I am teaching Old English for the first time in several years, and I’m so excited! It’s like revisiting an old friend. For a variety of reasons from the lows of a medical leave to the highs of a sabbatical, the survey of British literature has not fallen in my lap for… too long.
I thought for a while I might be an Anglo-Saxonist, which goes some way to saying how much I enjoyed the language and the culture of that Germanic, heroic, fatalistic poetry. It was the first dead language I studied, and I was entranced by the strangeness and the similarity to Modern English and American culture. Hwaet! Mead. Warrior-companions. All of that was awesome. I wrote my MA thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand.
Then I went on and discovered Chaucer, and my world shifted again, but part of my heart burns a candle for Beowulf and all his charming imperfections.
When I teach Beowulf, I build up to it. We look at the conventions of Old English poetry in small texts like “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Battle of Maldon,”, and then Beowulf brings them all together. Today, though, I’m stuck on the Wanderer.
“The Wanderer” is a brief poem, mostly a soliloquy, but framed by a narrator (lines added by a well-meaning monk? We will never know) who explains the speaker’s state of mind. He’s sad. He’s lonely. He longs for grace. He has lost his lord and kinsmen and finds himself alone in the world.
And this time, after a four year hiatus from Old English during which both my parents died, I read those words in a way I never imagined before. The Wanderer sounds like a man slipping in to dementia.
It’s not, of course. That’s me imposing a fragment of my life, or my father’s life, really, on the speaker. But I did not see it coming, and it rings this time through with that truth that works of literature change with us; as we age and our circumstances change, our experience of the text changes, because we are half of the equation—the reader.
The Wanderer gripes a bit. It’s usually called an elegy, but I entertain other genres, and this feels more like a complaint or a consolation poem, since he’s resigned to his fate at the end. He is frustrated by his circumstances and trying to get through by turning inward.
He has lost his relatives and his lord. Maybe there was a battle, and he is the sole survivor. Whatever the case, he has lost everyone. This is how my dad felt, as he saw people he couldn’t remember, when he could still recognize that he should know them. He began a slow descent in to exile—separated from everyone he loved.
The Wanderer learned “that silence is noble and sorrow/ Nothing speech can cure” (ll 13-14). Dad seemed to learn this too, withdrawing more and more in to his head, but not being able to articulate why. He seemed to have moments of calm when he was quiet, but got confused and flustered when he tried to sort things out. Hideous, debilitating cause aside, he would have made a good, laconic Viking.
I have read this poem twenty times. I know it’s not about dementia, and it’s not about me. It’s about the abject fear people feel in a culture plagued by cold and famine—a primitive, instinctual fear of being alone, not just because of loneliness, but because communities survive where individuals die.
But whenever we willingly enter the world of a poem or other text, it is in some ways about us. And this time, I was delighted to see it was about my dad. It was nice to see him.
I’ve just decided it’s a consolation poem.
(This translation is taken from Burton Raffel’s Poems and Prose from the Old English.)