The Seafarer starts recalling his travels, and how he has endured much hardship during his time at sea. When he would take the position of night watchman at the prow (or bow) of his ship, he would be drenched and overwhelmed by the wildness of the waves and the sharpness of the cliffs. His feet would be frozen, and his insides ravaged by hunger in a way only seamen can understand.
The Seafarer claims that land-dwellers cannot comprehend the pain of spending winter in exile at sea, estranged from one's kinsmen and miserable in the cold. All alone, the Seafarer recounts that all he could hear was the roaring of the sea waves. Sometimes he would pretend that the calls of birds were actually the sounds of fellow sailors, drinking mead and singing songs. Alas, the Seafarer has no companion or earthly protector at sea.
The Seafarer laments that city men, who are red-faced with wine and enjoy an easy life, find it hard to fathom how the fatigued seafarer could consider the violent waters his home. The shadows are darker at night, and during snowfall, the earth is oppressed by frost and hail. Similarly, the Seafarer's heart is oppressed by his need to prove himself at sea. He feels compelled to take new journeys to faraway lands, surrounded by strangers. He claims that there is no man in the world who would be fearless about a treacherous sea journey, no matter how courageous, strong, or good he might be, and no matter how benevolent God has been to him in the past. A sea-journeying man, though, does not desire women, treasure, or worldly pleasures. He is always longing for the rolling waves.
During springtime, when flowers are blooming and plains are green, the Seafarer's mind prompts him to depart on a new journey. The cuckoo's song foretells the arrival of summer and brings the knowledge of coming sorrow into the man's heart. The narrator reminds his readers that rich men on land do not know the level of suffering that exiles endure.
The Seafarer, once again relating his own story, describes how his spirit leaps across the seas and travels the waves, wandering for miles before returning, filled with anticipation. Meanwhile, the lone bird's cry "urges [his] heart" to take to the ocean's watery ways.
Now, the Seafarer proclaims that the Lord's joy is more exciting than a fleeting "dead life" on Earth. The wealth of the Earth will wither someday, because it cannot survive forever. Men and women on earth will perish due to either illness, old age, or armed conflict, none of which are predictable. The Seafarer urges every person to perform great deeds against the Devil so that, when that person does die, he or she will go to Heaven and his children will honor him.
The narrator observes that the days of glory in the Earth's kingdom have passed. The powerful kings and "gold-giving" lords of yore are no more. Now, weak men hold all the power and display none of their predecessors' dignity. Old age makes men's faces grow pale, their bodies slow down, and their minds weaken. Even if a man fills his brother's grave with gold on Earth, it does not matter because his brother cannot take the gold with him into the afterlife. A soul filled with sin cannot be hidden beneath gold, because the Lord will find it.
God's wrath is great and powerful. After all, He created the earth, the heavens, and the sea. The narrator proclaims that any man who does not fear God is foolish, and His power will catch the unassuming man unawares. Humble men are happy and able to draw strength from God. God's hand is stronger than the mind of any man. Even if a man is master of his home on Earth, he must remember that in the afterlife, his happiness depends on God. Therefore, it is in every man's best interest to honor the Lord in his life, and remain humble and faithful throughout.
"The Seafarer" is a 124-line poem written in Old English that scholars often view as a companion piece to "The Wanderer." "The Seafarer" is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon elegies and is found only in The Exeter Book. It has an alliterative rhyme scheme. Unlike "The Wanderer", it is slightly easier for modern readers to understand, because there are fewer vague passages that require interpretation. There appears to be only one narrator, an anhaga, meaning "solitary figure", who describes his own journeys at sea and then transitions into a discussion of the ephemerality of life on Earth. Some scholars categorize the poem as a lament because of the narrator's suffering, some consider it a verse homily because of the preachy tone, and some define it as a wisdom poem due to the narrator's admonition for his readers to trust in the Lord. Some critics believe that the sea journey described in the first half of the poem is actually an allegory, especially because of the poet's use of idiom to express homiletic ideas.
In the first half of the poem, the Seafarer reflects upon the difficulty of his life at sea. The weather is freezing and harsh, the waves are powerful, and he is alone. He contrasts his solitude to the life of land dwellers, which is much easier and more comfortable. In the second part of the poem, however, the speaker changes his tone and expresses his ongoing ambition to continue traveling. He stresses the impermanence of earthly life and the irrelevance of material gain. He instructs his reader to behave piously, because Death will come for all men and, ultimately, God will hold every man accountable. The evocation of Christian themes is much more blatant in this poem than in "The Wanderer". In "The Seafarer", the poet's exhortation for his readers to follow Christian values is unambiguous. Also, the Wanderer is forced into exile when his Lord dies, but the Seafarer's exile is self-imposed.
Literary critics who see "The Seafarer" as an allegory posit that the "exile" is actually Adam and his descendants, who were cast out of the Garden of Eden. In the Bible, the Christian pilgrims who journey to the "City of God" are exiles. Therefore, the allegorical interpretation draws a parallel between a pilgrim's quest and the Seafarer's spiritual journey and voluntary exile. Pilgrims and other voluntary exiles are common in Anglo-Saxon literature as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 891. Similarly, the titular Seafarer could be undertaking his journey to ensure his entrance into heaven. Since he has developed the wisdom that his life is transitory, he has thrown off the vestiges of the civilized world in search of divine blessings.
Renowned literary scholar Stanley Greenfield characterizes the Seafarer's attitude towards his imminent journey as one of "hesitancy and trepidation," describing it as "a resurrection of the anguish which the seafarer suffered in the past intensified now by the thought of a new and more irrevocable exile from earthly felicity." The shift in the poet's tone actually adds more complexity to the narrator, who isn't quite convinced yet about "the ascetic life."
Julienne H. Empric's article on the "experience of displacement" in "The Seafarer" focuses on how the poem moves from the particular to the general, from the known to the unknown, and from the temporal to the eternal. The Seafarer speaks of the land-dwellers in contrast to himself, and by doing so demonstrates that he is wiser and more experienced in dealing with hardship. This opening section allows the narrator to essentially establish his credibility in offering advice to his readers. The Seafarer describes how he has cast off all earthly pleasures and now mistrusts them. He prefers spiritual joy to material wealth, and looks down upon land-dwellers as ignorant and naive. It is highly likely that the Seafarer was, at one time, a land-dweller himself. Therefore, he could very well be referring to himself when he describes the way a man can be "deprived of, then willingly [relinquish] the land-joys, especially the companionship of lord and fellows."