Wulf and Eadwacer – a mysterious Old English poem telling a woman’s sad story

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Leodum is minum      swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege,      ic on oþerre.
Fæst is þæt eglond,      fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe      weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum      wenum dogode;
þonne hit wæs renig weder      ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa      bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon,      wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf,      wena me þine
seoce gedydon,      þine seldcymas,
murnende mod,      nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?      Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð      þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

This 19 line poem is written in Old English (OE), which is the original form of English spoken in Britain during the time of the Anglo-Saxons (and perhaps even earlier – read my history&archaeology posts!). You may or may not have come across this language before, but the first time I did I was amazed. I especially love to hear Old English spoken aloud – you can hear samples on the internet if you search around. It’s so tantalising – familiar sounds, words you can almost grasp, veiling the voices of people from the distant past, who likewise seem strangely familiar.

‘Wulf and Eadwaver’ is one of the Old English ‘elegies’, the small group of poems that initially sparked my interest in the Anglo-Saxons. There is only one surviving original of this poem, in the Exeter Book manuscript compiled in the tenth century. As the manuscript is more than a 1000 years old it is worn and difficult to read, with some words being indecipherable or unknown, so there are slightly different versions of the poem produced by different editors. The one quoted here is from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936. As with the majority of Old English literature, we don’t know when this poem was written or who the author was – all we have is a manuscript.

Even though the manuscript has been in the possession of Exeter Cathedral for most of its existence, not all its poems are clearly Christian, and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ in particular is usually described as secular rather than religious (though that is one of the things scholars debate about of course). We should celebrate – how lucky we are that the Exeter Book manuscript survived: we have striking poems that are well over 1000 years old (which may have been composed orally and recited hundreds of years before that), written in an ancient language which evolved into the modern English spoken today by people in every country around the world.

There are many many translations of this poem, because there are a number of different interpretations of almost every OE word it uses – and this poem is often described as the most ambiguous and cryptic piece in the entire OE corpus. The translation below is by Richard Hamer in the small anthology he edited in 1970, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (which is where I myself first discovered Old English poetry – and was hooked, as they say). Do compare this with other translations, as you can end up with a totally different poem (there are literally hundreds of scholarly articles discussing the interpretation of the poem, and quite a few translations available out on the web).

Only two poems in the entire OE corpus are narrated (though not necessarily written) by female characters – this one and The Wife’s Lament, which I will discuss in a later post. One theory is that these two poems were originally songs.

Wulf and Eadwacer

It is as though my people had been given
A present. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Wulf is on one isle, I am on another.
Fast is that island set among the fens.
Murderous are the people who inhabit
That island. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Grieved have I for my Wulf with distant longings.
Then was it rainy weather, and I sad,
When the bold warrior laid his arms about me.
I took delight in that and also pain.
O Wulf, my Wulf, my longing for your coming
Has made me ill, the rareness of your visits,
My grieving spirit, not the lack of food.
Eadwacer, do you hear me? For a wolf
Shall carry to the woods our wretched whelp.
Men very easily may put asunder
That which was never joined, our song together.

We can see that the narrator is in a difficult situation, that she is deeply unhappy, and is missing someone desperately, which has caused her to fall sick. She appears to have very little control over her life. There are a number of questions raised but not answered by the poem, and others have been resolved via the choices this particular translator has made. Every reader or listener will come to different solutions to the following:
Where are the islands where the poem takes place?
When does the poem take place? Is the context Christian or pagan?
Who is the narrator? What is her status? Who are her ‘people’?
Is it the narrator’s own kin or tribe that she is describing as ‘murderous’?
Why is Wulf with a troop – is it to rescue the narrator, to attack her people, to defend himself?
What is her situation on the island she mentions – is she imprisoned?
Is she alone with only a guard, or are her people nearby?
How do we explain the delight and pain generated by Wulf’s embrace?
Is Wulf the narrator’s lover, or has he assaulted her?
Are Wulf and Eadwacer the same person?
Does Wulf return her feelings or is he indifferent to the narrator?
Is Eadwacer a family member, her husband, her betrothed, a guard?
What is the present? A pregnancy? The sure capture of a warrior from another tribe?
Is the whelp the woman’s child or unborn child?
Did Wulf, or perhaps Eadwacer, make her pregnant, perhaps against her will?
What is going to happen to the child – is it going to be exposed and allowed to die in the woods?

Whatever the context, whatever the full story, it’s a really stirring tale which gets you thinking and feeling, which is what poetry is all about.

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