Tim Benjamin

composer, writer, storyteller

The Seafarer

2024

The Seafarer is a companion piece to my setting of The Wanderer. Both are Anglo-Saxon poems or elegies surviving in The Exeter Book.

The Seafarer captures a sense of melancholic and spiritual connection to the Earth, and is told from the perspective of a seafarer, reminiscing and evaluating his life. His hardships - physical and mental - on the sea are described in vivid detail, and drawn in contrast to the lives of men on land who he imagines surrounded by friends, free from danger, and with ready access to food and wine. However, he describes how the climate on land starts to change to that of the wintry sea, as the seasons turn and the blossoms of Spring turn to Summer (watched by a forboding cuckoo) and finally to Winter. Finally, the speaker relates this change to a change in himself, and a melancholy for his past life, and with forboding about the afterlife, and how he might be remembered.

The poem is a powerful meditation on loneliness and "outsiderness", and the sound-world evoked in the text (particularly the crashing sea and the speaker's only companions, various sea-birds, echoed on land by the cuckoo) was a key element for my setting and the recorded version of the music.

I have adapted A.S. Kline's translation into modern English, making further changes to suit my musical setting. As in Kline's version, I have omitted the "Amen" section of the manuscript which I felt (as others have) it didn't match the original and may have been added later.

Just as in my setting of The Wanderer, musically I have made great use of a Gregorian psalm tone, the tonus peregrinus. It is commonly associated with Psalm 114 (or 113) describing the Exodus (i.e. exile) of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and in which the reciting tone also "wanders", such that the tone does not fit any of the standard eight church modes.

Recording: Paths of Exile

The Seafarer is available on the recording Paths of Exile performed by Kantos with an immersive audio soundtrack, alongside the related poem The Wanderer (also set by Tim Benjamin).

The Seafarer

Translated by A.S. Kline and further adapted by Tim Benjamin

1

May I of my own self truth’s song reckon,
Tell of my traverse,
How I oft endured days of hardship, times of trouble,
Bitter the breast-care that I suffered,
Known at my keel nany a care’s hold.

Dread wave-fall when wary night-watch
Found me often there at the ship’s stem,
Wave-thrown by cliff-wall.

Cold-fettered, my feet frost-bound in cold clasp,
Where cares seethed then hot at the heart;
Hunger within tore the sea-weary soul.

This knows he not who on land lives lightly,
How I, care-wretched,
On ice-cold ocean weathered winter
In ways of exile,
Bereft of my brethren,
Hung with ice-shards;
Hail showers flew.

2

There I heard naught.
Naught but sea roaring, ice-cold wave.

Whiles the swan’s song had I for pleasure;
Gannet’s clamour,
Curlew’s crying
For men’s laughter;
The gull’s keening
For mead-drinking.

Storms beat on stony cliffs
Where spoke the tern,
Icy-feathered;
Ever the eagle screamed,
Sea-foam-feathered;
No bright companion there to comfort
The careworn soul.

For he treats as light,
He, who drinks life’s joys,
The safe stronghold-dweller,
Far from baleful journey,
Wine-proud and wanton,
How I weary oft on brine-paths must abide.

3

Night-shadows neared,
Snow from the north,
Frost bound the land,
Hail fell on earth,
Coldest of crops.

4

Now are they troubled, the thoughts of my heart,
That I on high streams with salt-surge should strive:
Mind-lust urging in every moment that spirit fare onward,
Seeking afar the fastness of foreign folk.

For there’s none so proud-minded,
No man on this earth,
Nor so generous of goods,
Nor so bold in his youth,
Nor so dread in his deeds,
Nor so dear to his lord,
That he in sea-faring has never a care
As to what Fate may will for him.

Not for him harp-hearing,
Ring-giving,
Wife-winning,
Nor worldly glory,
Nor ever aught else lest it be wash of the wave;
But ever has he longing,
Who strives on the sea.

5

Grove bears blossom,
Burghs to adorn,
Fields grow fair,
The world quickens.

All spurs on the eager-minded spirit to sail,
In one who seeks on flood-ways his faring.

Thus the cuckoo urges with melancholy voice,
Summer’s watchman sings,
Boding sorrow
Bitter in breast-hoard.

This he knows not, the gentle man,
What some must endure, who,
Wretched outcasts,
Widest must wander.

6

For now my heart writhes out of my breast,
My mind’s gone mid mere-flood over the whale’s home,
Widely wandering all Earth’s corners.

Comes oft to me greedy and eager,
Lone-flyer screeching
Whets for the whale-road
The heart unwary over the sea’s hold.

Far brighter for me are the joys of my lord,
Than this dead life lingering on land.

I do not believe that his earthly wealth
Will eternal stand.

7

Always, ever will one of these three things
Ere a man’s ending turn towards doubt:
Age or sickness or sword-hatred
Tear the frail life from the fated.

So for every man after-praise of the living,
Last word and best he must work for before he be gone;
Fearless in fold against fiend’s malice,
Daring in deeds against devil,
So men’s sons ahall praise him after,
And his fame ever live with the angels,
On and on forever in life eternal,
A joy among many.

8

The days are gone,
All the glory of earthly riches;
Now are no kings
Nor Caesars,
Nor gold-givers
As once there were,
When the most among them marvels performed,
And lived in majesty the most lordly.

Gone are the old watch:
Their joys are over.

Now wane the weaker
And yet hold the world,
With sweat, they enjoy.

Fled is the glory;
Earth’s nobility ages and withers
As now does ev’ry man throughout mid-earth.

Age fares on him,
Pale grows his face,
Grey-haired he groans,
Knowing friends past:
Men nobly born to earth now given.

Nor may he nourish his flesh as life leaves him,
Nor taste the sweetness,
Nor feel the painfulness,
Nor raise his hand high,
Nor think with his mind.

Though the grave with gold he would strew,
Brother for kinsman;
With the dead bury treasure;
Naught shall that win.

Duration

20 minutes

Instrumentation

Male voices

First performance

Kantos, 2024

Listen

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If you would like to see a score and/or require a set of parts for this music, please contact me.