by James Batty
The Seafarer is a musical setting of the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name. This anonymous poem, in which a sailor laments his fate and isolation, dates from around the 10th century. But the piece was inspired by a period 7,000 years earlier when you could walk through human settlements off the east coast of Britain all the way to mainland Europe. What language might they have spoken there? The singer breaks down the Old English words and refashions them in a search for an answer to this, accompanied by microtonally-retuned theorbo that distorts our sense of time and place.
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan, siþas secgan,
hu ic geswincdagum earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
(Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge, ne to hringþege…)
Gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela, atol yþa gewealc,
þær mec oft bigeat nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
þonne he be clifum cnossað.
(…ne to worulde hyht, ne ymbe owiht ells, nefne ymb yða gewealc)
Þæt se beorn ne wat, sefteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað, þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
I can make a true song about me, myself, tell of my travels,
how I often endured days of struggle, troublesome times,
how I suffered grim sorrow at heart.
(Not for him is the sound of the harp, nor the giving of rings…)
I have known in the ship many worries, the terrible tossing of the waves,
where the anxious night watch often seized me at the ship’s prow,
when it tossed near the cliffs.
(…nor worldly glory, nor anything else but the tossing of the waves)
This the warrior blessed with worldly things does not know, what some endure, those who tread the paths of exile most widely.