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I can sing the song if you like, Go on about the going, the work, The desperate unendurable days. Bitterness I’ve suffered Exploring hardship and sorrow, The tossing waves, the long watches Of the night, terror Often seized me as the waves Crashed on the cliffs. Frozen feet, my heart hot With hunger, the sea wearies me. You who live on land are happy, Never suffering the wretched winter On the water, apart from family, Besieged by hail, rimed with ice, Hearing nothing but the thrumming sea. Sometimes I fooled myself Into hearing the swan’s song, The gannet’s cry, the curlew’s voice In the laughter of men. I dreamed Of the drinking of mead, as in the old days, But the storms brought me back To the stony cliffs where the tern calls. With my clothes hanging on me Like icy feathers, the love of distant kin Could never comfort me. You who have joy in your life Would never believe the fears I’ve faced, Living in your warm houses, your crowded cities, Proud and flushed with wine, how could you? Evening comes on, bringing snow. Hail, God’s coldest grain, comes on. Salt waves crash in my heart. I’m reminded of the adventure I sought, The homes of strange people in far lands. No man is so proud, or confident, Or brave, or bold, or lucky That he does not fear the sea Or wonder what God has planned for him. He does not think of the harp or the ring, Or the pleasures of women, or The hope of good fortune, or Anything but the welling of waves. While back home, apple trees Blossom, making everything beautiful, Gardens grow, cities fill, The world hastens, and all these things Make the heart fill and grow and blossom. But the soul travels as the ship travels. You who stay home Do not know this longing of the exile. It comes to me again, hungry, Flying on a single wing across the water. On land, life was only loaned to me, At sea, I know my life is over. Whether by sickness or age or the edge Of a blade, my time will end soon. There is no hurrying from here. Therefore, praise every man for his labors Performed against his enemies. Tell his children he bravely fought the devil. Say his courage will be sung by angels. The days have departed. The presumption Of great men, their accomplishments, Such as they were, are dust now. Crumbled Are the glories of the great artisans. The singers and soldiers, the lovers and heroes, Are gone now. Their joy is gone as well. Now the weak hold the world in a spell. The trees no longer flower, nor the soul. Nor can the body enjoy sweetness Nor suffer sorrow, nor move its hands, Nor its mind. Neither gold nor God Can comfort when the soul is full of sin. The Measurer measures the ground. Foolish is he who fears not God. For Death comes as an unexpected guest. Blessed is he who lives humbly. Therefore, keep a clear mind, Clean habits, strong faith. Be kind even to those you wish to burn On a pyre. God is stronger Than any man’s thoughts. Let us consider where we shall live, What we shall call home, Think about how we can return, And do our work in such a way We can find those eternal beauties. In that final place, life is devoted To the love of the Lord. Give thanks to the Holy One So He may honor us. The Lord of Glory. The Eternal Master. Amen.
Note: This improvisation is by no means a literal translation of the original Anglo-Saxon text preserved in the 10th century Exeter Book; rather it is an attempt to convey the mood and music of the original poem as it describes the difficult life and steadfast faith of the old sailor who speaks the words. There is a centuries-old controversy among scholars as to whether the poem as it comes down to us is the work of one author or two or perhaps even three. The first half of the poem is about how difficult life is at sea, and the second half is about how to live one’s life as a good Christian. Also, many scholars have noted that the alliterative meter and poetic diction are clumsier in the second half. As a result, some translators, including Ezra Pound, eliminate the second half altogether in order to create what they consider a more authentic and aesthetically pleasing poem. In my version, I’ve tried to blend these two journeys into one, making the first half an allegory demonstrating the truth of the second half. I’ve also tried to make the two halves of the poem sound as if they are being spoken by the same man. The reader can decide whether I’ve been successful.
Copyright 2021 Michael Simms