The Wanderer – If you’ve read or watched The Lord of the Rings you might recognise some lines from this wonderful Old English poem!


This is the fourth of the Old English poems usually referred to as ‘elegies’, and it’s many people’s favourite – J. R. R. Tolkien being one of its fans of course. It has been studied and discussed by Old English scholars for more than a hundred years now, and there are thousands of published articles about it, with different takes on what it means – as a whole poem or even just debating individual words. And it’s not just the British who love it – scholars and enthusiasts from all over the world, from Germany to the US, Japan to Canada – have chosen to spend time studying this poem in the original language.

One of the major discussions centres around when the speeches of the wanderer begin and end – there is no punctuation to guide us in the manuscript, and the actual language does not always make this clear. Is there one person speaking in the poem, who sometimes speaks aloud, and sometimes muses to himself? Or is the narrator telling us the words of another man, a ‘sage’? You will notice that The Wanderer is very much a companion piece to The Seafarer: many themes and images are common to both poems. At the end of The Wanderer a wise man sits apart, remembering his younger years as a warrior. He is an exile, far from home and friends. Soon, we gather, he will set off on the seas again, to continue his search for a new life, a new home. He is constantly sad and lonely, but he keeps his feelings hidden: no one is left alive he can unburden his heart to, but he also believes that it is more admirable to suffer in silence, and that complaining will not change his fate. He lives with his memories and his dreams – of feasting and songs, of gifts and recognition, of companionship – but then came wars and having to bury his Lord.

Like the seafarer, the wanderer spends much time traveling by sea, often in winter, and this experience lives in his mind as if he were still there on the yellow water with the seabirds and the icy waves. Like in The Seafarer the poem jumps from one thought to another, and from one memory to another, so that it is hard to decide whether the wanderer is now on a ship or on land, with people or alone. He links the decline of his own life with the decline of the world – the end of cities and civilisations – and he mourns the loss of all this, including the end of the giants (the immense stone buildings scattered over Britain from the time of the Romans, together with huge monuments such as Stone Henge, were thought by the Anglo-Saxons to have been made by a race of giants who once inhabited the land). The wanderer’s only comfort now is in God, and this has helped him bear his sorrows patiently (hence many scholars argue the old Germanic warrior code becomes the new Christian code).

I’m using the same sources for the original and the translation as in my previous three blog posts on the elegies – just for consistency. I have highlighted the section (in italics) adapted by Tolkien for Aragorn’s song of the Rohan in The Lord of the Rings (The Twin Towers, chapter 6). Note: Tolkien’s version is not meant to be a translation – he changed the words to suit his story.

The Wanderer

‘Often the solitary man enjoys
The grace and mercy of the Lord, though he
Careworn has long been forced to stir by hand
The ice-cold sea on many waterways,
Travel the exile’s path; fate is relentless.’
So spoke a wanderer who called to mind
Hardships and cruel wars and deaths of lords.
Frequently have I had to mourn alone
My cares each morning; now no living man
Exists to whom I dare reveal my heart
Openly; and I know it for a truth
That in a man it is a noble virtue
To hide his thoughts, lock up his private feelings,
However he may feel. A weary heart
Cannot oppose inexorable fate,
And anxious thoughts can bring no remedy.
And so those jealous of their reputation
Often bind fast their sadness in their breasts.
So I, careworn, deprived of fatherland,
Far from my noble kin, have often had
To tie in fetters my own troubled spirit,
Since long ago I wrapped my lord’s remains
In darkness of the earth, and sadly thence
Journeyed by winter over icy waves,
And suffering sought the hall of a new patron,
If I in any land might find one willing
To show me recognition in his mead-hall,
Comfort my loneliness, tempt me with pleasures.
He knows who has experienced it how bitter
Is sorrow as a comrade to the man
Who lacks dear human friends; fair twisted gold
Is not for him, but rather paths of exile,
Coldness of heart for the gay countryside.
He calls to mind receiving gifts of treasure
And former hall-retainers, and remembers
How in his younger years his lordly patron
Was wont to entertain him at the feast.
Now all that joy has gone. He understands
Who long must do without the kind advice
Of his beloved lord, while sleep and sorrow
Together often bind him, sad and lonely,
How in his mind it seems that he embraces
And kisses his liege lord, and on his knee
Lays hand and head, as when he formerly
Received as a retainer in the hall
Gifts from the throne; but then the joyless man
Wakes us and sees instead the yellow waves,
The sea-birds bathing, stretching out their wings,
While snow an hail and frost fall all together.
The heart’s wounds seem to be yet heavier,
Grief for the dear one gone; care is renewed,
When memories of kinsmen fill the mind,
He greets them gladly, contemplates them keenly,
But his old friends swim frequently away;
The floating spirits bring him all too few
Of the old well-known songs; care is renewed
For him who must continually send
His weary spirit over icy waves.
Therefore I see no reason in the world
Why my heart grows not dark, when I consider
The lives of the warriors, how they suddenly
Have left their hall, the bold and noble thanes,
Just as this earth and everything thereon
Declines and weakens each and every day.
Certainly no man may be wise before
He’s lived his share of winters in the world.
A wise man must be patient, not too hasty
In speech, or passionate, impetuous
Or timid as a fighter, not too anxious
Or carefree or too covetous of wealth;
Nor ever must he be too quick to boast
Before he’s gained experience of himself.
A man should wait, before he makes a vow,
Until in pride he truly can assess
How, when a crisis comes, he will re-act.
The wise must know how awesome it will be
When all the wealth of the earth stands desolate,
As now in various parts of the world
Stand wind-blown walls, frost covered, ruined buildings.
The wine-halls crumble; monarchs lifeless lie,
Deprived of pleasures, all the doughty troop
Dead by the wall; some battle carried off,
Took from this world; one the dire bird removed
Over the ocean deep; one the grey wolf
Consigned to death; and one a tear-stained hero
Concealed from daylight in an earthy cave.
Just so in days long past mankind’s Creator
Destroyed this earth, till lacking the gay sounds
Of citizens the ancient world of giants
Stood desolate. He who has wisely thought
And carefully considered this creation
And this dark life, experienced in spirit
Has often pondered many massacres
In far off ages, and might say these words:
‘Where is the horse now, where the hero gone?
Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches
For feasting? Where are all the joys of hall?
Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior,
The glory of the prince. That time is over,
Passed into night as it had never been.
Stands now memorial to that dear band
The splendid lofty wall, adorned with shapes
Of serpents; but the strong blood-greedy spear
And mighty destiny removed the heroes,
And storms now strike against these stony slopes.
The falling tempest binds in winter’s vice
The earth, and darkness comes with shades of night,
And from the north fierce hail is felt to fall
In malice against men. And all is hardship
On earth, the immutable decree of fate
Alters the world which lies beneath the heavens.
Here property and friendship pass away,
Here man himself and kinsmen pass away,
And all this earthly structure comes to nought.’
Thus spoke the thoughtful sage, he sat apart.
Blessed is he who keeps his faith; a man
Must never be too eager to reveal
His cares, unless he knows already how
To bring about a cure by his own zeal.
Well shall it be for him who looks for grace
And comfort from our father in the heavens,
Where is ordained all our security.

Old English original of The Wanderer (untitled in manuscript)

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aręd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre:
“Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan. Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.
Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
Forðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;
swa ic modsefan minne sceolde,
oft earmcearig, eðle bidæled,
freomægum feor feterum sælan,
siþþan geara iu goldwine minne
hrusan heolstre biwrah, ond ic hean þonan
wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,
sohte sele dreorig sinces bryttan,
hwær ic feor oþþe neah findan meahte
þone þe in meoduhealle min mine wisse,
oþþe mec freondleasne frefran wolde,
weman mid wynnum. Wat se þe cunnað,
hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan,
þam þe him lyt hafað leofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd.
Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste. Wyn eal gedreas!
Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
leofes larcwidum longe forþolian,
ðonne sorg ond slæp somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað.
þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyppe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge
honda ond heafod, swa he hwilum ær
in geardagum giefstolas breac.
ðonne onwæcneð eft wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan fealwe wegas,
baþian brimfuglas, brædan feþra,
hreosan hrim ond snaw, hagle gemenged.
þonne beoð þy hefigran heortan benne,
sare æfter swæsne. Sorg bið geniwad,
þonne maga gemynd mod geondhweorfeð;
greteð gliwstafum, georne geondsceawað
secga geseldan. Swimmað eft on weg!
Fleotendra ferð no þær fela bringeð
cuðra cwidegiedda. Cearo bið geniwad
þam þe sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe
ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan.
Forþon ic geþencan ne mæg geond þas woruld
for hwan modsefa min ne gesweorce,
þonne ic eorla lif eal geondþence,
hu hi færlice flet ofgeafon,
modge maguþegnas. Swa þes middangeard
ealra dogra gehwam dreoseð ond fealleþ,
forþon ne mæg weorþan wis wer, ær he age
wintra dæl in woruldrice. Wita sceal geþyldig,
ne sceal no to hatheort ne to hrædwyrde,
ne to wac wiga ne to wanhydig,
ne to forht ne to fægen, ne to feohgifre
ne næfre gielpes to georn, ær he geare cunne.
Beorn sceal gebidan, þonne he beot spriceð,
oþþæt collenferð cunne gearwe
hwider hreþra gehygd hweorfan wille.
Ongietan sceal gleaw hæle hu gæstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela weste stondeð,
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas.
Woriað þa winsalo, waldend licgað
dreame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,
wlonc bi wealle. Sume wig fornom,
ferede in forðwege, sumne fugel oþbær
ofer heanne holm, sumne se hara wulf
deaðe gedælde, sumne dreorighleor
in eorðscræfe eorl gehydde.
Yþde swa þisne eardgeard ælda scyppend
oþþæt burgwara breahtma lease
eald enta geweorc idlu stodon.
Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
“Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!”
Swa cwæð snottor on mode, gesæt him sundor æt rune.
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.



The Seafarer – find out about another wonderful Old English poem that will open your eyes on the period still mistakenly called the ‘Dark Ages’


The only surviving copy of this poem is in the Exeter Book manuscript, so, like ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and ‘The Wife’s Lament’ which I looked at in earlier posts, this poem was written more than a 1000 years ago (and perhaps originally composed considerably earlier – the tenth century is the date of the manuscript, but we know nothing about how any of these poems came to be within it).

Once again the poem has a narrator, so we have a clear feeling that this lonesome traveller / pilgrim / exile is speaking to us across the ages. The poem contains the musings of a seafarer, currently on land, vividly describing difficult times at sea. The paradox is that despite the danger and misery of previous sea voyages he desires to set off again. Remember though, that there are other ways of interpreting/ translating this poem.

Most Old English scholars have identified this as a Christian poem – and the sea as an allegory for the trials of a Christian seeking his God. If you only read the first half of the poem you won’t come to this conclusion, as it appears to describe real sea travel, together with memories of the narrator’s lost time as an Anglo-Saxon warrior (well that’s one way of interpreting these lines). From about half way through the poem the narrator starts to refer to his Lord/god, and we begin to view the first half of the poem in a different light.

The last part of the poem contains a more conventional homily praising the seafarer’s (Christian) god and advising followers how to conduct their lives in order to reach heaven. This ending seems quite different in tone (and originality and hence poetic quality) from that which goes before – early translators often excluded this part from their translations of ‘The Seafarer’, considering it to be a separate poem.

I do appreciate the religious side of the poem, although I am not ‘religious’ myself (like many 50+ people in Britain I was brought up within the Christian tradition – I love cathedrals and old village churches, rituals like harvest festival, the Bible with its wonderful language and stories, hymns we sung at school as a child etc). However, what I really love about this poem is the images of the sea and the birds, and how the seafarer shares his memories, feelings and longings with the reader. It makes you want to know more about the poet, and the character in the poem that he speaks through.

In this poem there is no church, no tradition, no priest telling you what to believe – it’s a time when Christians were in a minority and followers were genuine pilgrims searching for ‘truth’ and this appears to be one aspect of the poem, but a love of the sea and nature also comes through very clearly. You want to know more about this person, and about the poet. As usual with the Old English poems ‘The Seafarer’ leaves you with many questions that will never be answered, but this means you have a chance to reach your own conclusions on what it’s about – like all good poetry.

The poem is 125 lines long – I have included all of it here but you’ll have to do a bit of scrolling to get through it (first in Old English, then in translation into modern English). As in my previous posts I’m using the edition of the poem from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936, and the translation from Richard Hamer’s 1970 anthology, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. You’ll find if you look at other translations that each one of them provides a different interpretation of what is happening, and hence a very different poem / story.

The original manuscript has no punctuation as we understand it (a few random dots are scattered about, but modern editors have identified no purpose for them) and no capitals to signal proper nouns. It is not even set out in ‘lines’ of verse. Editors have to add these layers of meaning, and each editor makes different decisions.

There are also a few words that are indecipherable towards the end of this poem, where the manuscript has been damaged, so editors leave gaps or guess the words from the few letters they think they can identify (they use a lot of technology to examine the manuscripts – as you can imagine given the world we live in); translators usually fill in the gaps with what seems to make the most sense.

There are links to a couple of online versions here:
You could also try using Google Books or Amazon to look at some of the many books of Old English poetry, or even a library or a bookshop (not quite yet extinct!). You can listen to the poem spoken in Old English on YouTube, just to give you a flavour of the language – it sounds a bit like a cross between German and English.

(Untitled in manuscript)
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc, þær mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
þonne he be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
wæron mine fet, forste gebunden,
caldum clommum, þær þa ceare seofedun
hat ymb heortan; hungor innan slat
merewerges mod. þæt se mon ne wat
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ
winter wunade wræccan lastum,
winemægum bidroren,
bihongen hrimgicelum; hægl scurum fleag.
þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan, þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
urigfeþra; ne ænig hleomæga
feasceaftig ferð frefran meahte.
Forþon him gelyfeð lyt, se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum, bealosiþa hwon,
wlonc ond wingal, hu ic werig oft
in brimlade bidan sceolde.
Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde,
hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan,
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nu
heortan geþohtas, þæt ic hean streamas,
sealtyþa gelac sylf cunnige;
monað modes lust mæla gehwylce
ferð to feran, þæt ic feor heonan
elþeodigra eard gesece.
Forþon nis þæs modwlonc mon ofer eorþan,
ne his gifena þæs god, ne in geoguþe to þæs hwæt,
ne in his dædum to þæs deor, ne him his dryhten to þæs hold,
þæt he a his sæfore sorge næbbe,
to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille.
Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge ne to hringþege,
ne to wife wyn ne to worulde hyht,
ne ymbe owiht elles, nefne ymb yða gewealc,
ac a hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.
Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe. Ic gelyfe no
þæt him eorðwelan ece stondað.
Simle þreora sum þinga gehwylce,
ær his tid aga, to tweon weorþeð;
adl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
fægum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð.
Forþon þæt bið eorla gehwam æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst,
þæt he gewyrce, ær he on weg scyle,
fremum on foldan wið feonda niþ,
deorum dædum deofle togeanes,
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen,
ond his lof siþþan lifge mid englum
awa to ealdre, ecan lifes blæd,
dream mid dugeþum. Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices;
næron nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron,
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ,
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard.
Yldo him on fareð, onsyn blacað,
gomelfeax gnornað, wat his iuwine,
æþelinga bearn, eorþan forgiefene.
Ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma, þonne him þæt feorg losað,
ne swete forswelgan ne sar gefelan,
ne hond onhreran ne mid hyge þencan.
þeah þe græf wille golde stregan
broþor his geborenum, byrgan be deadum,
maþmum mislicum þæt hine mid wille,
ne mæg þære sawle þe biþ synna ful
gold to geoce for godes egsan,
þonne he hit ær hydeð þenden he her leofað.
Micel biþ se meotudes egsa, forþon hi seo molde oncyrreð;
se gestaþelade stiþe grundas,
eorþan sceatas ond uprodor.
Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ; cymeð him se deað unþinged.
Eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ; cymeð him seo ar of heofonum,
meotod him þæt mod gestaþelað, forþon he in his meahte gelyfeð.
Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan,
ond gewis werum, wisum clæne,
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
wiþ leofne ond wið laþne bealo,
þeah þe he hine wille fyres fulne
oþþe on bæle forbærnedne
his geworhtne wine. Wyrd biþ swiþre,
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd.
Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen,
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen,
ond we þonne eac tilien, þæt we to moten
in þa ecan eadignesse,
þær is lif gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
hyht in heofonum. þæs sy þam halgan þonc,
þæt he usic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
ece dryhten, in ealle tid.

The Seafarer
I sing my own true story, tell my travels,
How I have often suffered times of hardship
In days of toil, and have experienced
Bitter anxiety, my troubled home
On many a ship has often been the heaving waves,
Where grim night-watch has often been my lot
At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.
Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost
In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot
About my heart, and hunger from within
Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,
Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,
While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing
But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.
Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan
My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries
Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,
The singing gull instead of mead in hall.
Storms beat the rocky cliffs, and icy-winged
The term replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.
No patron had I there who might have soothed
My desolate spirit. He can little know
Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time
With all the joys of life among the cities,
Safe from such fearful venturings, how I
Have often suffered weary on the seas.
Night shadows darkened, snow came from the north,
Frost bound the earth and hail fell on the ground,
Coldest of corns. And yet the heart’s desires
Incite me now that I myself should go
On towering seas, among the salt waves’ play;
And constantly the heartfelt wishes uege
The spirit to venture, that I should go forth
To see the lands of strangers far away.
Yet no man in the world’s so proud of heart,
So generous of gifts, so bold in youth,
In deeds so brave, or with so loyal lord,
That he can venture on the sea
Without great fears of what the lord may bring.
His mind dwells not on the harmonious harp,
On ring-giving or on the joys of woman,
Or worldly hopes, or anything at all
But the relentless rolling waves;
But he who goes to sea must ever yearn.
The groves bear blossom, cities grow more bright,
The fields adorn themselves, the world speeds up;
Yet all this urges forth the eager spirit
Of him who desires to travel far
On the sea-paths. Likewise the cuckoo calls
With boding voice, the harbinger of summer
Offers but bitter sorrow in the breast.
The man who’s blest with comfort does not know
What some then suffer who most widely travel
The paths of exile. Even now my heart
Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts
Over the sea, across the whale’s domain,
Travel afar the regions of the earth,
And then come back to me with greed and longing.
The cuckoo cries, incites the eager breast
On to the whale’s roads irresistibly,
Over the wide expanses of the sea,
Because the joys of God mean more to me
Than this dead transitory life on land.
That earthly wealth lasts to eternity
I don’t believe. Always one of three things
Keeps all in doubt until one’s destined hour.
Sickness, old age, the sword, each one of these
May end the lives of doomed and transient men.
Therefore for every warrior the best
Memorial is the praise of living men
After his death, that ere he must depart
He shall have done good deeds on earth against
The malice of his foes, and noble works
Against the devil, that the sons of men
May after praise him, and his glory live
For ever with the angels in the splendour
Of lasting life, in bliss among those hosts.
The great old days have gone, and all the grandeur
Of earth; there are not Caesars now or kings
Or patrons such as once there used to be.
Amongst whom were performed most glorious deeds,
Who lived in lordliest renown. Gone now
Is all that host, the splendours have departed.
Weaker men live and occupy the world,
Enjoy it but with care. Fame is bought low,
Earthly nobility grows old, decays,
As now throughout this world does every man.
Age comes on him, his countenance grows pale,
Grey-haired he mourns , and knows his former lords,
The sons of princes, given to the earth.
Nor when his life slips from his body
Taste sweetness or feel pain or stir his hand
Or use his mind to think. And though a brother
May strew with gold his brother’s grave, and bury
His corpse among the dead while yet he lives,
Wishing them to go with him, yet can gold
Bring no help to the soul that’s full of sins,
Against God’s wrath, although he hides it here
Ready before his death while yet he lives.
Great is the might of God, by which earth moves;
For He established its foundations firm,
The land’s expanses, and the sky above.
Foolish is he who does not fear his Lord,
For death will come upon him unprepared.
Blessed is he who humble lives; for grace
Shall come to him from heaven. The Creator
Shall make his spirit steadfast, but his faith
Is in God’s might. Man must control himself
With strength of mind, and firmly hold to that,
True to his pledges, pure in all his ways.
With moderation should each man behave
In all his dealings with both friend and foe.
No man would wish the friend he’s made to burn
In fires of hell, or on an earthly pyre,
Yet fate is mightier, the Lord’s ordaining
More powerful than any man can know.
Let us think where we have our real home.
And then consider how we may come thither;
And let us labour also, so that we
May pass into eternal blessedness,
Where life belongs amid the love of God,
Hope in the heavens. The Holy One be thanked
That he has raised us up, the Prince of Glory,
Lord without end, to all eternity.

The Wife’s Lament: A story poem composed more than a thousand years ago



I took this photograph (a bit fuzzy) of a photograph of the first few lines from ‘The Wife’s Lament’. These facsimiles of the Exeter Manuscript are in Anne Klinck’s The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study (1992). Beautiful, neat, and all done by hand – this scribe took a lot of care.

(Note to male readers / poets – you may think that this post is not for you, because it focuses on a ‘female’ poem, but let me inform you that there are only two Old English poems where women get much of a look in – most of the others have male first person narrators, or predominantly feature male characters, and tend to explore conventionally ‘male’ themes and interests such as armed conflict, adventures at sea, the loyalty a follower owes his leader etc. I will be looking at some of these poems in future posts – they are equally stirring. But meanwhile you might be interested to learn that my proof reader boyfriend has to read every post I write and he has absolutely no interest in poetry whatsoever, so pity him! Anyway I hope you will keep reading whoever you are.)

I mentioned in my last post that there are two Old English (OE) poems that have female narrators. We cannot assume that the authors were female – there is no information about an ‘author’ for these or most other OE poems – but they both feel authentic, as if they describe a woman’s experience, that if not written down by a woman, certainly feels as if it was spoken by one. The way the Old English scholars know a poem has a female narrator is via the use of grammar. In modern English we still have male and female personal pronouns like he/she, her/him, hers/his, which carry through from OE, and are used to point to a person or character, and occasionally for pets and even boats. But the Old English language also has other words that are inflected (that’s the technical name for this aspect of grammar) depending on the sex of the speaker – and each of these poems has some of these words eg ‘my’ is different depending on if a man or woman is speaking – hence the narrator in this poem speaks in line 2 about ‘minre sylfre sið’ (my self/own experience/journey/tale/personal history) and we know it’s a woman who is addressing us.

There are ongoing debates within academia about the origins of the Old English poems – some propose female authorship for the two ‘women’s poems’, some argue that most of the OE poems probably developed from oral compositions, and these are labelled by some scholars as women’s songs. Oral poems within an oral culture (prior to the use of written language) are performed, and this is how they are experienced and passed on. They grow and change with each re-telling, sometimes over many generations, partly in response to audiences, and thus they don’t belong to one author or performer. Eventually they are written down, and hence frozen in time by one person, who may have added their own embellishments, and has certainly provided their own interpretation. This may or may not be the same person who records the poem in the manuscript – this person may only be a scribe, and a compiler under the direction of another more powerful person – but even a scribe may make their own small changes, or copy the original inaccurately. We will never know for sure how most of the OE poems came down to us – as often all we have is one manuscript copy of each poem surviving, and nothing more – so we can imagine for ourselves, or decide it doesn’t matter anyway (people are people), and focus on the poem itself.

However, the Old English poems were written down at a time when very few people could read, it was not the habit to read silently, and books were not only very precious but mostly in the possession of the Christian church – thus these poems would have probably been performed or read aloud to an audience. And I’m sure people have always been like us today – we are often as interested in the poet as the poem (a charismatic performance poet today always develops a faithful following) and no doubt it would have been the same a thousand years and more ago. If you picture that person singing, reciting or reading the poem to an audience – a noisy Anglo-Saxon warriors’ feast near Offa’s Dyke*, a hushed conclave of tenth century nuns in Exeter’s Minster/Cathedral, an excited gathering of female kin in a pre-migration Germanic ‘homeland’ – you will begin to appreciate how differently the poem below would be received depending on the audience and the context.

Here is the Old English version of the 53 line poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’ from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936. Below that is the translation by Richard Hamer (1970) found in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. Note: the original OE poems did not have titles – these have been added by modern editors and translators.

Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.
A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa.
ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum
ofer yþa gelac; hæfde ic uhtceare
hwær min leodfruma londes wære.
ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,
wineleas wręcca, for minre weaþearfe.
Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan
þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,
þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice
lifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade.
Het mec hlaford min herheard niman,
ahte ic leofra lyt on þissum londstede,
holdra freonda. Forþon is min hyge geomor,
ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,
heardsæligne, hygegeomorne,
mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne.
Bliþe gebæro ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana
owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen,
is nu fornumen swa hit no wære
freondscipe uncer. Sceal ic feor ge neah
mines felaleofan fæhðu dreogan.
Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,
under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.
Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad,
sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,
bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,
wic wynna leas. Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat
fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,
leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,
earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg
þære modceare minre gerestan,
ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.
A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,
heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal
bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,
sinsorgna gedreag, sy æt him sylfum gelong
eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah
feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
on dreorsele. Dreogeð se min wine
micle modceare; he gemon to oft
wynlicran wic. Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan.

The Wife’s Lament

I sing this song about myself, full sad,
My own distress, and tell what hardships I
Have had to suffer since I first grew up,
Present and past, but never more than now;
I ever suffered grief through banishment.
For since my lord departed from this people
Over the sea, each dawn have I had care
Wondering where my lord will be on land.
When I set off to join and serve my lord,
A friendless exile in my sorry plight,
My husband’s kinsmen plotted secretly
How they might separate us from each other
That we might live in wretchedness apart
Most widely in the world: and my heart longed.
In the first place my lord had ordered me
To take up my abode here, though I had
Among these people few dear loyal friends;
Therefore my heart is sad. Then had I found
A fitting man, but one ill-starred, distressed,
Whose hiding heart was contemplating crime,
Though cheerful his demeanour. We had vowed
Full many a time that nought should come between us
But death alone, and nothing else at all.
All that has changed, and it is now as though
Our marriage and our love had never been,
And far or near forever I must suffer
The feud of my beloved husband dear.
So in this forest grove they made me dwell,
Under the oak-tree in this earthy barrow.
Old is this earth-cave, all I do is yearn.
The dales are dark with high hills up above,
Sharp hedge surrounds it, overgrown with briars,
And joyless is this place. Full often here
The absence of my lord comes sharply to me.
Dear lovers in this world lie in their beds,
While I alone at crack of dawn must walk
Under the oak-tree round this earthy cave,
Where I must stay the length of summer days,
Where I may weep my banishment and all
My many hardships, for I never can
Contrive to set at rest my careworn heart,
Nor all the longing that this life has brought me.
A young man always must be serious,
And tough his character; likewise he should
Seem cheerful, even though his heart is sad
With multitude of cares. Since my dear lord
Is outcast, far off in a distant land,
Frozen by storms beneath a stormy cliff
And dwelling in some desolate abode
Beside the sea, my weary-hearted lord
Must suffer pitiless anxiety.
And all too often he may call to mind
A happier dwelling. Grief must always be
For him who yearning longs for his beloved.

This poem appears to be less ambiguous than ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, which I looked at in my last post, but there are still endless debates surrounding its interpretation amongst the scholarly community. What crime has the husband committed? Does the ‘wife’ really still care for him? Are there two men involved? (This translation leads us to understand there is only one, but other translations create two.) Is this a literal story or should it be interpreted allegorically? On this last debate, some scholars have argued that the narrator/wife represents the Christian church, and the Lord/husband represents Jesus – this poem was in a manuscript belonging to Exeter Cathedral: is the poem really as secular as it seems to us today, would it have been given manuscript space if it didn’t have some significance for Christians?

If you are interested in the Old English poems or the Old English language you should have a look round the internet as there are websites and webpages that will give you side by side translations, and you will see how different translations can completely change the stories in the poems. And if you don’t recognise any of the written OE words try listening to some spoken OE – many people find the sounds closer to modern English than the written form (which confuses us by using some unfamiliar alphabet characters like þ which sounds like ‘th’ – so OE þing = ‘thing’ – and sometimes pronouncing letters differently eg ‘g’ is often used to indicate the ‘y’ consonant sound as in ‘yellow’.).

*BREAKING NEWS (10th April 2014) from the Offa’s Dyke Path website is that some parts of the Dyke may have been constructed in the 6th century not the 8th century (when Mercia was ruled by King Offa from 757-796) – see their website (I will remove or update this link once this is no longer ‘breaking news’) –