Native Foreigners: Migrating Seabirds and the Pelagic Soul in The Seafarer

Michael Warren

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This article considers what is probably the most influential of all transformations to the medieval mind: the arduous heaven-bound journey of all Christians that played out in numerous forms in medieval thought and practice – as pilgrimage, as life-long psychological preparation, as spiritual ascension on death, as psychosomatic experience at Judgement. The Seafarer, one of numerous overtly and didactically religious poems in the ten-century Exeter manuscript, engages this popular theme through a narrative that is at once metaphorical and literal; it involves an ascetic peregrination of the yearning spirit, but also the tactile and physical endurance of a solitary, desolate voice navigating the atol yþa gewealc ‘terrible tossing of waves’ (6a). Into this maritime portrayal of pious transcendence comes an equally abiding image – that of the soaring bird. The key envy of birds which makes them dynamic movers between elements and between spheres enables these creatures to occupy an in-betweenness that has, of course, made them commonplace figures of the fleeing or liberated human soul across cultures and centuries, including Anglo-Saxon England. Whilst the six named species in lines 19b-25a of the poem, and the anfloga ‘lone-flier’ flight imagery at lines 58-64a have by no means lacked critical attention separately, I attempt a reading that brings these two passages together: vividly real, wandering, noisy seabirds and a pelagic bird-soul image. Far from appearing as mere background incidentals, the poet’s treatment of the seabirds we first encounter resonates with contemporary ornithological knowledge, and suggests that they feature specifically as species that best convey the trials and endeavours of a sea-going speaker who observes, listens to, and names seabirds. Speculating and conducting the journey to heaven, that is, involves a human-to-avian transformation, in which the pilgrim must inhabit and traverse the seabirds’ territory. Moreover, the curious essence of seabirds as winged creatures that are always at home on the seas and journeying to a home elsewhere establishes them as what I term ‘native foreigners’, a paradox that highlights the seafarer’s conflicting yearnings and, more widely, reflects the difficult dynamic between the earthly and celestial in the poem’s perceptions of the soul’s journey. As metaphoric relations dissolve into ambiguity even whilst they are established, this very paradox suggests birds as ideal correlatives: birds’ mysteries are aligned with uncertain adventures towards God beyond far horizons, towards a destination which is never reached in the poem.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)825-845
Number of pages21
JournalEnglish Studies
Issue number8
Early online date7 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Old English poetry
  • birds
  • Anglo-Saxon ornithology
  • animal studies
  • ecocriticism
  • The Seafarer

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