Place in ‘The Wanderer’ and Anglo-Saxon Elegy

In the frame of English literature, the term elegy has come to define a series of short poems found in the Exeter Book.  These poems, written across hundreds of years by unknown authors, written in differing styles, and many incomplete due to damage, share a number of common philosophical themes driven by an individual’s meditative lament.  This meditation, which extends from the solitary nature of an individual’s exile, drives the individual to explore mortal concerns such as the transience of life, the passing of time, and longing.  These themes are closely tied to images of place, such as the sea, buildings both ruined and inhabited, storm swept landscapes and the dark cold of winter nights, demonstrating the significance of place in the elegies.  As these themes and images are all common to Anglo-Saxon poetry, many examples, like the epic Beowulf, contain elegiac features.  However, despite the similarities that texts such as Beowulf share with elegy, the poems most commonly considered to be elegies include, among others, The Seafarer, The Ruin, Wife’s Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wanderer.  By closely examining the importance of place in The Wanderer with reference to other elegies, its significance and importance to the Anglo-Saxon elegy can be explored.  All lines quoted from the elegies come from the translations found in Greg Delanty and Michael Matto’s The Word Exchange.

The opening line of The Wanderer, “The loner holds out for grace”[1], immediately conjures images of someone socially and geographically removed from society.  This combines with the titling of the exile later in the stanza, as “earth-stepper”[2], someone who literally walks the earth, to highlight the centrality of place in the poem.  The reader discovers that the separation of the earth-stepper from his lord and kin due to their death in battle is not only physical, but also spiritual, establishing two main places in The Wanderer: the earth and the afterlife.  This major division stems from the Christian framework dominant at the time and is a feature common to elegy, as seen in The Ruin and The Seafarer.  This division of place in The Wanderer initiates the idea that in order for the earth-stepper to ascend from the earthly to heavenly realm, he must reject the transient nature of men’s treasured creations and embrace the eternal treasure of salvation through God.  Throughout the course of the poem, the exile, after many years of wandering does “seek solace / from the Maker, our only security”[3], definitively imbuing his title of earth-stepper with the characteristics of a pilgrim, further emphasising the importance of place in driving and tracing the progress of his salvation.  This interlinking of place and exile is a pivotal theme characteristic of the wider genre of Anglo-Saxon elegy, and is seen in poems such as The Seafarer and Deor.

Within this overarching division between earth and the afterlife, there are further divisions of place.  One of the most prominent in The Wanderer, and indeed in elegies in general, is the dichotomy of sea and land.  The land in The Wanderer is a dangerous, violent place, swept by storms and nature’s wrath, but it is possible for the land to be tamed by man, even if only fleetingly, as demonstrated by the exile’s longing for the passed warmth and happiness of the mead hall.  The mead hall, a symbol common to elegy, symbolises a place of safety and refuge that protects the exile from the vicissitudes of the land.  In contrast, the sea is utterly impossible to tame and the exiles of The Wanderer and The Seafarer are entirely subject to its whims.  While the sea is not as central to the earth-stepper’s acquisition of wisdom in The Wanderer as it is in The Seafarer or Resignation, the symbolism of the sea remains the same.  “The Wanderer resembles The Seafarer in using the sea as a place of suffering and loneliness…”[4], “So I, at sea in my angst, / (wretched outcast from my land, / far from kindred)”[5], “…an idea associated in both poems with the ironic contrast between the seabirds on a wintry sea and the companionship of men in the cheerful hall.”[6] This comparison is seen in The Wanderer “As soon as the sober man wakes / he sees nothing but fallow furrows; / seabirds paddle and preen feathers;”[7] and in The Seafarer, “I heard, the ice-cold wave. / I made the wild swan’s song / my game; sometimes the gannet / and the curlew would cry out / though elsewhere men were laughing; / and the sea-mew would sing / though elsewhere men drank mead.”[8]  The uninhabitable isolation of the sea is continued in The Wanderer through the exile’s reference that, “So I, at sea in my angst / …brace myself, / having buried my large-hearted lord / years back in black earth.”[9]  The suggestion that it is natural for man to return to the land in death is reiterated in lines 92-95 of The Seafarer, and illustrates the use of the sea to represent turmoil and anguish in these two elegies.

The other half of the dichotomy, the land, differs in that it can provide men with the ability to build civilisation and achieve earthly happiness.  However, the land is itself further divided into two representations of place: the inhabited and uninhabited.  In The Wanderer, the exile recollects a time passed, where under his lord’s banner he lived in a protective, inhabited land and was happy.  The exile’s contented past demonstrates the ability of man to transform the land from a desolate, snow blasted place into a warm and enjoyable home.  With his comrades, the exile was able to staunch the encroaching darkness of the land and build structures to provide warmth, company, love and purpose; particularly symbolised in the recurring depictions of the mead hall in the elegies as a beacon of earthly comfort.  Man’s ability in The Wanderer to shape and redefine the land for a period of time is reflected in The Ruin, The Seafarer and throughout Anglo-Saxon elegy more generally.

The exile’s happy past is starkly contrasted with the uninhabited land where he now lives, and which he describes as being wrecked by the violence of nature, “In many regions on Earth today, / the still-standing walls wind-wracked, / ice-bound; each edifice under snow. / The halls fall, the lords lie low…”[10].  This contrast between inhabited and uninhabited land, and its effect on the exile’s happiness is particularly emphasised by the ambiguous and widely debated line, “Now all that is left of those veterans / is a tower wall ringed with serpent devils;”[11].  While “wyrmlicum”, translated to “serpent devils” in Delanty’s translation in The Word Exchange is widely agreed to refer to some form of decoration, rather than the actual presence of a dragon, the object the decoration is engraved into is debated.  “R.O. Bower… suggests that the weal is a stone gravestone, and that ‘wyrmlicum fah’ refers to ‘maggot like patter decoration of Neolithic burial monuments common throughout Britain’”[12], while P.J. Frankis “…suggests a wall painted with images of dragon”[13].  Although this conclusion can be drawn purely from the exile’s mention of serpent-ringed walls, R.O. Bower’s assertion “that the weal is a gravestone” is interesting because it emphasises the transience of humans and their earthly possessions, and its link to the symbolism of dragons in Anglo-Saxon poetry.  As dragons were powerful symbols of destruction and were believed to guard hoards of treasure in underground grave-like lairs, the exile’s description of a ruin ringed in serpents, suggests his lord’s treasure has passed to a dragon, a symbol of death, highlighting both the transience of man and his works, and the exile’s current isolation.

This ephemeral nature of man and his possessions in The Wanderer, and their ultimate destruction, introduces the theme of the land being a repository of the past and memory.  This theme is broadly characteristic of elegy as seen in The Ruin and Deor.  Those parts of the earth that are deprived of man’s marks, such as the sea and wilderness, are described as being unable to maintain the past, “His mates swim in waves of memory. / Those fellows float away in his mind, / barely utter a word.”[14]  In contrast, land possessing ruins, symbols of man’s mark on the land, provide a physical prompt to the exile’s past and allow him to access and remember it vividly, despite his years of mournful wandering.  However, it is these many years of exile that allow him to move beyond his personal sorrow and realise, with the help of these once great halls and towers, the transience of human existence and its treasures.  It is this realisation that allows the exile to progress from the “anhoga” (the solitary man), to the “modcearig” (the troubled man), and finally to the “snotter on mod” (the wise man), suggesting that place is integral in defining one’s character and understanding.  This interlinking of place and character is demonstrated in the line from The Wanderer, “Sure I know / it’s the noble custom for an earl / to bind fast what’s in his breast, / hoard inmost thoughts”[15].  An earl is defined by the lands he owns: the land gives him wealth, people and resources and it marks his influence in society.  While the exile lived under his lord as a retainer, he was able to access the trappings of his lord and in turn find shelter, camaraderie and happiness within the protection of the mead hall.  His forced removal from this framework pitted him against the uninhabited land, and subjected him to the wrath of the cold winter nights he could once banish under his lord’s protection.  “For sure, no man’s wise without his share / of winters in this world.”[16]  Without the protection of man’s ability to shape and tame the land, except for the ruins reclaimed and caved in by the weather, the exile is subject to the true nature of the land and it reclaims him too.  Just as it caved in his old lord’s halls, it has caved him in and driven him “to open my self up to wholly, / heart and soul.”[17] This reclamation by the land and subsequent change in character and outlook is common to the Anglo-Saxon elegy.  It is shared in particular, by the exiles of The Seafarer and Deor.

Following the exile’s reclamation by the land, he makes reference to the wolf and the vulture, traditional and widely used symbols in Anglo-Saxon poetry known as the Beasts of Battle motif.  “one was borne by vultures / over the ocean; / one the hoar wolf / wolfed down;”[18].  The motif’s role in other poetry contemporaneous with The Wanderer is seen in Beowulf , where “…the motif sums up the desolate mood that ensues after the hero’s death, when an unnamed messenger predicts future warfare and tribal dissolution facing the Geats… Although sometimes used exultantly… here, in a manner typical of this author, the motif of the carrion beasts gives ironic expression to the horror of warfare as seen from the side of the losers.”[19]  The motif’s role in The Wanderer serves the same function and highlights the desolation and despair of the exile.  It is notable however, that the motif is mentioned during the exile’s stage when his is the “modcearig”.  This transformation of the animals in The Wanderer from indifferent seabirds, which in both The Wanderer and The Seafarer are symbols of a solitary existence due to their nature and association with the sea, to aggressive, carrion eating predators of the Beasts of Battle motif, combines with the violence of land experienced by the unsheltered exile to represent the active role landscape plays in his realisation of his transience and impending change of character to embrace God’s salvation.  It is interesting to note that it has been argued that the exile replaces the raven, a traditional part of the Beast of Battle motif, with himself[20].  This directly links him to the destruction of his comrade’s bodies, which like the ruins are a hollow representation of the vividness of his memory.  His association with the Beasts of Battle does not suggest he literally ate their bodies, it reiterates that he is the last man, and in the burial of his lord, he assumes the role of the Beasts of Battle by disposing of his lord’s body.  The memory of this action is integral in his full realisation of mankind’s transience.  This is supported by the motif’s position within The Wanderer, where the exile is on the cusp of his progression from the “modcearig” to the “snotter on mod”.

This progression to the “snotter on mod” is demonstrated by the presence of the “ubi sunt” motif represented in the “hwær cwom” or “where has gone?” formula.  This phrase, which is classically employed to represent an individual’s meditation on his/her mortality and the nature of life’s transience, highlights the exile’s transition to wisdom.  The totality of the final line of the “ubi sunt” motif, “Night shrouds all as if nothing ever was[21], signals his impending wisdom and understanding that salvation ultimately comes in the arms of God, “All human foundation falls to naught.’ / So spoke the wise man from his heart, musing apart. / …It’s well to seek solace / from the Maker, our only security.”[22]  This realisation solidifies his ability to ascend from the earth to the ultimate resting place, the afterlife.  It is interesting to note that in between the “ubi sunt” motif and his final realisation, the land storms and rages fiercely, “This earthly realm is fraught.”[23], reinforcing the land’s role in the definition of the exile’s character.  The altering exposure of the exile to the wild forces of the land similarly traces his journey to wisdom and God.  He begins The Wanderer in a comfortable, inhabited place, but is forced into an uninhabited place, and through the reflection enforced by this exposure, he is eventually prepared to ascend a place separate from these two: the afterlife.   The exile’s relation to, and understanding of place is central to the development of the The Wanderer and is central to the wider genre of the Anglo-Saxon elegy.

Through the exploration of place in The Wanderer, its significance in the wider genre of the Anglo-Saxon elegy is made clear.  The physical and spiritual world the exile lives in is fundamentally divided.  There is a dichotomy between the earth and the afterlife, the land and the sea, and within the land, those places tamed and untamed.  The exile’s relation to these places is critical in driving the exile’s lament in The Wanderer from listless mourning to meditative mourning.     Isolated from his lord and kin, both physically and spiritually, he is able to derive wisdom from his lament.  He understands that mankind and its earthy goods are transient and that by embracing God as saviour, he can ascend to the eternity of heaven.  This realisation allows him to continue in the world, safe in the knowledge his troubles are guided by God and that his forbearance will ready him for the ascent to this final, ultimate place.  Although the theme or outcome changes from elegy to elegy, this crucial impact of place in The Wanderer is as inseparable from the genre as lament is.

Bibliography:

Klinck, Anne L., Old English Elegies, (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992).

Lapidge, Michael, and Malcolm Godden, The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Lapidge, Michael, Simon Keynes, and Malcolm Godden, Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 20, (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Leslie, R.F., The Wanderer, (Manchester University Press).

Marsden, Richard, The Cambridge Old English Reader, (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Matto, Michael, and Greg Delanty The Word Exchange Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).


[1] Matto, Michael, and Greg Delanty The Word Exchange Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)., Pg. 57, ln. 1

[2] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 57, ln. 6

[3] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 63, ln 114-15

[4] Klinck, Anne L., Old English Elegies, (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992). Pg. 38

[5] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 57, ln. 19-21

[6] Klinck, Anne L, Pg. 39

[7] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 59, ln. 45-47

[8] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 27-29, ln. 19b-26

[9] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 57 ln. 19-23

[10] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 61 ln. 75-78

[11] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 63, ln. 97-98

[12] Lapidge, Michael, Simon Keynes, and Malcolm Godden, Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 20, (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pg. 79

[13] Lapidge, Keynes, and Godden, Pg. 79

[14] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 59 ln. 53-55

[15] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 57 ln. 11-14

[16] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 61 ln. 64-65

[17] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 57, ln. 10-11

[18] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 61 ln. 81-82

[19] Lapidge, Michael, and Malcolm Godden, The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Pg. 133

[20] Leslie, R.F., The Wanderer, (Manchester University Press). Pg. 17

[21] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 63 ln. 96

[22] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 63 ln. 110-115

[23] Matto and Delanty, Pg. 63 ln. 106

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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6 comments

  1. Folio and Ink

    This semester I studied “Beowulf,” “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” in my medieval literature class. Not assigned, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics.” Something that struck me is Tolkien’s claim that “Beowulf” is an elegy and not an epic. I asked my professor about it, and he said, as you have that “Beowulf” “contains” elements of elegy. During a lecture, my professor pointed out a section in “Beowulf” that is elegy like, but I thought there was more. In the end, I think I agree with Tolkien that “Beowulf” is an elegy. Another great post! I love the elegies.

    • I agree completely. I think Beowulf contains elegiac features throughout and could be included in the genre but unfortunately, (fortunately – 14,500 words due on the same day made me want to neck myself) my essay prompt prevented further discussion. It is an interesting question though, and one that I think is debated pretty intensely by academics. I’m not sure what translation(s) you looked at for ‘The Seafarer’ but if you have the time and enjoy Anglo-Saxon poetry, I recommend Mary Jo Salter’s. It’s the one I used for my essay and can be found in ‘The Word Exchange’. It’s a really beautiful translation. Anyway, thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. This has inspired me to want to read Beowulf again. Thanks.

  3. Lovely reminder of my halcyon days at The University of Chicago. I will be reading more of you.

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