"The Wanderer," (MS Exeter Book, before 1072)  Ed. Prin. London: Published for the Society of Antiquaries, 1842 (Benjamin Thorpe, editor)

Genre: epic song, sometimes described as an "elegy" or lament for things and/or persons lost to death.  The predominant features of Anglo-Saxon verse are produced by oral-formulaic composition, in which an illiterate but immensely learned bard sings, to his own instrumental accompaniment, a song he composes as he sings by following strict metrical rules and a huge array of thematic content strands.  Epic singers of this type survived in Serbia, Bosnia and Albania until the early part of this century.  (See Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales [1971] for further information.)  The poem's date is impossible to determine except that it must have been composed and written down before the Exeter Book, in which its sole surviving copy was found, was donated to the Exeter Cathedral library by Exeter's first bishop, Leofric, upon his death in 1072.  Scholars generally accept the conclusion that this, the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry (131 parchment leaves measuring roughly 12.5 by 8.6 inches), is the manuscript the bishop's will calls ".i. mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum  ■ingum on leo­wisan geworht." ["one great English book with many things written in verse."]

Form: four-stress lines of varying syllable lengths, divided in halves by a caesura which often indicates a breath pause.  The prose translation obscures many of the work's poetic features, but Anglo-Saxon verse is notoriously difficult to translate into Modern English verse.  For a transcription of the first four lines in Old English, click here.  To see an enlarged image of the first page of "The Wanderer" with information about the Exeter Book's survival, click here.  To hear it read aloud, click here.

Characters: the narrator of the "wise man"'s speech (evidently a Christian, probably a monk-scribe), the "wise man," presumably the "Wanderer," himself, whose world-view is singularly pagan, the "liege lord" or now-dead king whom the Wanderer once served, "the young/mailed warrior," perhaps even the generic "friend" and "woman" who may not endure.  Some critics have argued "Wanderer" was the product of three poems' fusion, but contemporary readers tend to distrust this, arguing that Anglo-Saxon poetic productions need not satisfy Modern English aesthetic standards for aesthetic unity.  One certainly can detect three distinct stages in the poem: an introduction by a Christian narrator who speaks of the "Almighty"; a lament in several stages by an apparently pagan narrator who expresses no hope or faith in a future salvation; and a conclusion by the first narrator who advises seeking protection from earthly loss in a divine afterlife ruled by a heavenly father.

Summary:  The narrator advises us to listen to the voice of the Wanderer, whose recollections of lost lords, ladies, and courtly settings, establishes the need for self-restraint, endurance, and an appreciation for the fleeting nature of all earthly things.  Click here for a peek at my class notes for Old English literature.  They're a bit like shorthand, but you can follow what I'll be asking you to think about more easily if you know where we're headed.  We won't cover all of this, but it's the kind of thing we need to be thinking about whenever we can.

Issues and Research Sources:

1)  "Elegy" as a Genre:

An elegy laments the loss or passing of beloved persons, places, or things. That they are common in world literature tells us something about the human condition and poetry’s function independent of cultural difference. In some national literatures, elegies are formally defined in meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure. In Old English, elegy is more of a "mode" or manner of writing that can produce poems of many types, all using the basic four-stress, oral-formulaic line. In the elegiac mode, we see evidence that the poet’s job as keeper of the community’s collective memory produced frequent occasions on which the dead and the vanished must be recalled in sadness. Like the biblical psalmist, however, the Anglo-Saxon bards tended to generalize the consequences of Time’s corrosive effect on all human ambitions, turning the poems into fierce, sad condemnations of the very structures whose glories are celebrated in the epic war songs: rings, horses, falcons, swords, warriors, ladies, and the great halls of kings. The elegy confronts the epic with the inevitable extinction of its subjects, listing them in acts of repeated, balanced parallelism similar to the syntax with which both poems like to construct their sentences. Consider Hrothgar’s reward given to Beowulf for the destruction of Grendel:

"Then the son of Healfdene gave Beowulf a golden standard to reward his victory—a decorated battle banner—a helmet and mail-shirt: many saw the glorious costly sword borne before the warrior. Beowulf drank of the cup in the mead-hall. He had no need to be ashamed before fighting men of those rich gifts. I have not heard of many men who gave four precious, gold-adorned things to another on the ale-bench in a more friendly way. The rim around the helmet’s crown had a head-protection, wound of wire, so that no battle-hard sharp sword might badly hurt him when the shield-warrior should go against his foe. Then the people’s protector commanded eight horses with golden bridles to be led into the hall, within the walls. The saddle of one of them stood shining with hand-ornaments, adorned with jewels: that had been the war-seat of the high king when the son of Healfdene would join sword-play: never did the warfare of the wide-known one fail when men died in battle. " (E.T. Donaldson's translation from the Norton 6th edition)

Then compare the Wanderer’s view of a similar scene:

"Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior! Alas, the prince’s glory! How that time has gone, vanished beneath night’s cover, just as if it never had been! The wall, wondrous high, decorated with snake-likenesses, stands now over traces of the beloved company. The ash-spears’ might has borne the earls away—weapons greedy for slaughter, Fate the mighty; and storms beat on the stone walls, snow, the herald of winter, falling thick binds the earth when darkness comes and the night-shadow falls, sends harsh hailstones from the north in hatred of men. All earth’s kingdom is wretched, the world beneath the skies is changed by the work of the fates. Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting—all this earthly habitation shall be emptied." (also from Donaldson's prose translation)

Now the hall, conquered by Fate, is ruled by winter, whose herald, snow, announces the new lord’s arrival with hail, and the entire earth (not just the hall) is stripped of all significance.

2) Old English Syntax and Usage:

E. T. Donaldson’s translation does a remarkable job of transmitting, in Modern English, the convoluted, puzzling, and surprising turns of the Old English poet’s sentences. Each one is grammatically complete, if one allows for ellipsis (omission of words one assumes from context), but most are masterpieces of suspended development. The poet often builds them up using a set of parallel subject-noun phrases, either following or preceding the verb, which may act on some similarly suspended object-nouns that coil sinuously among the poem’s half-lines (see Caedmon’s hymn). The nouns, themselves, often are puzzles, metaphors for the thing itself in a short phrase called a "kenning." For instance, the poet might refer to the sea as the "whale’s road" or to a flight of arrows as "battle-adders." Kennings have the uncanny ability to conjure the noun to which they refer along with a surprising second image, the whale undulating along the surface beside a boat, or the hissing, snake-like peril of the arrows’ flight toward a line of warriors. Those stacked nouns become richly inscribed with these associative textures rather like the miniature scenes, faces, and symbols worked into Anglo-Saxon decorative arts. The larger form of the poem grows by accumulation of many smaller forms which, in the form of kennings, flash before our eyes while we wait for the sentence to complete its utterance.

3)  The War Band’s Customs:

"Wanderer" alludes familiarly to numerous now-vanished aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture as known to the warrior elite who ruled and defended it. The dryghten or "leige lord" stands at the top of the hierarchy, taking oaths and dispensing treasure, serving all of the socially constituative functions Americans assign to employers, priests and rabbis, presidents, teachers, judges, bankers, and generals. The warrior serves the warlord eagerly because there is no other route of advancement, no other way to be, in the culture. The alternative to this association, which the Wanderer describes, is the lonely life of the viking, those who have taken ship for foreign places, hoping to survive by plunder in solitary struggle with no land-based community to which they may return. (The vikings who attacked Byrtnoth’s warriors in "The Battle of Maldon" may have been members of a single war band who would return to their own hall at the end of the raiding season, rather than the true loners who had no kin and no "gold friend" to shelter them.) Such warriors apparently were extremely wary of loose talk—the poem’s repeated praise of taciturnity are echoed in other Old English works—perhaps because the war band’s social relations were constructed in the language of deadly serious promises.

The "gift-giving" referred to by the main narrator was a formal ceremony repeated many times to as a stage in forming the associative link begun by the warrior’s oath. The laying of a kneeling warrior’s hands and head upon the knee of a seated lord is nearly the same gesture used in the Norman-French-influenced medieval custom of homage during later eras. It emphasizes the lord’s "fatherly" relation to the warrior, his "battle-son," in a pseudo-kinship nearly as powerful as blood relation. The treasure referred to in the poem is amply represented in the artifacts discovered at the famous ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, England.

4)  Many readers find it helpful to see archeological artifacts related to poems from ancient cultures.  For samples of Anglo-Saxon era helmets, jewelry, and long-boat remains, see the Pace U. Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial Page.