The sailor begins with the reasons for his sorrow. His only home has been a ship constantly encountering indifferent forces, the sea and the cold. The prosperous man situated on land does not know the icy feeling of exile, the feeling of being cut off from one’s loved ones. The sailor’s joy has been the cry of sea birds instead of the laughter of men. On the sea, he says, there is no protector for men. Those on land, flushed with wine, are incapable of believing in his suffering.
Nonetheless, the sailor maintains that the heart’s desire is to venture forth on another journey. At the same time, he warns, there is no man so brave he can escape the anxiety that accompanies seafaring. His thoughts are not of music, riches, or women, but of his own longing. 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. Why then, he wonders, should one wish for earthly fame? One should rather seek fame among the angels.
The best days and their joys, he concludes, are gone, and weaklings have come to power. When a man dies, none of his former joys will have meaning. Thus it is foolish not to fear the Lord, but one is blessed who lives humbly--as presumably the seafarer has done. The poem ends with an exhortation to the reader to consider where his real home is and how to proceed there.
THE SEAFARER provides interest because it was obviously composed at a pivotal time when north European stoicism was giving way to Christian forbearance and hope. The poem has the feeling of both, and though the Christian feeling is uppermost, most readers remember the poem’s austere, impressionistic images of life at sea.
The speaker of "The Seafarer" announces that he can make a true song about himself and the suffering he has endured while traveling over the ocean in the middle of winter. He remembers terrible cold and loneliness, and hearing the sounds of seabirds instead of the mead hall. This life of hardship is one about which the comfortable "city dwellers" know nothing. They'll never understand his suffering, poor guy. The weather worsens as snow and hail fall. His spirit is troubled, urging him to endure the harsh conditions on the winter sea so that he can seek a faraway "foreign" homeland.
Ah, the arrival of spring should help, right? Wrong. It only provokes more wanderlust in the speaker. The cry of the cuckoo, a sign of warmer weather, makes our speaker feel downright down in the dumps. It tells him it's time for yet another journey. The Seafarer's spirit leaps out of his chest and soars all over the world, then returns to him unsatisfied.
He knows the world's riches will not last, since everyone dies and you can't take your possessions with you. Because it's only through the praise of the living after one's death that a person can hope to live forever, people should fight hard against the devil so their bravery will be remembered after their death. That way, they can live forever with the angels. Sweet deal.
The days of earthly glory are over, the speaker tells us, because the wealthy and powerful civilizations have fallen. The party's over, and the weak have inherited the earth. Glory and nobility have faded just like an aging person, whose body and senses fail. No matter how much we try to comfort the dead and ourselves with gold, it won't work because a sinful soul can't take his gold with him after death. He's painting quite the pretty picture, this seafarer guy.
So what's the takeaway point here? Our speaker tells us that it's important to fear God, who created the whole world, and before whom it stands still. Only a fool does not fear God: he will meet his death unprepared. In order to avoid this, a man has to live humbly, control his passions, keep his word, and be fair to both friends and enemies. A man should think about his earthly life, focus on the heavenly home that awaits him, and how to get there. In fact, our speaker suggests, we should all work hard to get to the eternal life, where joy awaits us, thank God, indeed.