Deep in Snow and Thought: In Sympathy with “The Seafarer”

Almost thirty years ago, I crossed the Eucalyptus-scented campus of Stanford, the home of my PhD in English literature. From the C parking lot, on circuitous paths flanked by exotic fruit and the scent of Eucalyptus, passed by nodding elders out for a jog, their nearly hairless white legs blank against the blue-wash sky; as a wind whipped up of ten speeds passing me to class, their blond heads all a blur, and their Cardinal backpacks sitting high on their necks like parachute gear—I’d duck but there was nothing up above but sky, during the days when government-sponsored MedFly sprayers often dove and rose near the earth. Underneath the high arches of Spanish Cathedral architecture, my heels clicking like horse shoes on the stones set perfectly symmetrically on the walkway, glancing to the right and left and seeing no one and nobody—aside from an occasional middle-aged professor in shirt-sleeves with a face still wrinkle-free; I made my way to Old English which began daily at 9am right off the central oval. How incongruous the closely manicured and exotic cacti, planted in gravel and blooming. From “The Seafarer”: “my freezing feed, by frost bound tight/In its blighting clutch; cares burned me,/ Hot around my heart. Hunger tore within/ my sea-worthy soul. To conceive this is hard/ For the landsman who lives on the lonely shore–/ How sorrowful and sad on the sea ice-cold,/ I eeked out my exile through the awful winter….”

Stanford University: Vast expanses of grass lit and sprayed to luster from underneath; a seeming paradise, yet empty, entirely empty of students who lean on posts, sit or lean on trees, backpacks, and lie sprawled out with their books. Some orderly circles having convened to turn identical editions to pages where they could look on as the teacher lead the discussion, probably a lecturer. What had this seeming paradise to do with the horribly rough days of living in Medieval Times, its crags and crannies? I think of one main commonality: the sense of isolation, of complete isolation from the world at large—be it flat or round—with the exceptions of one’s 12 classmates or so: thousands of miles to the continental divide, even; nevermind friends, family, others back East.

And since this past weekend has been one of confrontation with snow, ice, cold feet in the bed, blankets draped our shoulders, as we stir pots on the stove, holding our noses to the steam, I share (in translation) yet another chunk of the once-memorized, and amazingly beloved, experiences of the wretched Old English poet in his verse, “The Seafarer,” in his wretchedness, no less the eloquent for it:

IMG_1714“deprived of my kinsmen,/Hung around by icicles; hail flew in showers…..the note of the gannet for gayety served me;…The sea-bird’s song for sayings of people,…/’mid the cry of gulls,…icy of feather; the eagle screamed,/The dewy-winged bird. No dear friend comes/ With merciful kindness my misery to conquer.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31172/31172-h/31172)

~Dr. Harte Weiner, lead editor

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