Review on “Seafarer” by Tolkien

Book-ReviewMy heart’s desires urge me time and again
to travel forth, that I might seek out
strange lands far from here…

Poetry as well the songs are among the pieces of literature that, although are built on the foundations of a language, are capable of transcending limits of a language itself. One such fine example is 124-line poem recorded in the Exeter Book to be one of the four only surviving remnants of age long Old English Literature.

Two of Europe’s (and perhaps of the world’s) rare pieces seem to be destined to meet each other after the beauty of The Seafarer caught Tolkien’s attention and interest, which prompted him to do an annotation of the poem on a book with the same title. Although the original work of J. R.R. Tolkien and his fellow philologist Eric Valentine Gordon was unpublished due to the Gordon’s death on 1938, his wife, Ida Gordon reworked the uncompleted draft and created massive revisions before publishing it in 1930. Although the original authors were no longer indicated in the book after it was published under Ida Gordon’s name, the influence, assistance and work of Tolkien are greatly acknowledged.

Reception and Structure

Partly because it is a rare piece of ancient literature in a language that started it all and partly because the poem is reflective of the predominant mindset of the ancient European times, the poem has earned the attention of a number of critics and scholars. Its fame and rarity have attracted a multitude of critical assessments and interpretations.
The poem is written in the first-person point of view of an aged seafarer while recollecting and assessing the live he had. The poem contains the recollection of the old man’s hardship and desolate life one winter in the middle of the open seas. His recollection punctuates the difference between life on land where men are surrounded by wine and food and are, somehow less exposed to danger to life on sea. As the poem progresses, the tone gradually shifts to a near-philosophical opinion of the speaker about how trivial, a life dedicated to finding happiness on earth is and how one should oppose evil to series of statements about God, self-control and the vast eternity. The poem ends with “Amen” which gives the impression of a prayer (though not being one).

There is a number of critical interpretations of the poem. The most predominant is that of O.S. Anderson divided the book into three parts with the third part being written by someone else due to its giving an impression of an increased influence of Christianity. Others contend to thinking that the poem is about a conversation between an old seafarer who has grown weary of the life he had and a young seafarer who is looking forward to a life he will have on sea.


Critics and scholars have focused their attention on various themes for which the poem is applicable. One argument is that, due to the number sapiential (or wisdom) material, it can be construed as a Wisdom literature. The content of the poem can somehow be compared, in structure and essence, to the maxims and proverbs of the Old Testament (a renowned Sapiential Book).

Due to an apparently strong Christian influence on the content, the poem has been referred to, mostly, in the light of religion.

Dorothy Whitelock, a renowned English Historian, on the other hand, has remarked that the poem is a literal narration of an account without figurative meaning.

Amidst the uproar this rare piece of literature has created among scholars, the fact remained that it is a rare Old English Literature reflective of a culture for which modern times is partly (or largely) founded on and that the beauty and craft of the poem endures up to this day.

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