The Wanderer: an Old English lyric poem

When I arrived at Leeds to study English way back in 2008, I looked forward to studying early medieval literature. I’d read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf as an A-level student and, being a naive teenager, I imagined that there was a world of heroic verse waiting to be discovered (I was right, in a way, but it was mostly Old Norse that would satisfy that want). My first Old English class was not concerned with monster-slaying warriors, however, and instead we were presented with poems that were labelled (off-puttingly to my mind) ‘elegies’. The first-person speakers of these poems talked with striking anxiety, fretting over the mutability of existence and separation from a meaningful community. The Ruin, for example, provided a description of decayed foundations of an old settlement, lamenting how the light and noise of the mead-hall had been wrecked by wyrd (‘events’ or, pompously, ‘fate’). Wulf and Eadwacer provided a more intimate portrayal of a woman’s relationship torn apart by a series of murkily described events, and communicated in a more staccato, metrically deviant form than most other Old English poetry.

But, given that my favourite poem at the time waspredictably, lamelyT.S. Eliot’s adolescent Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, it was The Wanderer that I found most compelling. It’s an intimate account of anxiety and loss, but also (a very Christian) hope. Along with the other elegies, the poem was copied into the famous Exeter Book manuscript at some point in the mid-to-late tenth century, though it was most likely composed at an earlier point in time. The majority of the poem consists of a monologue by our erstwhile wanderer (eardstapa, literally ‘earth-stepper’), a figure who clearly exists within the heroic world I’d expected to find in Old English verse, but who has been severed from the joys of aristocratic hall life: the camaraderie, the treasure, and a hlāford (‘lord’, from hlāf ‘bread, food’ + weard ‘ward, guardian’) who could provide some degree of material security and patronage. Across the course of the poem, the wanderer discusses their previous life in the mead-hall, lamenting the loss of human pleasures and earthly transience, before turning their gaze to the heavens and faith in God. This speech is bracketed by the poet’s more generalising, gnomic voice, which underscores the Christian message of the poem as a whole. The personal nature of The Wanderer and the other “elegies” has led critics like Kathleen Davis to promote the term lyric instead, and it is this label that I prefer.

As usual, my own translation aims to give a reasonably “accurate” rendering in terms of the poem’s content, though I take some small liberties with individual words, phrases and lines. I try to replicate the alliterative texture of the original Old English, though I don’t try to copy the poetic form completelyit just ends up becoming too cumbersome otherwise. Sometimes alliteration will be internal to the line, sometimes I try to pattern it across lines, and occasionally I might replace alliteration with assonance/consonance instead. The form is metrically free, though I do consider metre carefully, and include typical Old English quirks like multiple unstressed syllables or the “rising-falling” pattern that is very common in Old English poetic compound words (e.g. rime(/)-cold(\)). And while “free” might imply chaos or formlessness to some, there is a lot of conscious effort on my part in trying to get the aural soundscape to be as natural and pleasing as possible to read aloud. I’ll let you be the judge of how successful I am with that. (Note that if you’re reading on a phone, you can find the Old English original after the translation).

My translation

The lonely always look for grace,
for the almighty’s mercy,
even as, downhearted,
they touch their hands
to the rime-cold sea,
stirring the exile’s expanse.

Things go as they must.

The wanderer said as much, dwelling on hardships,
on blood-fierce slaughter and the fall of friends:
“Alone each dawn I’d talk about my troubles
but there’s none now living I can speak my mind to.
I know warriors have a treasured custom
of locking their soul-chest tightly,
of guarding their hoarded thoughts,
thinking what they want.
But a weary mind can’t withstand events,
the turbulent heart can’t help itself.
Instead the glory-eager bind up anguish
tightly in their breast-coffer.
Far from friends and away from home,
I’ve had to fasten my mind with fetters,
since long ago my gold-companion
was hidden under the hard ground,
and I waded in a wintry mood
through the biting sea-waves,
sorrowed for lack of a hall,
looked for a new lord
lavishing swords and silver,
for where I might find a mead-hall
with one who knows my own mind,
who could comfort me with pleasures.

You know how tough it is to take
sorrow as a fellow-traveller
for one who has few companions.
The exile’s path grips him, not gold-set gems,
an icy spirit-locker, not earth’s splendour.
He recalls friendship and riches,
how in his youth the gold-giver
got him used to gifts and feasting
—such joys fade away.
He understands he must endure
without the wisdom of his hall-friend.

When sadness and slumber together
take the troubled thinker,
it seems that he clasps and kisses
the lord of men in his mind,
lays head and hand in his lap,
just like long ago when he enjoyed
the gift-throne’s golden rewards.
The solitary warrior stirs again,
sees steel-grey breakers ahead,
the sea-birds bathing, widening wings
amid whirls of hardening ice and hail.
Then the heart’s wounds are heavier,
after the loss of his lord. Sorrow returns
when the mind wanders through
the memories of his kinsmen,
greets the old songs, searches
for the figures of hall-friends.
They always swim away.
The floating spirits sing
none of the familiar stories.
Care comes back for him
who sends his tired soul
out over the surging waves.
I don’t know why my spirit
doesn’t darken in this world,
when I consider the lives of earls,
how they hastily left the hall,
those high-minded thegns.
This middle-earth and everything in it
ebbs and falls away each passing day.
A man cannot be wise without
having his measure of winters
in the kingdom of the world.

A wise man must be patient:
not too hot-hearted, nor rash with words,
not too weak a warrior, nor too bloody-minded,
not grasping, gloating, craven,
nor too eager to impress,
before he’s lived his life.

A man must bide his time
when he utters an oath,
until he knows clearly
his heart’s true intention.

The wise man sees how shattering it is
when all this world stands wasted,
just as now throughout the land
old walls stand wind-haunted,
cold ruins draped with frost-fall.
The wine-hall crumbles away,
rulers lying robbed of joy,
retainers slumped proud along the ramparts.
War took some to their doom,
crows carried others over fathomless seas,
while the grey wolf dealt death
to men with tear-stained faces,
hidden under earthen hollows.
The shaper of all living things
laid waste to the circle of the world,
until the ancient works of giants
stood silenced, their people gone.

The wise man wondered at these
flickering foundations, learned in spirit,
thought deeply about this dark life,
remembers war and blood-shed,
and speaks these words:
Where is the horse, where is the warrior?
Where is the gift giver, the glee at feasting?
Where are our earthly joys?
The bright cup,
the byrnied hero,
the king’s strength?
All’s now gone,
grown dark under night-shadow,
as if it had never been.
A high wall stands instead
etched with serpents.

Earls are taken by iron-tipped ash,
slaughter-starved weapons
—so it always goes—
storms knock the slanting fells,
billowing snow-sheets blanket the land,
deep-winter’s tumult; then darkness comes,
louring night-shadow, while from northern reaches
rushing hail greets humankind with wrath.
All is hardship in this kingdom of earth,
a twist of fate changes the world under heaven.
Here life is only loaned
—friends are fleeting,
family are fleeting,
folk all fall away—
the whole earth becomes empty.”

Thus said the wise man in his mind. He sat apart, pondering these things.
Joy is for the one who keeps faith, who doesn’t let suffering show
unless he first knows how to help himself.
He’ll be well if he looks for his own grace,
the comfort of the father in heaven,
where our foundation stands.

Old English original

Oft him ānhaga     āre gebīdeð,
Metudes miltse,     þēah þe hē mōdcearig
geond lagulāde     longe sceolde
hrēran mid hondum     hrīmcealde sǣ,
5 wadan wræclāstas.     Wyrd bið ful ārǣd.
Swā cwæð eardstapa,     earfeþa gemyndig,
wrāþra wælsleahta,     winemǣga hryre:
Oft ic sceolde āna     ūhtna gehwylce
mīne ceare cwīþan.     Nis nū cwicra nān
10 þe ic him mōdsefan     mīnne durre
sweotule āsecgan.     Ic tō sōþe wāt
þæt biþ in eorle     indryhten þēaw
þæt hē his ferðlocan     fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan,     hycge swā hē wille.
15 Ne mæg wērig mōd     wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hrēo hyge     helpe gefremman;
for ðon dōmgeorne     drēorigne oft
in hyra brēostcofan     bindað fæste;
swā ic mōdsefan     mīnne sceolde,
20 oft earmcearig,     ēðle bidǣled,
frēomǣgum feor,     feterum sǣlan,
siþþan geāra iū     goldwine mīnne
hrūsan heolstre biwrāh,     ond ic hēan þonan
wōd wintercearig     ofer waþema gebind,
25 sōhte seledrēorig     sinces bryttan,
hwǣr ic feor oþþe nēah     findan meahte
þone þe in meoduhealle     mīne wisse,
oþþe mec frēondlēasne     frēfran wolde,
wenian mid wynnum.     Wāt se þe cunnað
30 hū slīþen bið     sorg tō gefēran
þām þe him lȳt hafað     lēofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclāst,     nales wunden gold,
ferðloca frēorig,     nalæs foldan blǣd.
Gemon hē selesecgas     ond sincþege,
35 hū hine on geoguðe     his goldwine
wenede tō wiste.     Wyn eal gedrēas.
For þon wāt se þe sceal     his winedryhtnes
lēofes lārcwidum     longe forþolian.
Ðonne sorg ond slǣp     somod ætgædre
40 earmne ānhogan     oft gebindað,
þinceð him on mōde     þæt hē his mondryhten
clyppe ond cysse     ond on cnēo lecge
honda ond hēafod,     swā hē hwīlum ǣr
in geārdagum     giefstōlas brēac.
45 Ðonne onwæcneð eft     winelēas guma,
gesihð him biforan     fealwe wēgas,
baþian brimfuglas,     brǣdan feþra,
hrēosan hrīm ond snāw,     hagle gemenged.
Þonne bēoð þȳ hefigran     heortan benne,
50 sāre æfter swǣsne.     Sorg bið genīwad
þonne māga gemynd     mōd geondhweorfeð;
grēteð glīwstafum,     georne geondscēawað
secga geseldan.     Swimmað eft on weg.
Flēotendra ferð     nō þǣr fela bringeð
55 cūðra cwidegiedda.     Cearo bið genīwad
þām þe sendan sceal     swīþe geneahhe
ofer waþema gebind     wērigne sefan.
For þon ic geþencan ne mæg     geond þās woruld
for hwan mōdsefa     mīn ne gesweorce,
60 þonne ic eorla līf     eal geondþence,
hū hī fǣrlīce     flet ofgēafon,
mōdge maguþegnas.     Swā þes middangeard
ealra dōgra gehwām     drēoseð ond fealleþ.
For þon ne mæg weorþan wīs     wer, ǣr hē āge
65 wintra dǣl in woruldrīce.     Wita sceal geþyldig;
ne sceal nō tō hātheort     ne tō hrædwyrde
ne tō wāc wiga     ne tō wanhȳdig
ne tō forht ne tō fægen     ne tō feohgīfre
ne nǣfre gielpes tō georn,     ǣr hē geare cunne.
70 Beorn sceal gebīdan,     þonne hē bēot spriceð,
oþ þæt collenferð     cunne gearwe
hwider hreþra gehygd     hweorfan wille.
Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle     hū gǣstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela     wēste stondeð,
75 swā nū missenlīce     geond þisne middangeard
winde biwāune     weallas stondaþ,
hrīme bihrorene,     hrȳðge þā ederas.
Wōriað þā wīnsalo,     waldend licgað
drēame bidrorene,     duguþ eal gecrong,
80 wlonc bi wealle.     Sume wīg fornom,
ferede in forðwege:     sumne fugel oþbær
ofer hēanne holm,     sumne se hāra wulf
dēaðe gedǣlde,     sumne drēorighlēor
in eorðscræfe     eorl gehȳdde.
85 Ȳþde swā þisne eardgeard     ælda Scyppend
oþ þæt burgwara     breahtma lēase
eald enta geweorc     īdlu stōdon.
Se þonne þisne wealsteal     wīse geþōhte
ond þis deorce līf     dēope geondþenceð,
90 frōd in ferðe,     feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn,     ond þās word ācwið:
Hwǣr cwōm mearg? Hwǣr cwōm mago?     Hwǣr cwōm māþþumgyfa?
Hwǣr cwōm symbla gesetu?     Hwǣr sindon seledrēamas?
Ēalā beorht bune!     Ēalā byrnwiga!
95 Ēalā þēodnes þrym!     Hū sēo þrāg gewāt,
genāp under nihthelm,     swā hēo nō wǣre.
Stondeð nū on lāste     lēofre duguþe
weal wundrum hēah,     wyrmlīcum fāh.
Eorlas fornōman     asca þrȳþe,
100 wǣpen wælgīfru,     wyrd sēo mǣre,
ond þās stānhleoþu     stormas cnyssað,
hrīð hrēosende     hrūsan bindeð,
wintres wōma,     þonne won cymeð,
nīpeð nihtscūa,     norþan onsendeð
105 hrēo hæglfare     hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic     eorþan rīce;
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft     weoruld under heofonum.
Hēr bið feoh lǣne,     hēr bið frēond lǣne,
hēr bið mon lǣne,     hēr bið mǣg lǣne,
110 eal þis eorþan gesteal     īdel weorþeð.
Swā cwæð snottor on mōde;     gesæt him sundor æt rūne.
Til biþ se þe his trēowe gehealdeþ;     ne sceal nǣfre his torn tō rycene
beorn of his brēostum ācȳþan,     nemþe hē ǣr þā bōte cunne
eorl mid elne gefremman.     Wel bið þām þe him āre sēceð,
115 frōfre tō Fæder on heofonum,     þǣr ūs eal sēo fæstnung stondeð.

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