Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Wanderer

The Wanderer is an anonymous Old English poem, found preserved in a late tenth century florilegium of works given the name of The Exeter Book, or the Codex Exoniensis, and is believed to have been bestowed to the diocese by Leofric, first bishop of Exeter.  The book has remained housed in Exeter Cathedral ever since.  However, the book itself is incomplete, having lost the first eight pages.  Despite this loss, the book remains important to scholars as it is the largest surviving anthology of Anglo-Saxon writing.  The compilation of the book is believed to date from the late tenth century; the same era in which the Vercelli Book was compiled, in which are found works as Anglo-Saxon poetry such as Elene and The Dream of the Rood.  In addition to the poems, the Exeter book contains some 96 riddles, some of which are sacred, and others mundane, relating to objects as diverse as the Bible and an onion.

It is believed that the poem itself predates the compilation of the book by a number of centuries, with some scholars being of the belief that it perhaps dates as far back as the late sixth century.  The poem itself is not given a title in the context of the book, and was bestowed with the name “The Wanderer” in the nineteenth century by Anglo-Saxonist Benjamin Thorpe.  This titling has not been appreciated by all scholars, with calls to re-title the work with a more befitting name, such as “The Exile”.  Despite the general disapproval of this titling by scholars, the poem still retains it, and continues to be referred to as such.

Dating of the poem is an ongoing debate.  It has been suggested that the work contains various elements which are suggestive of an early composition date.  The date suggested is that of the late sixth century when the Saxons were starting to convert to Christianity.  However, this suggestion has been drawn into question, due in part to the presence of various words that appear to have a Norse etymology,  which has given rise to an alternative suggestion that the poem is in fact of a later date than the sixth century, and would have to be subsequent to the Norse invasions of the British Isles.  Exposure to Norse words and their subsequent evolution into Old English variants would have taken time before their eventual acceptance and integration into the English language.  In addition to the presence of these words, the poem contains some spelling forms believed to demonstrate a Norse influence.  This substantiates and lends credence to the suggestion of a later composition date.

Contained within the poem are the reflections of a Saxon warrior, described in the poem as being an “eardstapa.”  The eponymous Wanderer, describes emotively his present hardships and the sense of loss he is enduring whilst he reflects upon his situation and narrates.  He talks of past glories, spent enjoying battle honours with his comrades, service to his king or lord, and was blessed with precious gifts in return.  However, when recounting his tale, the Wanderer appears to have fallen on hard times, speaking of his current lonely exile, having lost his wealth, his friends, kinsmen and his king, of whom he still dreams.  This loss has driven him into exile far from his homeland.  The poem opens thus:

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre.

Often the solitary one finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord although he, sorry hearted,
must for a long time move by hand*
along the waterways of the ice-cold sea
tread the paths of exile.  Fate shall always follow as it must!
So spoke the Wanderer mindful of hardships
Of fierce slaughters and the downfall of kinsmen.

* row

The Exeter Book, as seen in Exeter Cathedral.

The poem is a richly textured work and filled with emotional sensitivity that is lacking in most of the surviving corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature available to us.  The poem conveys strong emotions from its narrator, reflecting upon his various losses and current exile, but also is capable of evoking an emotional response from its readers for the loneliness and misfortune of the warrior.  Despite the sense of empathy the reader might feel when reading the poem; a considerable barrier has been built between author and audience, not to allow for too much identification between audience and narrator, thus retaining the titular Wanderer’s stoic fortitude.   

Essentially The Wanderer might be best described as being a monologue, recounting events which have occurred, but from two different standpoints, and therein creating and utilizing two different personae in the narrator himself.  The first, being the author, addressing the readers by speaking in the third person, introduces the Wanderer, and this persona writes solely in the opening verses and in the concluding four verses. The other persona of the writer, i.e. the narrator, tells of events and his meditations in the first person.  The narrator reveals himself through his  words and contemplation to be the aging eardstapa himself, seeking the comfort and stability he has lost from a heroic life in the court of a king before his exile.  Part of this stability, it becomes apparent is derived from the death of his most recent lord and king.  In the time in which this poem was composed, regardless of the century, a man without a king to serve was on a par with having no nationality, and by extension, no identity, as the loyalty he had to his king would have determined his place in society.

The style of The Wanderer, alongside The Seafarer (also to be found within The Exeter Book) have been defined as being elegiac.  In addition to this category, The Wanderer can be described as being part of a genre of mediaeval poetry defined as planctus, translated into English as a complaint.  Such complaints differ from those of elegies in that the narrator is invariably mythical or fictional in nature, and that the loss is not necessarily that of death but of an event of events that has resulted in a profound sense of loss, such as being abandoned by the one’s lover.  Instances of such laments include the loss of Aeneas by Dido, Eurydice by Orpheus, or of Jesus Christ by his mother, Mary.  Such laments are found in Anglo Saxon literature such as Beowulf.  Anglo Saxon literature is tremendously difficult to date, yet the employment by the author of Beowulf of this device allows one to make an educated guess that the form of writing was certainly known by the time of the composition of Beowulf and in circulation.  Beowulf is currently believed to have been written in the eighth century.

Other parallels shared with Beowulf are that The Wanderer displays traits of the heroic society in which such warriors lived, loyal to their kinsmen, and to their lord and leader, the king.  The sense of loss which the Wanderer is experiencing is emotionally moving, yet still manages to remain detached in nature.  The reader is permitted to understand his plight, yet the warrior does not to lose his valour alongside all else already endured and lost.  By contrast to Beowulf which is strong, powerful, heroic and filled with emotion, The Wanderer is subtle in tone, playing upon emotions and conveying hints of experiences lived rather than recounting episodes and resorting to high drama.

After reflecting upon his journey, which has taken him across “the ice-cold sea” (hrimcealde sæ), the poet digresses into a passage mirroring a device in Anglo Saxon literature referred to as the ubi sunt (from the Latin for “where is”) theme in which the narrator detracts from his nostalgic lyrical lament for the past where the narrator implores his listener through his questioning what has become of thing he has known; the horse and the rider, and giver of treasurer and the seats in the banqueting hall.  Each of these lines begins with the phrase “Hwær cwom” (Where is…).   The narrator realises that these memories are no more than memories, and further mourns their loss by conjuring up a series of emotive images, opening each phrase with the emotive word “Eala” (Alas for…).  

This ubi sunt device is located  in contemporary sermons upon which is laid an emphasis of an almost ascetic world view.  The preacher would ask the congregation where the various splendours of the material world had gone and would duly answer it by demonstrating how transient the importance of material wealth was in order to find ultimate redemption and retribution.  Despite using this device which would probably have been familiar to its audience,  the poem does not extol this message.  Instead it focuses on the transition which the Wanderer must make from losing all he once held close and dear and his adjustment to that loss, rather than seeking to condemn his previous life in which he recalls, where he embraced  materialism, valour and glory. 

Nonetheless the poem urges its narrator (and readers) to accept and be resigned to one’s fate, through the control of one's emotions in order to best deal with such adversity.  Readers follow the Wanderer on his journey into exile, and read of his encounters with other kingdoms different to his own, described as having walls wound with serpents, yet having incurred the same violence and destruction as those meted to his own kinsmen.

Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
Weal wundrum heqr wyrmlicum fah 
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe
wæpen wlgifru wyrd seo mære
ond þas stanleoþu stormas cnyssað
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð
wintres woma

Now there stands in the trace of the beloved troop
A wall, wondrously high, wound round with serpents.
The warriors taken off by the glory of spears
The weapons greedy for slaughter, the famous fate
And the storms beat these rocky cliffs
Falling frost fetters the earth
The harbinger of Winter.
The first page of The Wanderer, found in The Exeter Book.

Although the narrator might looked upon with pity by a modern reader, having lost all he holds dear and important; the Wanderer is not to be seen as meek and pathetic. Indeed, he extols a powerful character trait that would have earned him the respect of the contemporary readers reading his tale; that trait being that of stoicism.  He does not display nor make his feelings apparent, “locking them away”.  The poem relays his innermost thoughts, without the intention of being read as a "sob story", recounted to others to garner sympathy.  And so, to show this strength of character, the narrator shows his determination to find a new lord once more, as he has done previously, thereby restoring his standing within society.  Although the work appears mournful in nature, the narrator refuses to display a resignation to his (apparent) destiny to wander as a lonely exile. He continues, determined, despite adversity, and the elements, such as the freezing winter, against him.  This theme of cold and winter could equally act in an allegorical sense as a narrative device  to reflect the coldness within his heart for having once again lost his friends, his kinsmen, and his king in battle.  In exile once again, and perhaps owing to his advancing years, the Wanderer has become aware of his own mortality and of those around him.  Some scholars have suggested that poem reflects an allegorical theme of the need for conversion, from the Germanic pagan and warrior lifestyle to that of Christianity, through the embracing of orthodox Christian values, finally finding peace and stability.

Part of the torment endured by the warrior is the psychological damage he has incurred from the loss of his lord and not so much his identity and of his material wealth.  Anglo Saxon tradition would have considered such warriors as being loyal to their king to the end, and were the king slain in battle, the warriors as the king’s retainers would seek to avenge him and his death.  Yet, as is apparent from the poem, the Wanderer is still alive, not having died a heroic and valiant death by the king’s side, protecting him.  This turn of events seems to be part of the reason for the sense of shame imbued within in words of the poem; and the inner torments that fester within the mind of the Wanderer for his having lost and buried the king and lord he once served.

The conclusion of this delicate, yet powerful poem has been argued by some scholars as being a later addition to the work made by Christian monks.  This argument arises from the fact that the final verses significantly detract from the tone set earlier in the body of  the work.  Prior to the final four lines, the planctus or lament of the Wanderer can be seen as being more secular in nature.  In the conclusion, it changes tone again and acts as a warning to the readers, advising them to put their faith in God in case the same fate (wyrd) should befall them.  The last four lines are more akin to the introduction to the work in their nature than the main body of the poem, where the Wanderer speaks in the first person.  The final lines reinforce the idea that all that has passed in life is merely transient, and that ultimately salvation is found after experiencing and surviving the pitfalls of life, and is given to the soul after death, with the Father in Heaven.  The term “wyrd” however is ambiguous in its nature, as translating it in terms of “fate” has a profoundly pessimistic air, in comparison to alternative translations which might read as “Fortune”, or “Providence”.  It has been suggested that in fact the Wanderer has encountered similar situations in his life previously, and through this encounter with wyrd, he appears to have acquired wisdom and understanding on his path to finding salvation, and mercy in Christ.

Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to Fæder on heofonum,
þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.

It is better for the one that seeks mercy,
Consolation from the Father in the heavens,
In whom, all stability dwells. 

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