain until they come: illness, old age, and hostility, each of which entertains the possibility of death.
The 124-line poem is untitled in the manuscript, and its author is unknown.
The best-known translation is that of Ezra Pound, whose rendering of the first ninety-nine lines has been widely admired on its own merits by readers with no knowledge of the original.
More recently, the critical consensus has come around to the view that the poem is a monologue by a single speaker, a religious man who has spent a life on the sea and is now meditating on his experience of life on Earth and contemplating the afterlife in Heaven.
The poem begins with the speaker’s remembrance of the hardships of his past life on the sea, focusing especially on scenes of solitary voyages undertaken in harsh winter weather.
Old English poetry is alliterative, relying on repetition of the initial sounds of stressed syllables rather than on rhymes at the ends of lines as its structural principle.
The details of this alliterative practice can be quite complicated, but the most typical form is illustrated by lines 31-32 of “The Seafarer,” which appear thus in the original Old English: “Nap niht-scua, nor an sniwde,/ hrim hrusan band, hægl feoll on eor an” (“Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,/ Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then”).
At about the midpoint of the poem, he explicitly makes the point that life on the land is sterile, fleeting, and insubstantial.
In the second half of the poem, he moves away from the autobiographical discussion of his experiences and concentrates on the revelation to which they have led him.