Braving Storms: John Foy on “The Seafarer”

John FoyYes, in the midst of those dreadful downpours, the floral fireworks may seem long in coming…and yet don’t the ingenuity and endurance that get us through life’s toughest tornadoes always make for the best stories?!


The theme this month at the Ideasmyth blog is “braving storms.” To address it, I’ll be posting poems that deal in one way or another with storms, of the real sort or the figurative kind. In literature, storms are rarely meant to be mere external events. A storm outside usually points to a storm inside or to something else that is more than just weather.

“The Seafarer” is a good place to begin. It’s an Old English poem that comes from the Exeter Book, a tenth-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The author is unknown. The excerpt I’ve posted below is a loose translation by Ezra Pound. In its harsh, consonant-clanging Anglo-Saxon music, it tells of the hardships a sailor endures during winter storms at sea. It can be read as a sapiential poem urging fortitude in the face of misery, danger and deprivation.

Granted, there’s a history of scholars grousing about Ezra Pound’s “translation,” but I look past that and take the poem on its own merits—most poets I think would—as a work in its own right. Below are the first 16 lines. When I was in college, I wrote out the first line on a small piece of paper and carried it around in my wallet, a lucky strip of language. It came with me when I hitchhiked to British Columbia to plant trees during my summer vacation. At that time, you could find many hardy English majors doing this—a healthy, environmentally productive way to make money, even if the money I earned went to fund the land-locked debaucheries of the school term.

The Seafarer

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen…

Ezra Pound (1885–1972)


~~~John Foy is the author of Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press/University of Nebraska Press). His poems are featured in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, and he has appeared widely in journals, including Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, Parnassus, American Arts Quarterly, The Raintown Review and many others, with poems forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Village Voice and The Yale Review. He has also published extensively online and has been a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry website. His essays and reviews have appeared in Parnassus, The New Criterion, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Dark Horse(in Scotland) and other publications, both print and on line. He lives in New York and helps to curate an uptown reading series in Manhattan. You can visit him at

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