Tuesday Poem – “Wulf and Eadwacer”

Leodum is minum       swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan,       gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.

Wulf is on iege,       ic on oþerre.
Fæst is þæt eglond,       fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe       weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.

Wulfes ic mines widlastum       wenum dogode;
þonne hit wæs renig weder       ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa       bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon,       wæs me hwæþre eac lað.

Wulf, min Wulf,       wena me þine
seoce gedydon,       þine seldcymas,
murnende mod,       nales meteliste.

Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?       Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð      þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

He is like a gift       to my people
they will tear him apart       if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on an island       I am on another.
Fast is that island       wrapped by fens.
There are murderous men       on that island.
They will tear him apart       if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

I have long endured       Wulf’s absence.
When storm weather raged,       and I sat, weeping,
then that warrior       laid his arms about me.
It was a joy to me,       to me it was hateful.

Wulf, my Wulf,      my wanting of you
has sickened me,      so seldom coming
my sorrowing mind,      no pleasure in food.

Do you hear, Eadwacer?      A wolf will carry
our wretched whelp      to the forest.
So easily sundered,      was never united:
our song together.

Do not adjust your set. I thought this week I’d share a poem that I came across quite a few years ago, when I was doing some research on early English poetry. And this really is early: Saxon, in fact. We don’t know who it was that composed it, but  it is assumed to be a woman. We can’t even be certain what the story is – is Wulf her lover? Her husband? Her child? There seems to be a triangle of some sort here, but who is in a position of power over whom is something we’ll probably never know. There have been several attempts at translation. This is a composite; Wikipedia’s page on ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ will lead you to others, and has an interesting discussion of the theories around the poem.

I love the music of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, and the way that so many of the words seem almost – but not quite – English. “Fenne biworpen” isn’t much of a stretch to “wrapped by fens”, for example. So the whole poem feels like some sort of fierce haunting, an echo of another time or place that brushes against the here and now. Glorious stuff. Very Wuthering Heights, in many ways.  Powerful, passionate, and magical.

The form is something that will be familiar to my students: Anglo Saxon Measure. It is an accentual line meter, meaning we only worry about the syllables that carry strong stress, and the rules apply line by line (rather than stanza by stanza). Four strong stresses per line; two per halfline, separated by a caesura. And either the middle two, the first three, or all four stresses must alliterate.

It’s a form I love – modern ears don’t register alliteration as strongly as other types of rhyme, so it’s a good way of creating a web of sound that drives the poem on and makes it musically memorable. Wilfred Owen’s Arms and the Boy, and Richard Wilbur’s Junk are two examples of modern poems using Anglo Saxon. And those of you with a copy of The Summer King will find a poem that grew out of Anglo Saxon on page 17. (Wasn’t that a slick bit of marketing?) And for a stunning blend of modern and old, I can wholeheartedly recommend Simon Armitage’s recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – fabulous stuff!

As a bit of trivia to leave you with: I came across a theory that the driving rhythm of Anglo Saxon and the more Scandinavian / Germanic poetries is down to needing a beat to accompany the men rowing longboats. And the softer, ambling measure of Romance-langauge poetry from songs to accompany a team of oxen, ploughing …

For more Tuesday Poems, click here!!

7 Replies to “Tuesday Poem – “Wulf and Eadwacer””

  1. That you very much for this – as you say, it’s a fierce haunting from another time, and its powerful otherness sends shivers down your spine. Well, down mine anyway. I just posted a poem by Raleigh – he’d have liked this one, I think.

  2. Thankyou for sharing this lovely Saxon poem. It could be a modern day take on love, which is very refreshing.
    regards, Elizabeth.

    1. Oo Harvey, I’d love to see your translation sometime.
      I enjoy the YouTube reading, except he somehow manages to strip it of virtually all the rhythm that underlies the poem. Which is quite an achievement.

  3. Love it, and the way it immediately conjures up things that you haven’t mentioned and probably aren’t even in it, about war and lying down with the enemy/not of the land and standing together against a foe/wulf that will steal the next generation.
    very cool. At times like this I so wish I’d lived in Britain where I’m sure I could have thrown Old English or middle English into my degree somewhere.

    1. Well, AJ, we did Old & Middle English at Auckland Uni in my day and I have to confess that I was absolute rubbish at them both. Which is one reason why I love being given access to this poem in a way that makes it possible to enter it, or at least to peer in from the edges in a partially illuminated fashion.

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