Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Wanderer

"Introduction to Old English Literature" has kicked into high gear.

We are now translating poetry from the Anglo-Saxon world. This reminds me of those many months translating lines from Beowulf; The work is a challenge of finding the correct word-order while attempting to discern and maintain the original intent of the author.

First up - The Wanderer.

Our assignment for the next three weeks is to translate one-third of the poem into Modern English. I have decided to share my labors with you as well as my thoughts and observations about the work as a whole.

If you're still interested then read on...

This poem tells the story of a wanderer, a lone warrior who roams the world seeking shelter and aid after the death of his lord. In the first part of the poem the wanderer has set sail on the wintery sea. He finds no comfort roaming the wilderness beyond civilization. His monologue is a lament for his exile and the loss of kin, friends, home, and the generosity of his "gold-friend" (his liege lord). Poignantly the speaker imagines that he is among his companions and embracing his king, only to awaken to the reality of the gray winter sea and the loneliness of one in exile.

The poem is (possibly) an elegy, defined in literature as a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.

It is important not to underestimate the meaning of exile while reading the poem. This was not the Old West. Americans have long romanticized the notion of living alone on the frontier and traveling beyond civilisation into the wild. However, in the Anglo-Saxon age, a man was defined and nurtured by his role in society and by the lord he served. If you did not remain in your society then you were an "outlaw"; neither bound nor protected by your clan. This was a punishment; a form of living hell from which the wanderer may certainly perish.

Here are the first 38 lines in Old English:

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:
"Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nanþe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan. Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille. Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
Forðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;
swa ic modsefan minne sceolde,oft earmcearig, eðle bidæled,
freomægum feor feterum sælan,
siþþan geara iu goldwine minne
hrusan heolstre biwrah, ond ic hean þonan
wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,sohte sele dreorig sinces bryttan,
hwær ic feor oþþe neah findan meahte
þone þe in meoduhealle min mine wisse,
oþþe mec freondleasne frefran wolde,
weman mid wynnum. Wat se þe cunnað, hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan,
þam þe him lyt hafað leofra geholena.
Warað hine wræclast, nales wunden gold,
ferðloca freorig, nalæs foldan blæd.
Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste. Wyn eal gedreas!
Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
leofes larcwidum longe forþolian

Which I have literally translated thus:

Often the solitary one waits for honor for himself,
God’s compassion, although he sorrowful at heart
over the seaways for a long time
stir with his hands the frost-cold sea,
travel paths of exile. Fate is very resolute.
So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, deaths of dear kinsmen:
Often I must, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my sorrow. No one is now alive
to whom I dare openly reveal
my soul. I know as a truth:
It is in a warrior noble custom
that he firmly bind his life-enclosure,
govern his wealth-chamber, whatever he may think.
Weary heart never provides fate,
nor does troubled heart provide help;
Therefore, those who are eager for glory often bind fast
a sorrowful mind in their breast-chamber.
So must I my spirit--
often wretchedly sorrowful, separated of homeland,
far from kinsmen bound with fetters,
since long ago my former lord covered
in darkness of earth, and I, wretched, thence,
traveled sorrowful as winter, over the freezing waves
sought, hall-sorrowful, a giver of treasure
Where I far or near could find I might find
one in mead-hall who knew my people
or me, friendless, would console me, entertain me with pleasures. He who experiences understands
how cruel is sorrow, as a companion,
For him who himself has few beloved friends
The path of exile holds him, not at all twisted gold,
his soul-chamber frozen, not at all earth’s glory.
He remembers men of the hall and receiving of treasure,
how in his youth his generous lord
accustomed him to feast. Pleasure all perished!
Therefore he knows, who must do without his lord-friend's beloved
teachings for a long time.

A much more poetic translation is here, courtesy of award-winning poet Greg Delanty:

The loner holds out for grace
—the Maker’s mercy—though full of care
he steers a course, forced to row
the freezing, fierce sea with bare hands,
take the exile’s way; fate dictates.
The earth-stepper spoke, heedful of hardship,
of brutal battle, the death of kith and kin:
“Often at first lick of light
I lament my sole way—no one left
to open my self up to wholly,
heart and soul. Sure, I know it’s the noble custom for an earl
to bind fast what’s in his breast,
hoard inmost thoughts, think what he will.
The weary mind can’t fight fate
nor will grim grit help. Driven men often harbor
chill dread fast in their chests.
So I, at sea in my angst,
(wretched outcast from my land,
far from kind kindred) brace myself,
having buried my large-hearted lord
years back in black earth. Abject,
I wander winter-weary the icy waves,
longing for lost halls, a helping hand
far or near. Maybe I’ll find
one who’d host me in the toasting hall, who’d comfort me, friendless,
gladly entertain me. Any who attempt it
know what cruel company sorrow can be
for a soul without a single mate;
exile’s path holds him, not finished gold;
a frozen heart, not the world’s wonders;
he recalls retainers, reaping treasure,
how in youth his lavish liege
feted and feasted him. All is history.
He who lack a loved lord’s counsel knows this story:

I am simply in awe of the power and majesty found in these lines. "Stir with his hands the frost-cold sea" may be the most vivid description of rowing a boat that I have ever read. It doesn't take much to imagine the gray skies filled with churning clouds as the dark sea rolls with whitecaps as a lone man fights against both the current and his fate (wyrd). The sorrow in his inner-voice reflects his longing for the home he once had while attempting to arm himself with a steely resolve to face the grim future that lay before him.

The image of this man burying his lord ("since long ago I covered my former lord in darkness of earth") is heartbreaking. One can assume from the text that this man is unable to return to his family simply because he has not done so. I surmise that he has buried them all.

The Anglo-Saxon word "eardstapa" literally translates as "Earth stepper" which has been fashioned as "Wanderer". He is one who walks the Earth. And he is doing so alone - truly alone - in the wilderness.
I do not know where the Wanderer will lead us to next. I have not read ahead because I want the story to unfold before me as I translate the poem.

For now, I am haunted by his desolation.


Blogger Fox In Detox said...

I can recognize why you love this poem... the movement of it is timely and poignant. But for me, it is to put my eye out to read such languid prose. I would rather my heart lie in A Tale of Two Cities, than to labor over such tedious incendiaries. My brain doth melt, you see.

5:34 PM, November 04, 2011  

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