Sunday, 31 May 2015

Post a poem. The Seafarer - an Old English lament of loneliness.

There's been this 'thing' going round on Facebook, asking people to post a poem a day for four days. My old pal Cheryl tagged me along with the three other members of our short-lived Yellow Dog Sex Toy Clan (don't ask, it's better not to know) and it made me think.  I'm not good with poetry, not really.  But I pondered and The Seafarer came to mind.  When I was studying English, I really loved Anglo-Saxon/Old English/call it what you will. I think I've told you this before.

There is something about going far enough back into a language that the letters themselves are different, that it isn't just a case of altered spellings and word-shifts; it really is a different tongue. Plus the poetry of this time showed society at a seismic spirit-turn - seguing from paganism to Christianity.
There are many poems of this period I love but The Wanderer and The Seafarer were my favourites, and The Seafarer nudges ahead by a briny nose (because I love the sea).  It's raw, it's sensory, it's tearing and yearning in a way that might surprise.

So I looked it up and read it again and found myself in tears.  It had a huge effect on me when I first read it, aged 19 and fresh at college.  All that crisp alliteration and word-smash, like swords crashing together, like waves scything against the bow of a boat, alone, small, hopeless in stormy seas.
Just listen to it...

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð And now my heart twists
ofer hreþerlocan,                         out from my breast,
min modsefa                                 my spirit
mid mereflode,                         out in the sea-flood,
ofer hwæles eþel                         over the whale's path
hweorfeð wide,                         it soars wide
eorþan sceatas -                         to the corners of the world -
cymeð eft to me                         it comes back to me
gifre ond grædig;                         greedy and longing;
gielleð anfloga,                         the sole(soul)-flier screams,
hweteð on hwælweg                 urges onto the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum                         the unresisting heart
ofer holma gelagu.                         across the waves of the sea.

Want to read it all?  This has a pretty good translation alongside.  Ezra Pound did his own version but, to my ear, it's not so good.
After all these years I can still remember the debate over 'anfloga' - does it refer to some specific breed of seabird (I once sat through a whole lecture on that particular question) or even a cuckoo (surely not?).  And, because the text was a bit hard to read in places, whether it should be 'hwælweg' (whale-path) or 'wælweg' (death-way).

It doesn't matter, not really. It's a poem of intense loneliness, of loss and yearning. An elegy of exile, of the cold - physical, emotional, spiritual.  A journey - not just over a stretch of sea but through life maybe; towards death certainly.
Re-reading it, I find myself remembering my 19-year old self, how disconnected I felt, how separate - or was that just general late teenage angst and romanticism?
Reading it now I am surprised how much it still resonates, all these years on.  I am surprised, too, at how lonely I feel.

I have never considered loneliness; never really understood it when people complained of it.
I have always loved my own company, lost in thought or not-thought.  I have been self-sufficient, independent, aloof maybe (some might say).  I enjoy company - with the right people - but am never lost alone. But, I am beginning to wonder, is that really true?  Is it healthy?  It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm aware that many people are doing normal nice things - out with families doing stuff together while I'm here, all alone-e-oh, reading Anglo-Saxon poetry. Which is fine and good.  But then again, there is a sadness - a feeling of opportunities missed, of time never to be recaptured.
When I think back, back to when I first read The Seafarer, there was a balance of sorts in my life. Whenever I went out too far on that sea-flood, that whale-path, I would have people to tug me back to the mead-hall, to anchor me with warmth and laughter.  Maybe I need some fellow warriors?

2 comments:

T Graham said...

That's was beautiful, and I must say you've articulated something I've often wondered, is my life as full, connected and un-lonely as I think? I spend an awful lots of time at home alone reading or creating/working on art projects no one will ever see. I feel quite satisfied in the moment but in moments of reflection i wonder, if I'm lonely, will I be lonely? will I regret these life choices? Is there actually anything more for me? You don't happen to have the answers do you? It would be appreciated.:)

Exmoorjane said...

Ah T, thank you for that lovely comment. In answer to your question, no, I have no answers...only ever more questions. :)
I think we have to listen deep to our hearts, to intuit as best we can what our hearts, bodies, souls require. I tend to burn all my paintings, and most of my words too...I don't think that matters, if they were created for ourselves, rather than others. Is that your case?
I have recently come back from doing something called the Penninghame Process (www.penninghame.org) and, I don't know, maybe that might help you clarify things a little. I found it the toughest, yet most rewarding, week I've ever done. Just throwing it out there... :) Let me know if you find any answers.