Friday, July 01, 2005

The Seafarer, part III

Thus the joys of God
Are fervent with life, where life itself
Fades quickly into the earth. The wealth
Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains.
No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life form his soul.
The praise the living pour on the dead
Flowers from reputation: plant
An earthly life of profit reaped
Even from hatred and rancor, of bravery
Flung in the devil's face, and death
Can only bring you earthly praise
And a song to celebrate a place
With the angels, life eternally blessed
In the hosts of Heaven.

The days are gone
When the kingdoms of earth flourished in glory;
Now there are no rulers, no emperors,
No givers of gold, as once there were,
When wonderful things were worked among them
And they lived in lordly magnificence.
Those powers have vanished, those pleasures are dead.
The weakest survives and the world continues,
Kept spinning by toil. All glory is tarnished.
The world's honor ages and shrinks,
Bent like the men who mold it. Their faces
Blanch as time advances, their beards
Wither and they mourn the memory of friends,
The sons of princes, sown in the dust.
The soul stripped of its flesh knows nothing
Of sweetness or sour, feels no pain,
Bends neither its hand nor its brain. A brother
Opens his palms and pours down gold
On his kinsman's grave, strewing his coffin
With treasures intended for Heaven, but nothing
Golden shakes the wrath of God
For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing
Hidden on earth rises to Heaven.

* * *

The homiletic tone of the poem begins here. The connection between this half of the poem and the previous half is not clearly expressed. But I think it is implicit that the joys of God are as full of life compared to those of earth as those of the sea are compared to the land. The sea is described in order to explain spiritual things. The sea, as is said earlier in the poem, is something one has to battle with. This is the same with the spiritual life. It is a journey, an exile, a struggle. And yet the soul wants to go, wants to experience the joys of God which are as wonderful and as difficult to attain as the destinations of a long sea voyage. Man has a longing for heaven like the sea-longing which urges at the heart of the seafarer.

There follows a description of the shortcomings of earthly things. Wealth, health, even life are transitory, uncertain things. They can easily be taken away. Prosperity can not only be taken away from a single man, but from the world. The world's glory is departing.

The section about the fading glory of earth reminds me of Tolkien. That makes sense, since Tolkien's expertise was in old poems of this sort. "All glory is tarnished." That, coupled with the idea of sea-longing, could be used as a summary of the thoughts of the Elves in later days.

Between the section about the uncertainty of life and the fading glory of earth is a section about death. There is a fusion of the Christian ideal and the old heroic ideal: one must win heaven, but the focus is not on prayers. The kind of hero that wins a reputation -- the life-after-death of the pagan world -- is the same kind as wins heaven. The qualities necessary are the same: bravery, and the ability to win profit even from the hatred of others.

There is more about death after the part about the world's vanishing honor. Death is still a fearsome foe, robbing the person of the ability to do anything further. And here there is also a distinct split from the heroic ideal: although reputation is won by virtue, which can also win heaven, the mere fact that kinsmen still honor you is no guarantee that you will go to heaven. An honored tomb will not win you God's mercy. Your only hope is in the things you did in your life.

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