An Anglo-Saxon poem – The Wanderer

[note: I’ve mostly used the Michael Alexander translation .. much of which I wound up typing out by hand for some reason; however I’ve also added in square brackets a few lines from other translations where this helps to make things clearer or I prefer the phrasing .. as well as my own annotations which have been initialed to further explicate some of the concepts which will be unfamiliar to most modern readers, and which hide behind seemingly-similar words to more mundane phrasing. Further note: I compiled this in 2018, so some understandings may have developed further in the interim.]

‘Who liveth alone longeth for mercy, Maker’s mercy.
Though he must traverse tracts of sea, sick at heart,
– Trouble with oars ice-cold waters, The ways of exile – Wyrd is set fast.’

Thus spoke such a ‘grasshopper’ [eardstapa – ‘earth-stepper’, “wanderer” as it is often rendered] , old griefs in his mind,
cold slaughters, the death of dear kinsmen:

‘Alone am I driven each day before daybreak to give my cares utterance. None are there now among the living to whom I dare declare me thoroughly, tell my heart’s thought. Too truly I know it is in a man no mean virtue that he keep close his heart’s chest, hold his thought-hoard, think as he may.

No weary mind may stand against Wyrd
nor may a wrecked will work new hope;
wherefore, most often, those eager for fame bind the dark mood fast in their breasts.

So must I also curb my mind, cut off from country, from kind far distant, by cares overworn, bind it in fetters;
this since, long ago, the ground’s shroud enwrapped my gold-friend [‘Lord’].
Wretched I went thence, winter-wearied, over the waves’ bound; dreary I sought hall of a gold-giver, where far or near I might find him who in meadhall might take heed of me [who knew my people], furnish comfort to a man friendless, win me with cheer.

He knows who makes trial how harsh and bitter is care for companion to him who hath few friends to shield him. Track [‘wraeclast – the Path of the Exile] ever taketh him, never the torqued gold, not earthly glory, but cold heart’s cave. He minds [remembers] him of hall-men, of treasure-giving, how in his youth his gold-friend gave him to feast. Fallen all this joy.

He knows this who is forced to forgo his lord’s, his friend’s counsels, to lack them for long :
oft sorrow and sleep, banded together, come to bind the lone outcast; he thinks in his heart then that he his lord claspeth and kisseth, and on knee layeth hand and head, as he had at otherwhiles in days now gone, when he enjoyed the gift-stool [the Throne].

Awakeneth after this friendless man, seeth before him fallow waves, seabirds bathing, broading out feathers, snow and hail swirl, hoar-frosta falling. Then all the heavier his heart’s wounds, store for his loved lord. Sorrow freshens.

Remembered kiinsmen press through his mind; he singeth out gladly [greets them with joy], scanneth eagerly men from the same hearth. They swim away. Sailor’s ghosts bring not many known songs there. Care grows fresh in him who shall send forth too often over locked waves his weary spirit.

Therefore I may not think, throughout this world, why cloud cometh not on my mind [I cannot think why my thoughts do not darken] when I think over all the life of earls, how at a stroke they have given up hall [left the floor of the hall], mood-proud thanes. So this middle earth each of all days ageth and falleth.’
[So this Middle Earth a bit each day droops and decays ]

Wherefore [therefore] no man grows wise without [before] he have his share of winters. A wise man holds out; he is not too hot-hearted, nor too hasty in speech, nor too weak a warrior, not wanting in fore-thought, nor too greedy of goods, nor too glad, nor too mild, nor ever too eager to boast, ere he knows all.

A man should forbear boastmaking until his fierce mind fully knows which way his spleen shall expand itself.
[A man must wait when he speaks Oaths, until the proud-hearted one sees clearly wither the intent of his heart will turn.]

A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be when all this world’s wealth standeth waste, even as know, in many places, over the earth, walls stand, wiind-beaten, hung with hoar-frostt; ruined habitations. [storm-swept the buildings]

The wine-halls crumble; their wielders [lords] lie bereft of bliss, the band [of warriors] all fallen proud by the wall. War took off some, carried them on their course hence; one a bird bore over the high sea; one the hoar wolf dealt to death; one his drear-cheeked earl stretched in an earthen trench.

The maker of men hath so marred this dwelling that human laughter is not heard about it and idle stand these old giant-works.

A man who on these walls wisely looked
who sounded deeply this dark life would think back to the blood spilt here, weigh it in his wit. His word would be this:

‘Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer? Where is the house of feast? Where is the hall’s uproar? [Where is the Horse? Where is the Rider? Where the Lord, the giver of treasure? Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?] [C.A.R: probably important to note that the word ‘symbla’ here may be cognate with Norse “Sumbl” – and in any case, signifies something far deeper and more profound than mere drinking together. Indeed, it is a rite of comradeship – something the Wanderer is clearly feeling the lamentable lack of; meanwhile, ‘gyfa’, here should not be misunderstood as simply handing out cash or something – but instead, as something closer to “patronage” . It has also been suggested that in addition to the ‘Bhaga’ [slipping into Sanskrit there 😛 #NAS], the ‘treasure’ in question is recognition, honour, and praise – all things considered, it is the binding together of a warrior band under a lord via reciprocal relationship that is being talked about rather than ‘mere’ gold ]

Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter! [mailed warrior] Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed, dark under night’s helm, as though it never had been! [C.A.R.: I’m pretty sure ‘Nithhelm’, translated as “Night’s Helm” is a deliberate pun on Nithheim & Niflheim, given what comes next]

There stands in the stead of stauch thanes a towering wall wrought with worm-shapes the [C.A.R.: this exactly mirrors description of Nastrond – the narrator may be seeing a vision of Hell in the absence of fallen comrades – or, given who is fated to wind up there … has espyed traitors who brought them low]; the earls are off-taken by the ash-spear’s point, – that thirsty weapon. Their Wyrd is glorious.

Storms break on the stone hillside, the ground bound by driving sleet, winter’s wrath. Then wanness cometh, night’s shade spreadeth, sendeth from north the rough hail to harry mankind.

In the earth-realm all is crossed ; Wyrd’s will changeth the world.

Wealth is lent us; friends are lent us, man is lent, kin is lent; all this earth’s frame shall stand empty.’ [all the foundation of this world turns to waste] [C.A.R.: apart from noting the obvious resemblance to a well-known axiom from the Havamal of similar import (albeit very different ending – there it is Fame, Glory that is eternal); it is interesting to note that the word “maeg” here rendered as “kin”, also winds up as “woman” or “power/might” in some Germanic dialects; another translation has “man” instead refer to “one’s self” – i.e. “oneself is fleeting”]

So spoke the sage in his heart [‘mind’]; he sat apart in thought.
Good is he who keeps faith : nor should care [‘grief’] too fast be out of a man’s breast before he first know the cure [‘remedy’]: a warrior fights on bravely. Well is it for him who seeks forgiveness, the Heavenly Father’s solance, in whom all our fastness stands. [where, for us, all permanence rests]

2 thoughts on “An Anglo-Saxon poem – The Wanderer

  1. Pingback: An Anglo-Saxon poem – The Wanderer – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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