The Wife’s Lament: Reconciliation Between One Man and One Woman
Death is not the only way to lose a person. Often in life, people are lost to their career, to their friends, to their struggles, to their countries. Death is the physical end of one’s life, but people sometimes speak of losing a person who is not yet dead because their relationship has burned out emotionally. Such is the case within the Old English poem, “The Wife’s Lament.” This poem details a wife who is lamenting over the loss of her husband. She has not lost him to death, but to his career. She has lost him emotionally, not physically and the poem is an expression of her grief. Within the Old English poem, there is a strong sense of betrayal, disloyalty and a general loss of trust from the poet’s point of view. However, there is also a sense of forgiveness and understanding, perhaps even sympathy. This empathetic side of the poem gives the idea that not only is the author speaking of only one man/husband in her life, but also that there is a hope of reconciliation between her and her husband.
It has been argued that two men are depicted within this poem. Admittedly, the body of this poem is not very clear. There is a lack of transitions between a number of the lines and the poem is somewhat vague and very unclear, particularly throughout the middle portion of the poem. It is obvious from the very first few lines that the poet is dismal because of the loss of her husband. The details about how and when her husband is lost are uncertain, at best. In lines 6-8, the author declares that her “lord forsook his family for the tossing waves” but then, in line 15, she says “my lord asked me to live with him” (Crossley-Holland 56). It has been argued by numerous critics that the first statement is about one man who left her and the second statement is about a new man who wants to stay with her. Stanley B. Greenfield notes that a theory advanced by many critics is that “three people are involved in the dramatic action” (907). But it seems to be about one man only. According to Karl P. Wentersdorf, the poet does use a myriad of words and phrases to describe the male in the poem. However, he points out that the variety of terms used is “hardly surprising if the poet conceives of the wife as running the gamut of her feelings” (493). Additionally, words such as freond and hlaford that are used within the poem to describe the man commonly denote a ‘husband’ or ‘lover’ (493). Because all of the words or phrases used in the poem refer to a ‘man,’ ‘husband’ or ‘lover,’ there is no reason to assume that these words are describing more than one man. The poet seems only to be using a variety of words to describe one man, which is quite natural in creative writing. The variety of words adds to the rich and artistic nature of the poem.
Though the poet uses a number of different words in describing the male lead in the poem, she never distinguishes amongst the words. She never differentiates among any of the words that she uses of this male. There is no reason to read into her extensive vocabulary when she makes no indication that she is describing more than one man; she only uses more than one word to describe the man. William Witherle Lawrence suggests that many critics have become mistaken around lines 42 through 45 of the poem at the mention of a young man who does not appear to be the original husband. “There appears to be no reason,” he says, “for introducing a third person into the story” because these lines are only general reflections of male characteristics (389). John D. Niles notes that there is “good reason to accept the current consensus that only two main figures are involved” and those two figures are the woman and her estranged husband (1109). Niles also addresses the troublesome lines 42-45 and comes to the same conclusion as Lawrence: the lines discuss attributes that are characteristic of men, in theory (1114). Though many critics may determine that the poet is referring to a second man and that she is potentially caught up in a love triangle, there seems to be no reason to believe that the poet means any man in particular. Rather, it appears that she is speaking theoretically.
The reasons to believe that the poet is only discussing one man continue to build up if one analyzes the possibility of longevity in the poet’s relationship with her estranged husband. In lines 15 and following, after the poet says that her “lord asked [her] to live with him” (Crossley-Holland 56), the narrative becomes questionable because there is no transition that describes how she got back together with her lord. She has just described a few lines earlier how her lord had forsaken her and had left her to go to the sea. Rudolph Bambas says that he has “undertaken a sea journey of some duration” (305), but now he is asking her to live with him. Robert P. Fitzgerald suggests that the husband is not actually physically present with his wife, but perhaps he is still in communication with her (773). It is possible that the poet speaks figuratively here, not literally. Either way, there is still little argument for adding a second man to the storyline.
A few lines after her lord asks her to live with him, the poet mournfully notes, “blīþe gebǣro, ful oft wit bēotedan þæt unc ne gedǣlde nemne dēað āna, ōwiht elles. Eft is þæt onhworfen; is nū swā hit no wǣre frēondscipe uncer” (Marsden 342-343) that is “how often we swore that nothing but death should ever divide us; that is all changed now; our friendship is as if it had never been” (Crossley-Holland 56). These words imply a relationship that has a past, that has fond history, that has memories. These are not the words of someone who is in a new relationship; they are the words of someone who is grieving the deterioration of a lengthy relationship. She appears to be speaking to a deeper, more intimate relationship than that of an unfaithful fling; she seems to be speaking about her marriage. The grief that is evident in her poem strongly gives the impression of a woman who has lost a longtime lover. The grief is certainly not the kind of grief that one would feel over a short-term relationship and any relationship outside of her marriage would certainly have had to have been shorter than her marriage. Additionally, if there was a second man, it is unlikely that she would be so deeply upset by the absence of her husband. The presence of a new lover would surely soothe the pain over the loss of the previous lover. And as it will be seen, this is very little soothing or relief to be found in this heavily mournful poem.
The second part of my argument involves reconciliation between the poet and her husband. Not only would I argue that there is great hope on the poet’s part for a reconciliation with her husband, but also that this hopeful outlook further proves that the poet is in distress over one man only. The beginning of the poem uses words such as uhtceare (“anxiety before dawn” according to Marsden ) and geomorre (“melancholy” ). These words greatly exemplify the anguish of the narrator. However, about halfway through the poem, there is a shift. The wife begins to long for her husband, saying enviously, “There are lovers on earth, lovers alive who lie in bed, when I pass through this earth-cave alone and out under the oak tree at dawn;” (Crossley-Holland 57). There is clear jealousy here when the narrator begins to ponder upon lovers who can be together. The jealousy becomes even more obvious when she contrasts the togetherness of other couples with her own aloneness. The fact that she is jealous of other couples who have the luxury of being together does two things: one, it reinforces how much she wants to be with her husband again and two, it shows that any anger that she had towards her husband for leaving her all alone has dissipated and that she is ready and very clearly willing to be with him again.
After the narrator’s jealousy comes her defense of young men. “Young men,” she says “must always be serious in mind and stout-hearted; they must hide their heartaches, that host of constant sorrows, behind a smiling face” (Crossley-Holland 57). This is not some sort of curse directed at her husband, as some such as J.A. Ward imply when he says that this is a curse aimed at the person who has caused her distress of spirit, that is, her husband (32). Again, William Witherle Lawrence’s argument that these lines describe the characteristics of young men seems much more appropriate (389). Additionally, Barrie Ruth Straus, says “Just as the wife had described herself as always suffering the hardships of her exile, she describes ‘the young man’ as also always sad at heart, suffering, and exiled to faraway lands” (278). Straus points out that the poet is describing the characteristics of young men in contrast with how she has just described herself. These lines of the poem are a way of defending her husband. She justifies his behavior saying that it is only proper that men are serious and sober. Additionally, she seems to be justifying his coldness towards her (i.e. abandoning her with no apparent sense of dismay about it) because, perhaps according to society, it is necessary that men control their emotions and hide behind a “smiling face” (Crossley-Holland 57). The apologetic nature of these lines is another factor that suggests that the narrator is, at the very least, defensive of her husband, if not willing to reconcile with her estranged husband.
The most convincing element of this poem that points toward a hope of reconciliation between the wife and her husband is the overall grief and longing toward her husband. The entire poem is chock full of pain and sadness from beginning to end. In the first few lines of the poem, she describes her geōmorre and wīte (“melancholy” and “terror” according to Marsden ). She even goes so far as to say that she has never suffered anything so painful as the pain she feels now (Crossley-Holland 56). A few lines later, she “fretted at dawn”(uhtceare), “sets out in sorrow” (ic mē fēran gewāt folgað sēcan) and was “seized with longings” (mec longade) (56). Then a few lines after that, she discusses the reason for her grief, the hardships she must undergo, how she is “choked with longings” (ic eom oflongad) and how she is never able to quiet the sorrows of her mind (56-57). She even concludes the poem with these lines: “Grief goes side by side with those who suffer longing for a loved one” (wā bið þām þe sceal of langoþe lēofes ābīdan) (57). There is no ambiguity here; she is clearly in a lot of emotional pain. Robert D. Stevick says, “such packing of fifty-three lines with the language of lament significantly contributes to the power of the mood” (23). It is impossible to miss how sorrowful this poem is. Glenn Wright writes that the entire poem is a general comment on the “misfortune of sundered lovers” (14). The misfortune and the sundered lovers are both evident in this poem. The poet is heartbroken over the loss of her husband and because of this, it is easy to see her desire to and hope of reconciling with him. For why would she be so incredibly brokenhearted over someone with whom she did not want to reconcile? It is ludicrous to assume that the poet harbors any ill feelings towards her husband, especially to the point that she would be unwilling to reconcile with him.
The beginning of this poem does seem to hold quite a bit of anger and anguish. The speaker says that she has been “forsaken” (Crossley-Holland 56). Words such as “wretched” (lāðlīcost) and “grief” (wā) are used more than once. Clearly, there is a lot of tension that this wife is feeling towards her husband. She obviously feels abandoned by her husband. Disloyalty would make most people feel aggravated towards the person who has betrayed their trust. About midway through the poem, however, there appears to be a shift. In line 26, she refers to her husband as her “dearest loved one” (felalēofan) (56) and a few lines later, she describes the luxuries that most lovers are able to experience with one another and how mournful she is that she is not able to partake in those same joys:
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.
Crossley-Holland translates this portion as “there are lovers on earth, lovers alive who lie in bed, when I pass through this earth-cave alone and out under the oak tree at dawn; there I must sit through the summer’s day and there I mourn my miseries, my many hardships; for I am never able to quiet the cares of my sorrowful mind, all the longings that are my life’s lot” (57). These lines have lost their anger and have become sorrowful, pitiful and remorseful. The poet is clearly feeling sorry for herself and the amount of desolation she is feeling points to how much she loves and misses her husband. Additionally, the final lines of the poem continue to demonstrate the sympathy that the poet feels towards her husband:
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
Crossley-Holland translates this portion as: “Whether he is master of his own fate or is exiled in a far-off land sitting under rocky storm-cliffs, chilled with hoar-frost, weary in mind, surrounded by the sea in some sad place, my husband is caught in the clutches of anguish; over and again he recalls a happier home” (57). She is clearly very sympathetic to her husband’s condition. She assumes that he is anguished and that he is in some sad place, cold and weary. The disappointment that she felt towards her husband in the beginning of the poem transformed into general grief and sadness over her condition during the middle of the poem. Finally, as she concludes the poem, she makes many assumptions about her husband’s condition. She seems to understand his absence and she feels very sorry for him. Though her pain is still apparent, it no longer seems to be angry. The ill feelings that she had towards her husband have vanished and in their place, we find pity, sympathy and compassion. Hope of reconciliation and desire to be together again is evident because of this empathy. Understanding these emotions (anger to self-pity to sympathy) in this poem will help understand the argument that there is hope of reconciliation in this poem and ultimately, that the reconciliation will take place with one man, and one man only, from whom she was separated at the very beginning of the poem.
It is unclear whether or not the wife joins her husband again. We are told that the “man’s kinsmen laid secret plans to part us, so that we should live most wretchedly, far from each other in this wide world” (Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc, þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice ifdon laðlicost, ond mec longade) and then the poet continues to narrate her woe, describing how she now has to live in an “earth-cave” (eorðsele) and she is “choked with longings” (oflongad) (56-57). This language seems to be pointing to a long time apart. In fact, there is never a description of reunion between the two of them. Clearly, she wants to see him and she wants to be with him again, but it is not certain if these wishes of hers are ever actually granted.
We have seen in this poem a very sad woman who narrates her separation from her husband. She was angry and betrayed, but there is a definite progression to a sense of sympathy toward her husband. The sympathy and the empathy that is embodied in the poem are clear markers that she is not only ready and willing, but she is also very hopeful and desirous that she will reconcile with her estranged husband one day. Additionally, this great hope of reconciliation with her husband gives every indication that he is the only man and the only lover in her life. Contrastly, there is absolutely no indication that there is a second lover in her life.
The man in her poem is described with many words, but this seems only natural for creative writing. Additionally, there is never any distinction amongst the words that she uses to describe him. Furthermore, there is very strong evidence that the poet was in a very long-term relationship. These three facts leave little room for an additional lover in her life. In addition to this, there is great hope of reconciliation to be seen in this poem. The poet is jealous of couples who are able to be together, she is defensive of the difficulties of young men, she grieves and longs for her loved one and she becomes very sympathetic in the voice of her poem. There are no longer bad feelings and this is further evidence that there is one man, and one man only, and she hopes to reconcile with him.
This poem is such a sad poem. It is so full of heartbreak, anguish and grief. The despair of the poet is clear from the very first line (“I draw these words from my deep sadness,” (ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre, minre sylfre sið) [Crossley-Holland 56]) to the very last line (“Grief goes side by side with those who suffer longing for a loved one” (wa bið þam þe sceal of langoþe leofes abidan) ). But there is hope. Wherever her husband is, “over and again he recalls a happier home” (he gemon to oft wynlicran wic) (57). And perhaps one day, the poet and her husband will be reconciled. Maybe not in this life, and maybe not physically, but someday, somehow, there is just a glimmer of hope that these two will be together again.
Bambas, Rudolph. “Another View of the Old English “Wife’s Lament.”” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 62.2 (1963): 303-309. JSTOR. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1982. Print.
Greenfield, Stanley B. “The Wife’s Lament Reconsidered.” PMLA 68.4 (1953): 907-912. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Fitzgerald, Robert P. “”The Wife’s Lament” and “The Search for the Lost Husband.”” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 62.4 (1963): 769-777. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Banished Wife’s Lament.” Modern Philology 5.3 (1908): 387-405. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Niles, John D. “The Problem of the Ending of the Wife’s “Lament.”” Speculum 78.4 (2003): 1107-1150. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Stevick, Robert D. “Formal Aspects of “The Wife’s Lament.”” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 59.1 (1960): 21-25. JSTOR. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Straus, Barrie Ruth. “Women’s Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in “The Wife’s Lament.”” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.2 (1981): 268-285. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2015.
Ward, J.A. “”The Wife’s Lament”: An Interpretation.” The Journal of English and German Philology 59.1 (1960): 26-33. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Wentersdorf, Karl. “The Situation of the Narrator in the Old English Wife’s Lament.” Speculum 56.3 (1981): 492-516. JSTOR. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
Wright, Glenn. “”Now Springs the Spray” and the Wife’s Lament.” ANQ 14.3 (2001): 11-14. ProQuest. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
Lamenting or Complaining?: Female Authority in The Wife’s Lament
In Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, the character Pandarus states: “Wommen are born to thraldom and penance, /and to been under mannes governance.”(Chaucer, line 286-7) Extracted from an exchange between the maiden Criseyde and her uncle, Pandarus, the passage speaks volumes on contemporary views on romance, and the ways in which those views were influenced by prevalent attitudes towards women. The highly ambiguous Germanic poem The Wife’s Lament, though it precedes Chaucer considerably, documents the position of a subjugated woman that experiences exile from her husband, his kin, and her own kin. In consultation with Elaine M. Treharne’s publication, Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, the poem breaks convention with traditional literary representations of female figures. Treharne establishes a framework for “feminine romance” in Middle English poetry, a form of aesthetic expression that favored masculine heroes and chivalric concepts of male identity. A woman, however, dictates The Wife’s Lament, and advocates for divorced or abandoned women a message of grief and suffering; this language is regarded by scholarship as the conveyance of “lamenting”. In Carol Parrish Jamison’s article, “Traffic of Women in Germanic Literature: The Role of the Peace Pledge in Marital Exchanges”, she provides historical context for the wife’s unfortunate position, that of a marital commodity in political exchanges. By considering Jamison’s argument, the female speaker’s voice can be isolated from her physical situation—which is barely divulged in the poem—and a focus placed on her grieving language may propose a dissatisfaction in its title. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the poem is “The Wife’s Complaint”, since in the beginning lines she proclaims it her mission to speak for herself and her own sorrows, and in the concluding lines curses her male counterpart for his neglect. By interpreting the speaker’s “lament” as “complaint”, the position of the subjugated female changes; the poem instead encourages a feminist reading that accommodates the precedence of female speech and writing.Primarily, The Wife’s Lament is understood as a frauenlied, more literally a “woman’s song”. The content describes an unnamed protagonist’s isolation and victimization as a result of an exogamous relationship, a typical situation in the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition. Interestingly, the “hero” is absent which problematizes the genre of the poem, and consequently, a concrete interpretation of femininity. David Salter, whose essay, “’Born to Thraldom and Penance’: Wives and Mothers in Middle English Romance” occurs in Treharne’s compilation, demonstrates the various gendered readings of early Middle English verse and the patriarchal endorsement that pervaded these texts. Salter makes a claim for the opposing female position in texts like The Wife’s Lament:“…if we accept that romance is indeed a feminine genre, we are nonetheless presented with something of a paradox, for what seems to confront us when we examine romance is a feminine genre with virtually no female heroines.”(Salter, 42)Salter’s argument, though valid, is not compatible with The Wife’s Lament, since the “heroine” is both speaker and protagonist of the poem; her voice, then, can be regarded as a universal, all encompassing articulation for the repressed woman. Salter continues:“While to a great extent Middle English romance does tend to marginalize female experience, it nonetheless acknowledges the centrality of women in moulding and developing the identity of the male hero.”(Salter, 43)In accordance with this statement, a role reversal is evident in the poem; the speaker, through her husband’s detrimental actions and the absence of his voice, is “moulded” into the dominant character. The speaker’s vocalization functions as an outlier in the romance genre, it is inherently “anti-romantic” since the female’s experience is not marginalized. Salter also makes comment on the roles of female figures in poetry: “And it is particularly through their roles as wives and mothers that women in romance are able to accomplish this shaping of male identity.”(Salter, 43) As the title suggests, the speaker’s role was that of a wife, however, over the course of the poem that label becomes unsatisfactory. In terms of the romance genre, The Wife’s Lament is deemed unconventional due to a lack of masculine presence, the prevalence of the female voice, and the absence of a plot that circulates around the “hero”.Now that the poem has been contextualized as atypical to the Middle English romance genre, it is possible to conceive of the speaker’s message as protest, rather than that of sorrow or regret. In considering the opening lines, the poem begins with a declaration: “I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,my own life’s journey. I am able to tellall the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,but new or old, never worse than now –ever I suffer the torment of my exile.”(Mitchell, lines 1-5)The speaker, though concerned with grievous feelings, adopts an assertive tone when she announces the poem as “her song”. She is “able to tell all the hardships” for herself, and does not require a masculine filter to relay her story. It is essentially “her own life’s journey”, and by establishing these oppressed circumstances and vocalizing her victimization, perhaps the poem or ‘song’ is a mechanism for liberation. Jamison’s article is helpful in regards to the speaker’s situation and the reason for her exile:“In order to bind men together and ensure peace, Germanic women of the highest rank sometimes served as peace pledges. Usually the daughter of an important warrior or king, the peace pledge would be married off to a man of high status who might be perceived as a potential threat to her kin in hopes of forming an alliance, or at least preventing conflict.”(Jamison, 14)It is likely that the situation Jamison postulates plagues the speaker, as she suffers in exile, isolated from her husband and family. The concept of arranged marriage was potentially oppressive to women, as they became the necessary component in political exchanges; the speaker is aware of her confinement, and perhaps her song will allow her to overcome female inferiority. Jamison also considers the topic of human exchange:“…in a society that valued warfare, marrying off women as a means to ensure peace could turn out badly, in such cases emphasizing the woman’s unfortunate plight as object of male exchange.”(Jamison, 15)The wife, in Jamison’s terms, is degraded to a commodity that satisfies both parties in a political trade. The speaker is conscious of her role as ‘commodity’ and in the act of speaking she provides a feminine account of victimization; this influences her narrative as one impeded by anguish, yet propelled by injustice and a want for freedom.In examining the narrative, it is significant to consider that the author of The Wife’s Lament was probably male. By reminding ourselves of this, it does not hinder the poem’s attitude and speculations on female oppression. Jamison ultimately makes the connection between the speaker’s status and the historical context that was outlined previously:“The narrator of The Wife’s Lament seems to be a peace pledge whose husband has left his homeland, perhaps exiled for some undisclosed crime, or perhaps to lead his men in battle.”(Jamison, 16)Jamison’s argument is compatible with the sorrow and longing that pervades her narrative: “First my lord left his people/for the tumbling waves; I worried at dawn/where on earth my leader of men might be.”(Mitchell, lines 6-8) The speaker’s main concern here is the location of her husband, but, when she references him as the “leader of men”, perhaps this signals a refusal to his leadership over her or women in general. The speaker does not seem distressed over her husband’s return; rather, the poem is saturated in grievous language and neglects to expose any desire to recover the marital bond. Jamison comments on the purpose of the poem and characterizes it as a response to the process of marital exchange:“Early Germanic women had, in fact, a number of possible responses to marital exchanges and could find ways to move well beyond the role of object, asserting their influence as mothers and diplomats by king-making, or king-breaking, in their new husbands’ homes.”(Jamison, 31)To regard The Wife’s Lament as a response to demeaning exchanges and as a means to “move beyond the role of object,” significantly changes the connotation of the lamenting language used to convey it; instead, it would be more appropriate to connote the language as that of ‘complaint’. The speaker is not aggressive in adopting a role as a ‘diplomat’, however, it is evident that she is in favor of her husband bearing a burden identical to her own.In respect to the contents of the narrative, it is equally important, if not more necessary to understand the function of female speech in general. By speaking, the wife is undertaking an action that was rarely allowed to women; the act of writing a ‘song’ of her experience further enables the female figure to independence in political unions. Barrie Ruth Straus in her essay, “Women’s Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in “The Wife’s Lament””, interprets the poem as a form of speech-act. She asserts at the beginning:”The concept of the illocutionary act is introduced to make precise the way that the same proposition can be used differently—to make an assertion, to ask a question, to give an order, to express a wish, and so forth—depending on the situation.”(Straus, 269)Straus’s adoption of the “illocutionary act” in determining purpose and meaning in the poem elevates the precedence of female language in Anglo-Saxon culture. By apply this concept to the narrative, it becomes apparent that the speaker’s intention advances beyond that of expressing mere sadness. Straus’s argument can be characterized by the following passage:“The way the wife tells her story—that is, the way she uses words—reveals that she does not merely passively accept her fate, but rather takes advantage of a form of action available to women of her time.”(Straus, 270)Straus places countenance in the form over the content of the poem. She is conscious that the speaker’s intentions are precisely that, ‘speaking out’, and promoting an empowering message for women through her unfortunate demise. In returning to the beginning lines of the poem, Straus’s proposal is also relevant:“The presence of a marked overt performative at the beginning of “The Wife’s Lament,” then, indicates the speaker’s attempt to make her listeners understand her deliberate act of making an assertion.”(Straus, 272)However, the bulk of the speaker’s frustration and desire for independence occurs in the concluding lines:“Let to himselfall his worldly joys belong! let him be outlawedin a far distant land…My beloved will sufferthe cares of a sorrowful mind; he will remembertoo often a happier home. Woe to the onewho must suffer longing for a loved one.”(Mitchell, lines 45-7, 50-53)The speaker becomes more aggressive in these last lines than anywhere else in the poem, which can be effectively interpreted as protest. The wife’s initial longing transitions into a longing for her husband’s exile, which translates to the wife’s inclination for equal treatment. Her narrative does not blatantly ask for liberation; instead, the speaker wishes for equal sorrow on her husband, which, in terms of speech acting, infuses the female voice with authority. Straus concludes her exposition by stating: “The speaker has shown that she can do more than weep. She can still use words to make her story and its causes known. Thus she takes action by not suffering in silence.”(Straus, 275)The Wife’s Lament, though ambiguous in purpose and intention, enacts a performance of the oppression that women experience in marital exchanges and political strife. Anglo-Saxon literature and culture was fundamentally supported by the patriarchy and masculine topics, even those that are inherently female, such as feminine romance. The poem examined functions as more than a sorrowful lyric or an elegy for longing; the ambiguity that overwhelms the poem and confuses critics even in contemporary scholarship, was conceivably a universal message for women. The ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations and the possibility for a title that better articulates the want for independence associated with feminine romance. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the poem is “The Wife’s Complaint”, since in the beginning lines she proclaims it her mission to speak for herself and her own sorrows, and in the concluding lines curses her male counterpart for his neglect. By interpreting the speaker’s “lament” as “complaint”, the position of the subjugated female changes; the poem instead encourages a feminist reading that accommodates the precedence of female speech and writing.Works CitedJamison, Carol P. ““Traffic of Women in Germanic Literature: The Role of the Peace Pledge in Marital Exchanges”.” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture 20 (2004): 13-36. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. “The Wife’s Lament.” A Guide to Old English. 8th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992. 272-75. Print.Salter, David. “’Born to Thraldom and Penance’: Wives and Mothers in Middle English Romance.” Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts. By Elaine M. Treharne. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002. 41-58. Print.Straus, Barrie R. “Women’s Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in “The Wife’s Lament”” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.2 (1981): 268-85.JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
The Conclusion of the Wanderer: An Exploration of Fluidity and Rigidity
The Wanderer is a poem that laments both the temporality of human life and the material world, posing existential questions that only appear to be answered in the comparatively short conclusion though appeal to the Christian God. In part because of this structural oddity, critical attention towards The Wanderer has shifted dramatically in the past century. While early 20th century critics took the position that the conclusion of the poem, due to its didacticism, was added later to Christianize a piece abundant with pagan associations, later critics argued that it formed part of a consistent and coherent argument towards belief in God. With reference to The Seafarer, which has also been criticized for an apparent structural divide, this essay will take the position that through using a lexis stemming from pre-Christian thought, the poet does form a consistent argument for belief in God. But crucially this argument itself is one that, while upon first reading may seem constrained, actually advocates for a liberation from cultural norms, and towards a fluidity stemming from a belief in pyschological and spiritual freedom. In fact, it is the dichotomy between the rigid and the fluid which best exemplifies the Saxon struggle to carve out an independent, Christian identity through use of pre-Christian resources. One dichotomy The Wanderer exhibits, which has divided critics, is the explicit reference to Christianity in the beginning and ending, juxtaposed with the lack of an active Christian element in the main body of the poem. Indeed, biblical language pervades the opening and closing lines, for example “metudes miltse” (2) in line 2 and “Fæder on heofonum” (115) in line 115. Furthermore, the message drawn from the conclusion suggests that meaning and security dwells from within devout belief in God: “Þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð” (115). In contrast to this didacticism, the rest of the poem appears to be absent of explicit Christian features, rather it is filled with Old Germanic imagery originating historically from pre-Christian traditions[i], with the narrative following the lamentations of a lord-less “eardstapa” (6) as he dwells upon the transitory nature of worldly objects. Deep sadness is evoked at the loss of the “meoduhealle” (27), described by some critics as the narrator’s “spiritual centre”[ii] – ironic for a poem that goes on to end with such a spiritual, Christian sentiment. According to some critics, the tradition that the poem conforms to is rooted in a pagan form and lexicon as it resembles that of a “celtic elegy[iii]”, arguably cementing a structural and thematic divide between the middle section which stems from pagan and Old Germanic tradition, and the didactic, Christian conclusion. Even removing the idea that the poem has any direct pagan associations, the tone for the majority of the piece is generally secular, such as references to the Beasts of Battle (“sumne se hara wulf”) (82), reflective of heroic poems such as the Battle of Maldon: while this in itself does stand in opposition to the Christian conclusion, the lack of prescription that accompanies this secularity makes the supposedly closed ending appear more confined. For these reasons, early critics took the position that the majority of the poem exhibits a sense of fluidity, posing the reader with existential questions, such as “eal Þis eorÞan gesteal idel weorÞeð” (110). Until the very end there is a distinct absence of divine explanations; the lamentations revolve purely around the transience of these temporal goods. It is this divide that could give credence to the view that the conclusion is more rigid than the main body of the text, as the final lines appears to be devoted to a prescriptive religious imperative. It was this apparent structural opposition that led some early 20th century critics to argue that the introduction and conclusion were actually later additions to the poem, employed as a tool to Christianize an otherwise Old Germanic, and arguably pagan, influenced work. While it now generally acknowledged that these critics were incorrect in their theorizing[iv], perhaps the fact that these readings were generated is reflective of at least some kind of inconsistency in the poem’s structure and its relation to fluidity.
Likewise, previous critics have also been tempted to divide The Seafarer, another text which appears to draw upon both a pre-Christian and Christian tradition, into two sections based upon an abrupt shift in lexis and imagery. Over half of the poem is dedicated to the speaker’s anxiety brought about by the loss of kinsmen: “Ne ænig hleomæga” (27), told alongside his journey as a solitary traveler as the poem begins “Mæg Ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan” (1). Like The Wanderer, these images stem distinctly from an Old Germanic culture and belief system. This is contrasted with the latter portion of the poem, in particular from lines 106 onwards, which perhaps display an even more didactic conclusion than that of The Wanderer; the poet stresses the importance of “eadignesse” (120) which can be achieved through “lufan Dryhtnes” (121). The suggestion being within both poems, but more explicit within The Seafarer, that eternal joy lies within belief in God in contrast to the temporal nature of earthly things. Crucially, these conclusions at least upon initial reading, exist in stark contrast to the majority of the poems – particularly The Wanderer – which seems to revel in a mostly secular – and at times pagan – aesthetic, and the apparent didacticism can be viewed as restrictive in comparison to the heroic stories and tales recounted in earlier on in both; in line 111 of The Seafarer the poet arguably calls for the containment and compartmentalization of human thought: “scyle monna gehwylc, mid gemete healdan” (111).
Nevertheless, we can object to the claim that the conclusion of the Wanderer is more closed than the rest of the poem both on the grounds that it is not devoid of a pre-Christian influenced lexis, and that it naturally follows, akin to a philosophical argument, from the body of the narrative itself. In both The Seafarer and The Wanderer the conclusions make reference to the pagan-originated concept of “wryd” – a personified form of fate that pervades Old Germanic belief systems – showing how even in the most didactic sections of their works, the poets conform to a lexis that has its grounds in pre-Christian thinking. While following this argument suggests that the middle and end of the poem are not as distinct from one another as it would at first appear, perhaps one should not risk defining fluidity and rigidity purely in terms of paganism and Christianity, as this logic lends itself to historical anachronism. Critics, beginning in around 1940, began to challenge the “interpolation theory” put forward in earlier readings by arguing not that the conclusion adopts pre-Christian rhetoric, but that the poem in fact displays “no necessarily pagan elements”[v]. To these critics the language typically seen as pagan, such as “wryd”, is not used within the poems in its original pre-Christian sense: in this instance wryd is used simply as a concept for fate. For this reason, critic J Timmer argues that to enforce a judgement on the conclusion of the poem based upon a supposed divide between a Christian conclusion and pre-Christian body is not substantiated with linguistic evidence[vi]. While Timmer’s argument is valuable in shifting the discussion of the conclusion away from a perceived dichotomy, perhaps in their desire to react against the anachronism of the interpolation theory, critics such as Timmer understate the importance of the pre-Christian lexicon. While words such as “wryd” may have lost some of their pagan connotations, it can be argued that what they illustrate is an attempt to formulate a Christian message through the fusion of a lexis that originated in, and is steeped in, pre-Christian society. Even if the language is “pagan only in its associations”[vii] these associations are still relevant to the discussion of how a religious conclusion can be reached through a vocabulary that is predisposed to pagan values. As critic Lawrence Beaston suggests, “while he [the speaker] has experienced his consolation of the Christian God, his hardships have not been so diminished by this consolation that he no longer need lament the loss of his former life”[viii]. To extend Beaston’s point, not only does the narrator fail to relinquish his former culture, he must necessarily – at a linguistic level – conform to it due to the nature of the language at his disposal.
While it is easy to assume that the fusion of a Christian and pre-Christian lexis resembles an attempt to fuse a rigid and fluid belief system, it could be argued that the language of the poems suggest that the narrative voices actually reject confinement through adoption of a Christian lexicon. To assume that because the poem ends with a religious message that the fluidity of the rest of the poem is undermined, is to come at the text with a misconstrued prejudice. The narrators of The Wanderer and The Seafarer arguably find a form of narrative freedom in their search for god, as at the beginning of the former, the narrator claims:
“Þæt biÞ in eorle, indryhten Þeaw Þæt he his ferðlocan, fæste binde healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille” (12-14)
The implication of this passage is that – emphasised through use of the imperative – warrior-culture (“eorle”) fosters a sense of mental entrapment. When the speaker distances himself from this culture, though at first struck by an apparent meaningless, he is also free from this form of containment shown through a “binde” of the spiritual and physical. Indeed, the use of past tense in the segment suggests that the “ferðlocan” and “hordcofan” of the narrator may no longer be under such restriction. This sentiment is confirmed in the conclusion: “wel bið Þam Þe him are seced / beorn of his breostum acyÞan” (114); through lamenting upon the transitory nature of material things and placing faith within the eternal, divine nature of God the narrator has unbound his breast and achieved liberation of thought. While the narrator of The Seafarer proposes that every man should act with restraint in line 111, this restraint is not in reference to containment of human thought (as previously stated), but rather towards behaving with moderation in one’s behaviour to others. Rather than censorship, here the Seafarer advocates a love thy neighbor type morality, as he directs his restraint to both “leofne” and “laÞne” (112). The narrative voice itself – represented by the “hyge” (58) – also achieves liberation from previous constraint: “ForÞon nu min hyge hweorfeð, ofer hreÞerlocan” (58). Like in The Wanderer, through dwelling upon the transitory nature of the world, and extending his soul towards God, the narrator achieves divine reconciliation and an unbound voice. While both poems may differ in the tone of their conclusions, both show that a religious conclusion does not necessarily undermine the poem’s fluidity – from this perspective both speakers are less constrained after they devote themselves to their religion.
We can also see the progression towards Christian salvation reflected in the overarching metaphors of both The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which equate spiritual and physical journeys. In the former poem the narrator “geond lagulade, longe sceolde” (3), and in the latter poem he “gecunnad in ceole, cearselda fela” (5). These literal journeys of the lord-less men and the spiritual journey towards God in the conclusion can be seen as a narrative reflection of the progression of an argument itself. Many of the critics who denied any pagan element within The Wanderer instead proposed that the poem acts as a coherent argument in favor of Christianity. For example, critic R. Lumiansky breaks down each section of the poem as if it were a set of propositions leading from the introduction: “(1) statement by the ‘eardstapa’: In spite of the hardships allotted him, many an exile looks forward to God’s mercy” to the final assertion “(7) The ‘eardstapa’s’ conclusion: Keep faith and trust in God”[ix]. Moreover, The Wanderer employs the rhetorical device of an internal monologue shown through an appeal to the wisdom of a “snotter on mode” (111). This device can almost be compared to that of a philosophical dialogue, and critics have been keen to suggest the potential influence of medieval philosopher Boethius who deploys dialogue as a rhetorical device in his use of Lady Philosophy. Yet if we are to accept that the structure of the poem is conjunct, with an argument comparable to that of a philosopher, then the question of whether the piece is constrained or open-ended itself enters a state of flux. As stated previously, due to the very lexis of the poem the narrator conforms in part to his Old Germanic cultural identity, yet paradoxically he wishes to escape the entrapments of his culture due to its supposed preoccupation with transient objects. The reader is left to decide whether the elegies end in a way that is fraught with internal conflict and fluidity, or whether they display conclusions resembling that of a coherent and cogent argument.
Ultimately then, perhaps an appeal to Boethius can shed some clarity on the paradox. In his famous work The Consolation of Philosophy, he claims that “human souls must needs be comparatively free while they abide in the contemplation of the Divine mind, less free when they pass into bodily form, and still less, again, when they are enwrapped in earthly members.”[x] To Boethius, the human soul can only be truly free when wrapped up within the divine, a sentiment expressed within the conclusion of both poems. There is an implicit battle between fate and free will within the narratives, illustrated by the repeated use of “wyrd”, which is reflective of a battle between rigidity (fate) and fluidity (free will). Thus, while the conclusion of the poem completes a cogent argument akin to that of Boethius, the content of the argument itself expresses a desire for freedom shown through attempts to represent a Christian way of thinking via the residue use of a pre-Christian lexicon. Thus it is an oversimplification to assert that the conclusion undermines the fluidity of the rest of the poem, as the conflicting elements of the rigid and fluid permeate almost every line from beginning to end. Indeed, the final lines are a culmination of this ongoing linguistic and structural battle. While it initially gives the impression of didacticism, it can also be seen as an attempt to achieve freedom of thought and transcendence by appealing to God, while also highlighting how the poet faces the insurmountable barrier of a lexis and culture that itself is steeped in the worldly and transient.
[i] Craigie, W.A. “Interpolations and Omissions in Anglo Saxon Poetic Texts.” Philologica 2 (1923-24) p19
[ii] Beaston, Lawrence “The Wanderer’s Courage”. Neophilologus 89 (2005)
[iii] Tillich, Paul. The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press (1977)
[iv] Lacy D. Paul, “Thematic and Structural Affinities: The Wanderer and Ecclesiastes”. Neophilologus 82 (1998) pp125-137
[v] Lumiansky, R. “The Dramatic Structure of the Old English Wanderer”. Neophilologus 34 (1950) pp104-112
[vi] Timmer. J. “Wyrd in Anglo-Saxon Prose and Poetry”. Neophilologus 26 (1941) Pp220-221
[viii] Beaston, Lawrence “The Wanderer’s Courage”. Neophilologus 89 (2005)
[ix] Lumiansky, R. “The Dramatic Structure of the Old English Wanderer”. Neophilologus 34 (1950) pp104-112
[x] Relihan, Joel C. Consolation of philosophy. Hackett Publishing (2001.) p74
Exploration of Anglo-Saxon Humour within the Exeter Book
The notion that the middle ages were accommodating to the rude, bawdy or obscene is one that is rarely used to characterise Anglo-Saxon literature. While the major canonical text of the later medieval period (Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) is often considered a comedic masterpiece, such evaluations of Anglo-Saxon texts are rare. The “famed restriction of Christian doctrine” that Nicola McDonald describes, stifles much critical discussion. Despite attempts from a few scholars (particularly Jonathan Wilcox) to challenge this presumption, the view that the Anglo Saxons were, in the words of Herbert Grierson, “a loyal, dauntless folk, serious and naturally devout, but heavy and humourless”, lingers throughout critical discourse.
Nonetheless, subtle hints that Anglo-Saxon literature was not devoid of humour are evident within the physical texts themselves – copies of the Rule of St Benedict are filled with medieval graffiti: faces of monks poking out from behind letters in a book that is otherwise sombre in tone. Perhaps the most obvious example of bawdiness in the pre-Conquest canon is exhibited in the Riddles of The Exeter Book, of which a significant minority evoke blatant sexual and scatological humour. Through appealing to Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – I will argue that these ‘obscene’ elements were necessary as an outlet for a monastic culture in which such topics would otherwise been repressed. I will attempt to extend McDonalds claim to argue that the specific type of bawdiness and obscenity displayed in Old English literature, rather than be constrained by, necessarily takes place within a culture in which such topics would otherwise be taboo. The assumption that Christian doctrine entirely prevented the “rude, bawdy and obscene” can be directly challenged through appeal to Ælfirc Bata’s Colloquium, a text designed to teach Latin skills. Colloquium supposedly details the everyday lives of monks and yet it is filled with sexually charged toilet humour. Take for example Colloquy 25, in which a student conflates knowledge and excrement, lamenting to his torturous master that “you don’t know how to do anything better than to shit on and pollute all those who come to you with your stinking and irrational words”. I would argue that this quote alone challenges the “famed restrictions” the Church supposedly had on Anglo Saxon literature; here humour actually stems from within the context of a Christian, monastic culture. The sexual riddles of The Exeter Book display a similar bawdiness, one that often engages in the subversion of societal norms. For example, Riddle 44 – in which the poet offers both the phallus and a key as potential answers – the body becomes the site of societal subversion:
Wrætlic hongað bi weres þeofrean under sceate foran is þyrelbið stiþ ⁊ heard stede hafað godne ·þonne se esne his agen hræglofer cneo hefeð wile þæt cuþe holmid his hangellan heafde gretanþæt he efe lang ær oft gefylde(Splendidly it hangs by a man’s thigh,under the master’s cloak. In front is a hole.It is stiff and hard; it has a goodly place.When the young man his own garmentlifts over his knee, he wishes to visitwith the head of what hangs the familiar holehe had often filled with its equal length.)The high status of the “frean sceate” (lord’s garment) is described alongside the lower body – “weres þeo”, tempting the reader to imagine what lies beneath. A conflation of high and low imagery is extended as the poet transposes the top of the body “hefeð” onto the lower body. This inversion is not only a physical but societal one, the figure himself morphs from lord (frean) to servant (“esne”); the movement of the listener’s imaginary gaze onto the lower half of the body accompanies the stripping of rank from the upper echelons of Anglo-Saxon society to the bottom. To critic DK Smith the poet engages in a technique similar to Bakhtin’s description of the carnivalesque, a label normally prescribed to later medieval literature involving the complete inversion of normal society. Riddle 44 is reminiscent of a comic practice that must challenge any exclusion of the Anglo Saxons from literary history of humour. While it should be noted that the answers to most of the riddles concern the natural world or Christianity, the question remains as to how a monastic community could transcribe the significant minority that appear to subvert the values of chastity and piety. One argument could be that in offering an alternative solution to a sexual one the poet draws the listener away from the sinful nature of the surface answer and leads them to a more innocent one: the poet unravels conventional norms and then restructures them. Perhaps we might consider, as a number of critics have, Freud’s theory of incongruity in relation to the riddles. To Freud an obscene joke is successful only when it is able to transform what is sexually provocative into a form that is societally acceptable: “smut (…) is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke”. In a riddle such as this, the smut (an erect penis) is only implied, hidden within language that never explicitly confirms or denies a sexual solution. This duality is exemplified in the opening word “wrætlic” – an adjective that does not accompany a noun. While this is not uncommon in Old English verse it is worth noting considering the ambiguity of interpretations that surround the word, with some translators offering “strange” and others proposing “curiousity”: linguistically “wrætlic” is a riddle in itself. The double entendre of the riddle and a description that appears to both describes – and not describe (considering the duality of the answers) – a particular ‘object’, to Smith allows the form to “provide a socially acceptable way of gaining access to sexual imagery without having to call it up directly”. Ultimately then, to apply Freud, for a community engaged in celibacy these particular riddles – and their bawdiness – offer a necessary sexual outlet. When seen through the guise of an innocent solution, sexuality and obscenity become socially acceptable when held together by the humorous incongruity of these forces clashing. Thus the critic must accept that humour holds an integral place in the Anglo-Saxon literary canon, being the very product of a sexually repressed monastic culture.
The Role of Weather in the Wanderer
The weather in “The Wanderer” is reflective of the author’s view of the world following his exile. Throughout the poem, weather is utilized in an effort to paint a picture as wretched and sorrowful as the persona’s view of life. As I read through the elegy, my initial thought was that man was in conflict with nature; however, I now believe weather to be a means through which the poet conveys his thoughts in response to his woes.
In the beginning of the poem, it is revealed that the “one alone” must “stir with his hands the frost-cold sea” as punishment for past transgressions (1,4). This sensory language immediately creates an unpleasant scene that appeals to the senses: exiled, the Wanderer is forced to row through wintry waves using only his bare hands. In search of a new lord, the “ice-locked waves” are problematic for the banished Wanderer as he has no means to shield himself from the unforgiving bite of winter, just as he has no Lord to shield him from harm (24). Mother Nature shows no mercy to the scorned warrior, unleashing the full force of her frigid arsenal. Initially, I labeled this harsh weather as the Wanderer’s main problem, but I concluded that, instead, the source of his strife is his exile. The frigid, prison-like sea and unforgiving hail storms are merely consequences that help the reader imagine and envision the “winter-sad” mental state of the Wanderer (24).
As the poem progresses, the poet explores the Wanderer’s heavy heart, which is deeply scarred and wounded. The persona often dreams of belonging to a lord again, but is always deeply disappointed to awaken only to the vast and barren sea before him. These reveries offer only a temporary source of solace. As the waves roll, the Wanderer sees seabirds spreading their wings, taking flight, and escaping the gelid grip of the whale-road, a sharp contrast to the imprisoned state of the persona. The fluttering fowls are easily able to shake off the falling frost, snow, and hail that afflict the exiled Wanderer, once again, creating a deep fissure that differentiates between those able to escape the sea and those imprisoned by it. Trapped by a wintry blanket, the Wanderer dwells in “middle-earth,” which “droops and decays every single day” (64-65). This portion of the poem ends, offering the reader a semblance of hope. Perhaps, the daunting journey of the exiled is not futile. The poet states that before a man can become wise, he must weather “his share of winters in this world” (65).
In the poem, wisdom is measured by the number of winters that one has weathered, and the Wanderer has certainly endured his share of woeful weather. At a surface level, this can be interpreted as age acquiring wisdom; the longer one lives, the more prudent he becomes. However, diving deeper, weathering winters could be a euphemism for overcoming trials and tribulations. The Wanderer has endured harsh agonies such as burying nearly everyone he has ever loved and living out the rest of his days in exile. While these tribulations are not ideal, they are his teachers, not solely his torment. Simply put, the poem stresses the importance of the adage that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A shift occurs regarding weather as the poem advances. Instead of simply describing situations, weather begins to directly shape the world. Buildings that have been “beaten by frost” will crumble and walls will be “blasted by wind” (76-77). Interpreting these violent forces of nature as representing problems one might face in the world, the poet paints a picture of inevitability. Similar to potential trials, the “howl of winter” and “harsh hailstones” are uncontrollable and affect both the exiled man and “the old works of giants” (86, 103-105). This shared endurance illustrates the ubiquitous nature of hardships; no one is excused and no one is immune. It would be easy to label weather in this work as the root of the problem. However, the continued implementation of the forces of nature serve a greater purpose.
Nature appeals not only to the senses of the reader, but also represents the trials and tribulations that mankind faces and endures, and the physical and emotional isolation faced by the Wanderer. The use of wintry weather is often reflective of the mindset of the poet. The Wanderer sees the world as barren and malevolent, and by using descriptors such as deathly falling frost and mighty snow storms, a chilling image is produced that is barren and desolate. This theocratic viewpoint of the “ubi sunt” verse transcends the specific situation of the exiled Wanderer, and offers a universal and timeless lesson still relevant to readers today.
Representations of the Past in The Seafarer and The Wanderer
The poems The Seafarer and The Wanderer are both elegiac in nature: each speaker delivers a reflective monologue about their journey from the past they have lost to the solitary present they face, although there are limitations to the past’s disappearance, as it clearly lingers in their memories of ‘days of toil’. The ‘ubi sunt’ formula used in both is a traditional method to voice a realisation of loss and the transitory nature of life: for example, in a rhetorical set-piece in The Wanderer it takes the form of a list.
‘Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maÞÞumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?’
The poet here expresses how distant the past now really is, as the hypothetical wise man asks after treasure-givers and the place of banquets in vain, as these fundamental examples from his past life are now gone. This rhetorical despair is emphasized by the repeated use of ‘Hwær’, as he appears to be in denial about the permanent loss of his familiar surroundings. The oral tradition in which Old English manuscript poetry had its roots influences this structure, as the mono-syllabic word demanding answers directly from any potential audience creates a striking new ‘movement’ within the poem, as though allowing a performer the chance to differ his intonations to re-engage attention and lend emphasis to the following moment of realization. He follows this with another repeated structure, a triadic structure of laments introduced by the vocative ‘Eala’:
‘Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala Þeodnes Þrym!’
The shift from ‘Hwær’ to ‘Eala’, rhetorical question to exclamation of lament, conveys the loss of the familiar without describing the actual process of his exile and losing those individual aspects of his life. The ‘Eala’ movement, however, changes its subjects; the gleaming cup, armoured warrior and prince’s glory he bemoans the loss of in these lines are more traditionally celebrated in heroic tales than the quotidian joys of the hall he previously mentioned. This escalation allows for greater dramatic power in the laments, as he is bewailing the loss of his culture’s ideals, as well as his personal experience. If Pasternack’s suggestion that in manuscript poetry, textual techniques substituted for performance context, is accepted, this entire movement may be read as the substitute for a performer acting out loss, as the questions and laments are emotive explanations directly to the reader that communicate his pain at the loss of his past.
The Seafarer does not directly refer to a past that the speaker has lost in order to be in exile on the ocean, in the same way as The Wanderer refers to his battles and kinsmen; instead the objects or locations associated with the land (which are similar to the objects mentioned in ‘The Wanderer) are represented through a hypothetical man on the shore, and the sense of the past that the speaker must have had is conveyed by the contrast of a normal, comforting life with his harsh, lonely time at sea. ‘The man who lives most happily on land’ cannot truly know how harsh the winter at sea is; along with the pathetic fallacy in ‘bihongen hrimgicelum; hægl scurum flaeg’ (‘hung round with icicles; hail flew in storms’- the intensity is conveyed particularly through ‘scur’ commonly meaning a metaphorical shower of blows as well as a literal storm) the Seafarer is ‘winemægum bidroren’, deprived of dear kinsmen. The use of ‘bidroren’ informs the reader that he once had kinsmen but has lost them, and this vivid sense of loss is also intensified by the fact that The Wanderer also uses this word in ‘dreame bidrorene’, referring to rulers lying deprived of all joys, and used in that phrase it is a common motif for Old English elegiac poetry, communicating tragic bereavement and acknowledgement of transience. The homiletic ‘ubi sunt’ formula is also represented here, through lines 80-86.
‘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.’
Although ‘ubi sunt’ was derived from Latin poetry, the lament for grander days here is expressed in terms with specific significance to an audience familiar with Germanic heroic poetry, especially the mention of ‘glorious deeds’ and ‘magnificent renown’. With this familiarity, The Seafarer makes the tale of a man alone in the harsh elements, separated from his past by literal distance and complete difference in circumstance, more relevant by reminding its audience that the familiar and grand alike fade away and become the inaccessible past.
The poet of The Wanderer also has another reference to a past he is not connected to, and which therefore is truly foreign to him: the phrase ‘eald enta geweorc’ (also present in another elegy from the Exeter Book, ‘The Ruin’) was used primarily to discuss the Roman ruins for which there was widespread Anglo-Saxon admiration, but could refer to any relic from an ancient culture. In the context of Line 87, the speaker of The Wanderer is imagining the modes of death its inhabitants met: destroyed by battle, torn apart by wolf, buried by another grieving warrior. Christine Fell argues that this implicitly Roman architecture and these universal rather than specific descriptions of death provide a contrast to the purposefully Anglo-Saxon rhetorical laments for the treasure-giver or the joys of the hall (in the already discussed ‘Hwær’ movement). The Roman past invokes thoughts on transience and mortality; the Anglo-Saxon specificity then forces the audience to apply those thoughts of the inadequate and earthly to the context of their culture. Another interpretation of the historical context is that the speaker of The Wanderer is now as distant from his own past as he is from a cultural one that he never experienced: the poem didactically advises that a man who stands in front of the ‘eald enta geweorc’ and wisely reflects upon it would recall far off a large number of slaughters (‘feor oft gemon wælsleahta worn’- the prominent placement of ‘feor’ after the caesura again highlighting his distance from his past). The vagueness around these slaughters implies that he is remembering both the battles he has actually experienced, and the battles of a long-gone civilization through communal memory; they are the same to him now, as he is so far from his own past.
Riedinger argued that Christianity in early medieval manuscript poetry complicates the theme of home, as the poets in both The Seafarer and The Wanderer treat it as an elusive object of desire due to the simultaneous longings for a secure home on earth and an eternal one beyond that. In both of these poems the comforting home of the past is left behind for their current exile, which could be seen as a path or pilgrimage to heaven; in The Seafarer specifically, Christianity’s presence appears to nullify or supplant the past. In lines 100-101 the poet describes how the gold gathered during someone’s time on earth would not help them if their soul is full of sins before God:
‘ne mæg Þære sawle Þe biÞ synna ful
gold to geoce for Godes egsan’.
The placement of ‘synna ful’ at the end of the line also juxtaposes it with ‘gold’, demonstrating through comparison the insignificance of earthly matters. The implication of God’s wrath upon facing a life that has been full of sin contradicts a complete rejection of the past, however; the previous lines have described loss through glory being brought low (‘Blæd is gehnæged’) and old age overtaking each man, stripping him of his friends of old (‘yldo him on fareð’- the subject ‘yldo’ and verb ‘fareð’ surrounding the object to convey the total defeat from every side). This loss of the world they knew, through old age and eventually death, would seem to make the past entirely irrelevant: the kingdom of heaven cannot be affected by what you gather materially on earth. This mention of sins being brought in front of God, on the other hand, demonstrates that while the possessions and people of your past are now relics of a foreign country, the contents of your soul remain blighted or blessed by your actions during life thereby making your past still relevant in the afterlife. Even if the practical luxuries of ‘ealle onmedlan eorÞan rices’ (all the pomp of the kingdoms of earth) fade away, the past and your actions matter as the speaker stresses the importance of a hypothetical man being ‘gewis werum, wisum clæne’- reliable in his pledges and clean in his ways- in order to reach heaven. The man’s past actions define the kind of moral character he will present for judgement in the afterlife. This direct Christian admonition at the end provides context for the misery of exile to the elements described from the start; he is ultimately not concerned with the earthly matters those on the land enjoy, because none of that affects a path into heaven as only morality can.
The presentation of Christianity at the culmination of The Wanderer likewise affects how the speaker’s relationship to the past is presented. As Bjork argues, the poem works in an envelope pattern, developing the scale from personal experience to universal truths as its central speaker progresses from ‘anhaga’ or ‘eardstapa’ to ‘snottor on mode’ by sitting apart in secret meditation (‘sundor æt rune’) and accepting both the transience of earthly matters and the reality of his own fate. In this way, the Wanderer turns his hopeless, directionless exile of the Germanic tradition into a heaven-bound journey of Christian exile and derives hope from being separated from his past. This interpretation of the poem charting his acceptance of his past’s unattainability explains the journey from specific despair (the initial description of ‘eardstapa’ as ‘earfeÞa gemyndig, wraÞa wælsleahta, winemæga hryre’ a triadic structure of absolute misery that intensifies in specificity by naming his miseries, the battles which caused him grief, and then the deaths of kinsmen as the reason battles caused him grief) to assurance that ‘it will be well for him’, which could be otherwise be read as contradictory. The acceptance of his fate could also, however, be seen purely as rejection of the past society he was a part of: rather than a serene acceptance of heaven as ultimately more important after meditation, the conclusion could be a decision to dismiss any connection to his past due to the pain it is causing him during his current exile. Even if this reaction would continue the bitter, grieving tone from earlier in the poem more cohesively, Bjork’s interpretation of a reasoned meditation on transience is probably correct as the conclusion is a sincere assertion of Christian ‘are’ or ‘mercy’, and it supports the theme of using even your painful past as experience (‘a share of winters’) to inform wisdom.
The concept of the past being a ‘foreign country’ evokes the idea of extreme separation; the current lives of these poems’ speakers are different enough from their past that the Wanderer sees the battles which stripped himself of his kinfolk as equivalent to those of an ancient civilization, and the Seafarer describes normal life on land as ‘dead’ and ‘transitory’ as he has found greater meaning in the idea of heaven. The actual absence of the past can be questioned in The Seafarer, however, as its focus on Christianity leads to acknowledgement of morality influencing judgement in the afterlife: your past actions remain even if the earthly results of them do not. In The Wanderer, also, the wisdom gained by the eponymous ‘eardstepa’ allows him to meditate and see the Christian hope inherent to his exile; his struggles constitute experience and therefore insight. In both cases, the spiritual ramifications of their past are not transient, even if the material ones are.
‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’, in ‘Old and Middle English: An Anthology’, ed. Elaine Treharne (2000), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 42-53.
Carol Braun Pasternack, ‘Anonymous polyphony and The Wanderer’s textuality’, Anglo-Saxon England 20 (1991), 99-122.
Ida L. Gordan, ‘The Seafarer’, Oxford: Alden Press, (1979) 26.
Christine Fell, ‘Perceptions of transience’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature’, eds. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (1991), 172-189.
Anita R. Reidinger, “Home’ in ‘Old English Poetry’, NM96 (1995): 51-59.
Robert E. Bjork, ‘“Sundor aet rune”: the voluntary exile of the Wanderer’, Neophilologus 73 (1989), 119-129.
Heroism as Defined by Military Action
In Old English Literature, the Anglo-Saxon society portrayed is built upon military achievement in battle and one’s respect for their Lord. Despite this focus, heroic action also occurs in other forms and in contexts outside the battlefield. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ from the Vercelli Book provides a different perspective portraying a heroic action that is at ‘the centre of redemption history’. Furthermore, the heroic action of Wulf in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ in the Exeter Book is done out of love for his partner, rather than a love for his Lord as would be the case with military action. Despite both of these points, symbolic military imagery is used throughout both poems. This is perhaps to portray a different kind of heroic action in a context that a tenth century audience, who would have received these pieces orally, would have been able to understand more comprehensibly.
In the majority of Old English Literature, the text includes a physical battle between two opposing sides, with heroic action very much defined by military action. However, there are exceptions to this, especially in religious literature. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ presents heroic action in the form of a sacrifice of one person rather than a battle involving two armies. Christ is presented as heroic in fulfilling his sacrificial duty to mankind; he is not portrayed as a hero for the action of killing another, but through overcoming the fear of death and giving up his own life for the ‘ransoming of mankind’. The poem reads:‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind Hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb upon me.’ The ‘heroic action’ in this instance is the ascent to the cross that will be his instrument of death, which he does ‘with great zeal’ and with a ‘heroic and voluntary nature’ which presents an aspect of fearlessness as Christ put himself on the cross ‘with great zeal’. A key aspect to this poem is his willingness; he does not stand as a reluctant hero and this only serves to bolster the title further. It is, however, interesting to consider the meaning of ‘Frean’ (line 33) which is used to describe Christ and translates to ‘Saviour’. It also translates to ‘God’, ‘King’ or ‘Lord’. The possible translation of ‘Lord’ introduces a referenced figure that an Anglo-Saxon audience would have been familiar with and could understand; it is to suggest that Christ fights his battles for his people in much the same way that one’s Lord would. Additionally, the first person from the perspective of the anthropomorphized cross dramatizes the event further as the cross seems to share in the heroic action as they are ‘mocked […] together’ (line 48), sharing in the sacrifice to fully portray the suffering Christ also must endure.
This aspect of sacrifice also occurs in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, an Old English elegy. The poem is told from the perspective of a woman who is kept away from her lover and the pain of their separation almost causes her pain. Arguably, the heroic action in this text is enduring this ordeal. This is emphasized through a metaphor: ‘Wulf is on one island, I on another’. The physical distance of being apart from one another reflects the pain of their emotional separation also, perhaps also suggesting that one, or both of them, have been exiled to a place beyond their home land. Furthermore, the female perspective in this elegy presents a new argument: heroic action cannot be limited to heroic action, or indeed any action at all. There is heroism in everyday aspects like this, which is corroborated through the exploration of domestic issues in ‘The Wife’s Lament’. Similarly to ‘The Dream of the Rood’, a sense of duty to her husband is prevalent throughout the text, where ‘Eadwacer’ literally means ‘property watcher’, implying Wulf to be her lover. However, it is worth noting that this interpretation of ‘Wulf and Edwacer’ can be affected by our twenty-first century experience of relationships, and could offer a different meaning to an Anglo-Saxon audience.
Despite the presented arguments that show heroic action in forms other than military expertise, there remain military references throughout both texts. As discussed, this is likely to translate other genres of poems, such as religious texts and elegies, in to contexts that are understandable to an audience of the time. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’, there is imagery surrounding gold and riches, suggesting the presence of a military-accomplished Lord who has gained these wares from his defeated enemies. In ‘The Wanderer’, a Lord is described as a ‘treasure-giver’ as they would distribute the wealth gained from their enemies in the aftermath of a victory. This brings a layered meaning to the cross in ‘The Dream of the Rood’ that is ‘honoured with garments’. Whilst this is a sign of victory, it is complicated here as Christ must first sacrifice himself because Christianity can be victorious in their salvation. Additionally, the anthropomorphism of the cross highlights the military language used as it describes in first person how it was ‘all wounded with arrows’. Through this description of the nails in Christ in a military context, it suggests a war between God and the Romans that placed him on the cross. Unlike the original Bible story, Christ’s journey to Golgotha is not described and instead replaced with the cross being ‘ripped up by [it’s] roots’, the violent, war-like vocabulary implying once again an enemy is present. This imagery introduces the Romans as the enemy, which returns the poem to the familiar place of a battlefield. It is this presence of another party that suggests military involvement as it no longer remains the ‘young hero’ sacrificing himself, but murder in the name of war.
In addition, the female perspective that ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ is told from uses military achievement in a different manner. One assumes that Wulf is not Edwacer’s lover, and whilst he is not described as a Lord, he is described as ‘the battle-bold’. In an Anglo- Saxon society, prestige was awarded through military achievement. Therefore in this instance, if Wulf is brave in battle then this is also means he is worthy as a suitor. Her lover is elevated in the eyes of the speaker through his heroic actions for love: he literally risks his life in seeing his lover: ‘They will kill him if he comes into their troop’. Once again, the use of martial language emphasizes the importance of military action in the Old English vocabulary to communicate heroic action. Furthermore, the danger he places himself in is emphasized through of the Old English ‘apecgan’, of which literally means ‘to kill’ or ‘to consume’, foreboding as to the terrible death that could ensue. Therefore, Wulf is presented as heroic in a military sense to the extent that he is described as brave and his warrior skills have kept him alive. However, ultimately his heroic actions are in the name of love and, whilst they are described in a military context, are not defined my military action.
A further aspect of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ that shows that heroic action is defined by military action is seen through the anthropomorphism of the wooden cross, as was discussed briefly in a previous paragraph. Swanton comments: ‘the attributions of personality, and therefore volition, allows a moral as well as physical parallel to be established between Christ and the cross’.In light of this, the ‘physical parallel’ felt between the human and non-human object imbues the cross with a sense of Christ’s duty, shown as it ‘did not dare to bend’ (line 45). Whilst this action seems to stand as religious duty as a monument of the Church, it’s role as an aid to his death also transforms this duty in to something distinctly more military. Furthermore, as an inanimate object, the cross can share in the ‘moral’ attributes of Christ but cannot physically carry out heroic actions, perhaps a limitation due to the fact it bears human characteristics but is not human. Therefore, it can be argued that heroic action from the cross simply isn’t possible, and that it is only through the poem’s anthropomorphism that this illusion is given. This argument therefore remains in question as to whether the cross can be seen as executing heroic action, military or otherwise. It seems more, in this instance, that the humanization of the inanimate object serves more to empathize and emphasize the suffering of Christ rather than show its individual achievements.
To conclude, the predominant focus within Old English Literature does undoubtedly lie with military achievement and the label of ‘hero’ in relation to action within battle. Even when there is no physical battle within the text, a battle either with oneself or one’s lover directs the discourse back in to this military context. The differentiating factor shown for heroic action, however, is the motivation. In a military situation, the motivation to show heroic behavior is to serve one’s Lord and people. In other genres, such as religious texts and elegies, the motivation in their heroic behavior is different and therefore shapes how they show they are a true hero.
Calder, D. & Greenfield, S. A new Critical History of Old English Literature (New York & London: New York University Press, 1986)
Paw, B. ‘Biblical Literature: The New Testament’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature Malcolm Godden & Michael Lapidge (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Swanton, M. (ed.) The Dream of the Rood(Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987)
Treharne, E. (ed.) Old and Middle English c.890-c.1450 an anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2007)