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Anglo-Saxon Elegies

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Seth Lerer

Anglo-Saxon Elegies 

Since the early nineteenth century, the term “Anglo-Saxon Elegies” (or “Old English Elegies”) has referred to a group of short poems, most of which are preserved in the eleventh-century Exeter Book of Old English poetry and share a tone, a voice, and a subject matter long considered “elegiac.” Critics usually include in this group “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “Deor,” “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “The Wife's Lament,” “The Husband's Message,” and “The Ruin.” Other poems, such as “The Riming Poem” and “Resignation,” as well as portions of The Dream of the Rood and even parts of Beowulf, have been classed with them by some. These poems, or parts of poems, all share a first-person narrator, often in exile, grieving for a loss, or alienated from society. “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Wife's Lament” open with the speaker offering a story of the self. In “The Ruin,” the narrator reflects on the remains of a great city. In “Deor,” the narrator retells portions of old Germanic myths reflecting on heroic loss. In “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Husband's Message,” the speaker cryptically laments separation from a loved one. In all of these poems, first-person history and meditation dovetail with moral sententiousness. Reflection on individual experience leads to generalizations on the transitory nature of human life and the illusions of worldly wealth and power. And, in several of these poems (notably “Deor,” “Wulf and Eadwacer,” and “The Riming Poem”), special prosodic devices—rhyme, repetition, and distinctive metrical patterning—create a haunting effect that drives home the speaker's point of view.

None of these poems is an elegy in the historical sense: they do not share a particular meter, as the Greek and Latin elegies do; they do not address the named dead or deploy idioms from classical pastoral and eclogue, as do the later English elegies; and they do not, as a group, correspond to a self-consciously defined poetic genre for Old English poetry. Their status as “elegies” lies, rather, in the way in which they evoked, for the post-Romantic critic, a tone of personal lament or separation. Even though their appellation remains a critical anachronism, the Old English Elegies do give voice to a distinctive tone in pre–Norman Conquest English vernacular literature, and they also articulate important themes, techniques, and idioms that link the English poetry of the period with the traditions of older Germanic literature in general.

By far the best known of these poems are “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” Long the staple of Old English scholarship and teaching, they express a distinctive Anglo-Saxon literary vision of the lone figure in a threatening landscape. Fear and friendlessness seek their consolation in a faith in a redeeming God. Both poems, too, offer a characteristic Old English vocabulary. Rich in metaphor and allusion, the diction of these poems presents puzzles that almost defy solution by the modern reader.

“The Wanderer” appears to alternate third-person description with first-person reflection. It begins with the classic Old English formulae of exile:

  • 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!

(lines 1–5)

  • Often the solitary man receives mercy for himself
  • through the grace of God, even though, troubled in mind,
  • for a long time he has, across the seaway,
  • had to set the rime-cold sea in motion with his hands,
  • to travel over the path of exile. Fate is wholly determined!

The exile is alone. His mind is full of care. He is on a journey of seemingly endless and pointless exertion. Old English poetry is rife with moments such as this one, in which the individual's inner disturbance mirrors the terrors of the landscape or the fickleness of weather. Across the “rime-cold sea,” a piercingly effective image, he rows: “hreran mid hondum” (“he stirs things up with his hands”). But it is more than water that he moves, for who knows just what he had set in motion in order to deserve this exile; and who knows how his mind, unsettled, sees the hammerlock of fate? He speaks, not out of willingness but almost out of need:

  • Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
  • mine ceare cwiþan.

(lines 8–9)

  • Often, I have had to speak of my cares, at
  • each and every dawn.

“Uht” is that moment in the early morning when the sun is barely up, when the old heroes, sleeping off their drink, begin to stir, when the night's chill finally hits them. There is no modern English equivalent to this evocative poetic word (even though, when the Anglo-Saxon Catholics sought a vernacular expression for the canonical hours, they came up with “uht-sang” for “matins”). It is the time when, in Beowulf, Hrothgar's men arise to see the horror done by Grendel in the night:

  • Da wæs on uhtan mid ærdæge
  • Grendles guðcræft gumum undyrne

(Beowulf, lines 126–127)

  • Then it was in the uht, in that early part of the day,
  • that Grendel's war-craft was revealed to the men.

On such a frosty morning, the Wanderer himself must tell his story. “Ic to soþe wat” (“I know for a fact”), he says, and what he knows embraces all the sorrows of this earth.

“The Wanderer” is, structurally speaking, a poem of repetitions. The opening iteration, “oft … oft,” associates the poet's and the person's voice, while throughout patterns of echo and interlacement make its personal observations into verities. There are echoes of half-lines: “sorg bið geniwad” (50b); “cearo bið geniwad” (55b). There are patterns of compounding: “mod geondhweorfeð” (51b); “georne geondsceawað” (52b). There are extended patterns of anaphora, where an initial exclamation peals like a bell in a deserted church:

  • Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
  • Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
  • Eala beorht bune! Eala brynwiga!
  • Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
  • genap under nihthelm. Swa heo no wære!

(lines 92–96)

  • What has happened to the horse? What has happened to the man? What has happened to the treasure-giver?
  • What has happened to the banquet halls? Where are the joys of the hall?
  • O, for the bright goblet! O, for the chain-mailed warrior!
  • O, for the glory of men! How the time has passed by,
  • It grows dark under the helm of night, as if that time had never been.

Such passages have long been seen as the vernacular equivalent of the ubi sunt (“where are they?”) motif of Latin poetry: the wistful missing of familiar things. In this poem, however, and in “The Seafarer” and the other Old English elegies, the pain of separation seems more personal than anything in classical poetry.

That pain opens “The Seafarer” in the first person:

  • Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan
  • siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
  • earfoðhwile oft þrowada,
  • bitre breosceare gebiden hæbbe,
  • gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
  • atol yþa gewealc.

(lines 1–6a)

  • I can tell a true tale about my self.
  • speak of my journeys, about how I, in days of affliction,
  • often experienced a time of hardship,
  • how I lived through bitter breast-care,
  • knew many spaces of sorrow on shipboard,
  • the terrible tossing of waves.

As in “The Wanderer,” we see the avowal of truth, the difficulties of isolation, and the figurative association of mental distress with meteorological and marine disturbance. Words in these poems such as “mod” (“state of mind”), “breost” (“breast”), “ceare” (“care”), or “bitre” (“bitter”) concatenate into a lexicon of inner sorrow. The way is never easy for the elegist: it is a “hrimcealde sæ” for the Wanderer, an “iscaldne wæg” (“ice-cold road”) for the Seafarer. In “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “hit wæs renig weder” (“it was rainy weather”). In “The Ruin,” the speaker beholds the shards of a once beautiful city (thought by some modern scholars to be the ruins of Roman Bath), covered in rime:

  • Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
  • hringeat berofen, hrim on lime.

(lines 3–4)

  • Roofs are collapsed, towers ruined,
  • the ringed gate broken, rime on the lime-mortar.

The speakers of these elegies, however, are not only wandering heroes or bereft liegemen. Some of them are women, and at least two of these poems have what is clearly identifiable as a distinctive female narrative voice in Old English poetry. The first-person voice of “Wulf and Eadwacer” grammatically identifies itself as female: “ic reotugu sæt” (“I, the weeping one, sat”; Old English “reotugu” is a feminine noun). In “The Wife's Lament,” the speaker develops a full-fledged female persona, a woman alone in the landscape, forlorn of her lover. She may, in fact, be dead, as she speaks of herself living “under actreo in þam eorðscræfe” (“under an oak tree, in this cave of earth”). Now the wandering of the exile is perhaps the wandering of the soul. “Forþon ic æfre ne mæg / þære modceare minre gerestan” (“For I can never rest from my misery of mind”).

Some modern scholars have found in these voices the unmediated expression of feeling, as if we were listening in on Anglo-Saxons in their agony. Others have seen in them the tropes of a familiar literary genre going back to the Bible or Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, a belief in the mutability of worldly things and in the experience of life itself as something of an exile of the soul, trapped in the body, longing for heaven. Still others have found in these poems the Old English version of a common Old Germanic set of themes and idioms: stories of bereft heroines familiar from the Old Norse poems on Gudrun; tales of dead kings and craftsmen, resonant with the Eddic verses on Ermanoric, Attila, or the smith-god; and laments of patronless poets that recall the courtly verses heard in halls of Scandinavian kings. Whatever their sources, analogues, or circumstances of historical transmission, the Anglo-Saxon Elegies testify to a brilliant poetic craftsmanship and a profound engagement with the traditions of Old Germanic myth, Christian moral philosophy, and early English social life.

See also Beowulf; Exeter Book; and Old English.

Further Reading

Green, Martin, ed. The Old English Elegies: New Essays in Criticism and Research. Rutherford, NJ, 1983. A collection of scholarly essays on the individual poems.Find this resource:

    Greenfield, Stanley. “The Old English Elegies.” In Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, edited by E. G. Stanley, 142–175. London, 1966. The classic critical formulation of the “Old English Elegy” and of the key features of the poems.Find this resource:

      Klinck, Anne L. The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. Montreal, 1992. The fullest and most recent book-length study of the poems, complete with interpretive essays, bibliographical references, and discussions of the texts and their sources.Find this resource:

        Krapp, George Philip, and E. V. K. Dobbie. The Exeter Book: The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 3. New York, 1936. The standard edition of the poems in the Exeter Book manuscript.Find this resource:

          Seth Lerer