Vox Populi

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Michael Simms: The Seafarer

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

Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His latest books are Nightjar and American Ash, both published by Ragged Sky Press.

Rough Sea 26, a photograph by Giovanni Allievi 

12 comments on “Michael Simms: The Seafarer

  1. Rose Mary Boehm
    September 25, 2021

    For me it works. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stark, bleak, moving. I still prefer the first part free-standing, but this is also rather wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara Huntington
    September 25, 2021

    Beautiful. I feel the dichotomy, but who isn’t more than one person? The sense of the sea and the human in its grip and then the attempt to come to grips with life. One to read a few more times.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lorrie Carter
    September 25, 2021

    Heartfelt poem. A beautiful read to wake up to. But whose voice is leading you? Lorrie

    Liked by 1 person

  5. kim4true
    September 25, 2021

    I agree with Christine, above… the addendum was helpful. I was drawn into the first half, as a long-time sailor myself, I know that yearning tinged with fear one feels living at the mercy of the sea.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Vox Populi
      September 25, 2021

      Thanks, Kim. I spent summers at my grandparent’s beach house on the Texas coast when I was a kid. Like you, I’ve felt the majestic power of sea and wind, and also their fierce beauty.

      Like

  6. christineskarbek
    September 25, 2021

    thanks for the addendum b/c the 2nd half is so different from the 1st. seems like a clumsy limb replantation surgery. makes sense there were at least 2 authors involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      September 25, 2021

      Thanks, Christine. Yes, most readers agree that the first half of the poem is more stylistically skillful than the second half.

      Like

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2021 by in Note from the Editor, Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , , , .

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