'There I heard nothing but the roaring sea
and ice-cold wave
At times birdsong was my only comfort
gannet's cackle and curlew's cry'
The Seafarer is one of the oldest poems in the English language, yet it still has power over our imaginations. Poet Simon Armitage immerses himself in its watery landscape to discover why it still holds us in its grip.
Last year, The Seafarer was brought to life in the bowels of the Royal Festival Hall. Here in this eerie, ship-like space, cellist Oliver Coates (artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre), director/designer Netia Jones and sound designer David Shepherd created an extraordinary setting for the poem. Visitors were invited below decks to experience The Seafarer through sound, film and the words of a new translation by Amy Kate Riach.
This programme offers a chance to hear the translation once again - dramatically rendered by the actor Kenneth Cranham. Accompanied by sound effects and music from The Seafarer installation, the poem is delivered orally just as it would have been by the poet (or poets) who first fashioned it.
It's hard to be sure how Anglo-Saxon poets would have worked, but Simon Armitage speaks to academics (Professor North and Eric Lacey of University College London; Dr Jennifer Neville of Royal Holloway) and writer Kevin Crossley-Holland to find out what we know of the poets of this period.
It's likely that The Seafarer was composed by an early Christian poet (its second half is strongly Christian in tone), but the poem is remarkable for its ability to speak to readers who do not share the poet's faith. The programme explores the universal draw of one of the first sea poems in our island's literature.
Producer: Isabel Sutton
A Just Radio production for BBC Radio 4.
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