Hearts, minds, and sea birds

seafarer-exeter-book

Folio 81v of the Exeter Book [The Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral]

The Old English poem we call ‘The Seafarer’ is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, a large codex (book) of poems and riddles, still housed in the library at Exeter Cathedral since it was given by Bishop Leofric in the eleventh century.

Ostensibly, in ‘The Seafarer’ we listen to a man who describes the irresistible call to sea and his experiences on the ocean: a place where he is at once alone and longing for land, but from which he cannot stay away, the way to his ‘final home’.

Although the poem is about seafaring, as Eleni Ponirakis (Nottingham University) has pointed out, the speaker of the poem does not seem to do much physically, but a lot happens to him. He is made to feel anxiety or longing, is called to the sea, is frozen. The speaker ends contemplating his after-life.

There is, then, a lot of internal action going on. This is a poem of the mind: Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan… [I may sing a true tale about my self…]. Words of the inner life abound: mod (the mind, or perhaps soul or spirit) appears seven times, heortan (heart) appears twice, and hyge (mind) three times.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð   ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa   mid mereflode,
ofer hwæles eþel   hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas,   cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig,   gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg   hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu.

[And now my mind is free from my breast-locker, my soul at sea, over the whale-path it travels wide. From across the earth it comes back to me, eager and greedy; the lone-flier yells, pulls to the whale-way my yielding heart, over the sea-waves.]

The Seafarer, lines 58-64a

This middle section of the poem seems to describe the speaker’s mod bursting forth from the chest to roam over the seas. What critics can’t agree on, however, is what the anfloga, literally ‘lone flier’, is referring to. Is it a gull of some kind? A metaphor for the call of the sea? Or does it refer back to this mod which soared from the body of the speaker just a few lines back? James Paz (Manchester University) has most recently suggested that the voice of the poem itself is this uncontainable lone-flying soul, not the seafarer as person, leading to the question of who or what exactly is speaking.

Who or what is the speaker of this poem? What is the lone flier? What’s the relationship between the lone flier and the mind or body of the poem’s speaker? Where is the poem being spoken–on land or at sea? Do the events it describes take place in the mind or are they played out in reality? This particular section of the poem has the potential to be interpreted in a range of abstract and more figurative ways, and I can’t wait to see what form it might take over the course of this project.

This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.


Fran Allfrey (@Francheskyia) researches ‘medievalisms’, instances of medieval poems, objects, and histories that have been represented or remade in the present day. Her focus is on the Anglo-Saxon burial ground, Sutton Hoo, and how it has been combined with and reimagined alongside Old English poetry in the media, scholarship, and museums. She is based at the English Department of King’s College London, and her Ph.D. is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

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3 thoughts on “Hearts, minds, and sea birds

  1. Pingback: ān-floga | Old English Wordhord

  2. Pingback: Getting medieval with comics | Medieval Comics

  3. Pingback: Hearts, minds, and sea birds | Medieval Comics – an (almost) anglo-saxonist

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