The Seafarer, trans. Michael Ullyot (who?)

The world hastens on
Posted 23 September 05

"Wyrd biþ swiþre...þonne ænges monnes gehygd." (Fate is stronger...than any man's thought.) Back in 1997 I translated the Old English poem The Seafarer with the aid, admittedly, of a nearby Bosworth & Toller (OE dictionary). There are worse things slouching toward html in my eight-year-old files.

[My source-text was online at The Labyrinth, where it's still available.]

"I can utter a tale of truth, concerning myself,
to tell of journeys, how in days of toil,
I long suffered a time of hardship.
In my ship, rolling on the terrible waves,
I have endured bitter breast-grief,
came to know many abodes of sorrow, There, at the ship's prow,
I often had anxious night-watches
when it drove near the cliffs. Constricted with cold
were my feet, bound by frost,
gripped by cold fetters; there, the sorrows lamented,
hot around my heart. Hunger tore the sea-weary spirit
from within. The man on land,
to whom most pleasantly life befalls,
knows not how I dwelt among
the exiled wanderer's tracks, wretched and troubled,
deprived of beloved kinsmen,
in the winter, hung around with icicles; the hail flew in showers.
There I heard nothing but the resounding sea,
the ice-cold wave. Occasionally I made the swan's song
my entertainment, instead of
the laughter of men and the mead-drinking,
the cry of the gannet and the curlew's call.
Storms strike the stone cliffs; the tern, with icy feathers
echoed them, while quite often the dewy-feathered eagle
cried out against them -- hardly the power
of the protecting kinsmen, to console the desolate spirit.
Whereas he little believes in the painful journeys,
he in possession of life's joy, experienced in cities,
proud and wine-flushed -- how I, weary,
must remain on the ocean's path.
The night-shadow darkened, it snowed from the north;
frost bound the world, hail, coldest of kernels,
fell on earth. Therefore thoughts now strike
the heart, that I myself must know the wretched seas,
the tumult of the ocean-waves.
The spirit's desire urges, with each occasion,
the soul to go, that I would seek
a homeland among foreigners, far hence.
And thus there is no man on earth so heart-proud,
nor so fortunate in his gifts, nor too vigorous in youth,
nor too bold in his deeds, nor toward his lord too gracious,
that he does not possess eternal sorrow, on his sea-voyage,
that the Lord wills too little for him.
His thought is not directed toward the harp, nor toward the receiving of rings,
nor to the delight of a wife, nor to the joyful world,
nor concerning anything else, save for regarding the rolling of waves,
for he who embarks onto the sea ever harbours yearning.
The world hastens on: groves take blossoms,
adorn the enclosed city, make beautiful the meadows;
yet all these inspire the heart to venture,
by which the eager of spirit intends to depart,
far over flood-ways.
The cuckoo exhorts as well, in a sad voice
the guardian of summer resounds, singing of
fierce inner feelings. That man blessed with comfort knows not
what some engage in,
those who farthest follow the paths of exile.
Therefore my thought now journeys beyond my body,
my mind, mingled with the sea-flood,
wanders wide over the whale's domain,
the surface of the world; desire and longing
upsurge in me. The lonely seabird screams,
irresistibly urges my soul to the whale-path,
over the sea's expanse. Because the delights of the Lord
are more meaningful to me than this dead life,
experienced on earth, I cannot believe that,
for anyone, earthly prosperity survives eternally.
each of three things, until one's appointed time,
is occasion for uncertainty:
disease or age or deadly violence
wrests life away from the one fated for death.
And so for every warrior, the best memorial
is fame among living generations, those speaking after his death;
that he laboured, ere he departed
and achieved on earth noble deeds
against the malice of fiends, against the devil,
so that the children of men praise him thereafter;
and then his glory lives with angels,
the joy of everlasting life among the heavenly hosts,
ever and always. Glorious days have departed,
and all the magnificence of earth's kingdom;
now there are neither kings nor emperors
nor gold-granting lieges, like there were of old,
when greatest glories were evoked among them,
and they lived in most magnificent renown.
This assemblage of seasoned retainers has all collapsed, joys have vanished,
the weak occupy and hold dominion over the world,
and benefit from it, despite hardship. Glory has declined,
the nobility of the earth have faded and grown old,
as now does every man throughout this world.
Old age overtakes him, his visage grows pale,
grey-haired, he laments, knows his former companions,
born of princes, are consigned to the earth.
When he loses that life, then his dead flesh-cover
may not taste of sweetness, nor feel pain,
nor outstretch its hand, nor think with its mind.
Though the grave may be strewn with gold,
and a man may bury his brother among the dead
with much treasure, that he desires as accompaniment;
yet gold is of no assistance, against the wrath of God,
to the soul that is full of sin,
although he hoarded it before, while he lived.
The power of God is great -- through it, the world revolves,
it established the firm ground,
the expanses of the earth and the heavens.
Foolish is he who does not fear his Lord; death will encounter him unprepared.
Blessed is he who lives humbly; to him comes the honour of heaven.
The Creator established in him that spirit whereby he believes in his might.
The mind must steer with strong resolve, and hold that fixed position,
in that way is the unfailing man untainted;
each man should hold with moderation
love toward the beloved and malice toward the enemy,
although he wishes him full of fire,
or the friend he has made burned
on a funeral pyre. Fate is stronger,
the Creator mightier, than any man's thought.
Let us acknowledge where we own our true home,
and then ponder how we may come thither.
And then we each labour on earth, so that we get there,
in the eternal bliss, hope of the heavens,
where there is everlasting life in the Lord's love.
Thus be thanks to the Holy one,
that he has honoured us, the lord of glory,
the eternal Lord, for all time.
Amen."


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