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

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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:
http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=text&id=Sfr
http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/oeseaf.htm
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.
Amen.

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.
Amen

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

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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’.).

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*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’) – http://nationaltrail.co.uk/offas-dyke-path/news/breaking-news-archaeologists-have-uncovered-evidence-which-suggests-offas-dyke-

 

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.