The Wanderer: Grief and Stoicism
The Wanderer has long been a controversial poem. Its disjointed
nature and multiple themes have led to a great deal of speculation regarding
the exact nature of the poem and its composition. According to Carol
Braun Pasternack, “one crux concerns whether the first lines are utterances of
the wander or are framing remarks made in the author’s own voice” (37).
The frequently shifting tones of the speaker, from stoic to mournful to even
more mournful to contemplative and deeply religious, as well as the different
titles of the speaker (eardstapa becoming snottor), have led
scholars to draw wildly differing conclusions about the nature of the
piece. Rumble says that “they have held that it is a self-contained poem,
having its own special kind of organic unity, or that it shows a definite lack
of unity; they have seen it as a dialogue between a wanderer and a wise man, or
simply as the monologue of a wanderer, which is in turn set forth and commented
on by the poet; they have concluded that it is, after all, little more than an
extremely primitive elegy, or that it is essentially a kind of
lament-and-conclusion poetic exemplum” (225). Pasternack has
defined this disjunction of themes and voices as a characteristic of
Anglo-Saxon poetry, commenting that, as is conventional in Old English verse,
the sequence we now call The Wanderer consists of discrete movements,
one added on to another. Their separateness derives from their diverse
rhetorical and syntactic patterns and ways of defining the theme that runs
throughout, that of human isolation (36-7).
Rumble points out that “though the distinction may be a fine one, it is probably best to regard the poem simply as a soliloquy rather than as a dramatic monologue; and we may therefore attribute all of the lines to a single speaker – the anhaga of the first line, who refers to himself variously, in first person and third, as ic, eardstapa, eorl, and snottor on mode” (229). While many scholars do feel this work to be the result of more than one poet, I felt, while studying their works, that most of these critics are of the same mindset: the mindset which says that Homer could not possibly have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey, as the poems are far too different to have been written by the same author. My feeling, shared by many of the critics, is that The Wanderer is a poem in which we see a man gradually learning how to deal with grief and passing through various moods and modes of speech in that learning process.
Another difficult question has been what, exactly, the wanderer has been learning. Bradley, not surprisingly, views The Wanderer solely as a Christian poem, explaining that:
hearers of this poem, led vicariously through the experiencing of this rational
process, are thus tutored – as Bede says Cædmon’s audience was tutored by his
didactic poetry (HE, Bk. IV, ch.24) – to share in its insights and so perhaps gain for themselves that gift of grace for which the exile prays in Rsg, for which Conscience cries at the end of Piers Plowman when he resolves to be a pilgrim, and in faithful reference to which Wan opens and closes (322).
But not every scholar has seen this poem as simply Christian sermonizing, the product of a thoroughly Christianized culture. W.W. Lawrence has argued against the separation of the poem into Christian and Pagan elements, believing that the poem was the work of a recently converted people: “Does it not seem equally probable that men of this character might well have given their work, as it was produced, such Christian coloring as this by way of making a concession to the new religion? Such concessions would naturally seem incongruous” (Lawrence, qtd. in Pasternack, 34-5). Many scholars, however, feel that the poem, instead of having a predominately religious bent, whether Christian or Pagan, is simply about the values held by Anglo-Saxon culture, values that went beyond literal or specific religious experience. Tom Shippey says that “strength of mind” is a persistent concern in AS poetry (qtd. in Klein, 66), and The Wanderer certainly addresses the issue of how to stay resolute in the face of tragedy. Thomas D. Hill points out that the values expressed in the poem do not have to be considered as strictly Christian or as strictly Pagan, pointing out that “both Anglo-Saxon Christian thought and traditional Germanic culture, which informed the ideas of the warrior elite, were profoundly influenced by what we may loosely call “stoicism”: either Greco-Roman stoicism as it was transmitted directly or modified by the Church fathers on the one hand, or on the other hand by a Germanic stoicism whose origins are hard to discern, but which is clearly recognizable as a local expression of stoic ethical ideas” (86). As Kevin Crossley-Holland puts it, “it is now generally held that the poem is authentically Christian, in a literal rather than an allegorical way, but that the values of pagan society still exert a powerful pull in it” (Longman, 150).
I was drawn to this poem because of the speaker’s struggle between his beliefs and his feelings, between his stoicism and faith in God and the intense grief he feels at the loss of everything he holds dear. I’m fascinated, reading the wanderer tell of how a man must “his mind-stronghold fast bind, hold his heart-coffer, think as he will” (13-14), but then abandon his own declaration of stoicism as he is overwhelmed by the intensity of his loss. This tension exists in much of Anglo-Saxon literature, a tension between bewailing the pain and suffering that were all around and the knowledge that people had to keep it all inside, just to get by.
This tension is vital to a true understanding and appreciation of Anglo-Saxon literature. A good translation should draw readers in, helping them to become immersed in the culture and feel what the original audience might have felt. In any piece of literature, cultural context is vital. Hugo’s Les Miserables is less meaningful without an understanding of the life of the French peasantry in the time of the Revolution, and Anglo-Saxon poetry is no different. The writing is informed by the culture of the poet and the characters, and a translation is incomplete without the cultural nuances that help an audience experience the life that the characters in the poem might have done. A truly superb translation, in my opinion, is one which allows the audience, during the performance or reading of the work, to “become” Anglo-Saxon, experiencing the poem from the standpoint of an audience informed by the cultural values and nuances which are central to the poem’s literary and emotional integrity.
The content of a translation should be as faithful thematically as it is literally, with just as much emphasis placed upon the deeper meanings of the words as on their literal translations. Words change in their meanings, and what a word says to us today may not be the same as what it would have said to an Anglo-Saxon audience in the 800’s. The translator, in choosing between the many possible definitions and phrasings for a word or line, should choose the ones that most thoroughly reflect the cultural nuances of the words, even if this means deviating slightly from the literal to the figurative. In essence, a translation should be accurate, but not slavishly so, if literal accuracy would compromise the true intention of the text. As with any poem, the meaning of the work goes beyond the literal, and imagery and cultural implications should not be lost.
The techniques used should bring the poem as close to the original work in sound as possible, preserving alliteration, syntax, and meter. Obviously, it's impossible to maintain perfectly the original poetry, but the translation should sound, in its modern English equivalent, as consistent with the music of the original work as possible. An essential part of any poem is the way it feels when read or listened to, and poetic style is an important part of Anglo-Saxon culture. To maintain this style, the poet should again make word and phrasing choices which reflect the intent of the original work, and not merely what a dictionary says the words should mean. After reading a poem, a student should be able to say what an Anglo-Saxon poem in general would or would not sound like, as the unique cultural flavor of the text is allowed to come through. If the Anglo-Saxon poem sounds no different to the students than a modern piece of poetry or short fiction, then I feel that the translator has failed to properly convey the original artistry of the culture.
In the course of my research, I looked at the translations of both S.A.J. Bradley and Kevin Crossley-Holland. I didn’t like Bradley’s very much. I found his translation to be stilted and dull: “Often, when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man…” (39) is too wordy for my tastes, and lacks the simple directness which I feel Anglo-Saxon poetry ought to have. Bradley’s frequent use of Latinate words – “preoccupy” rather than “hold,” “extinction” rather than “death,” “fall,” or “ruin,” “ephemeral” rather than Crossley-Holland’s (and everyone else’s) “fleeting,” and “immutable” rather than “security” distract the reader, removing the poem from its Anglo-Saxon roots, and taking away immediacy and poetry. His translation of “eald enta geweorc” (87) as “ancient gigantic structures” is boring and completely uninspiring; it makes me think of steel skyscrapers, or something out of a sci-fi film. Crossley-Holland, on the other hand, translates that as “the ancient works of the giants,” which sounds much more mysterious and as if something really dreadful must have befallen the land to make even the works of giants empty and ruinous. Bradley’s translation, “Where has gone the steed? Where has gone the man? Where has gone the giver of treasure?” while literally accurate, is halting and uninteresting, and is one of the few times where Bradley left the text exactly as it is (and why start here, of all places?). And when Bradley does add elements to the text, they rarely make sense. In lines 26-27, Bradley translates, “whether far or near, I might find the one who would acknowledge my love in the mead-hall.” In addition to sounding like he’s on the verge of writing a campy musical, Bradley makes this line up for inexplicable reasons. In their A Guide to Old English, Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson explain that “Only if a lord has prior knowledge of the man’s tribal affiliations will he be willing to accept the wanderer into his retinue” (271) . Kevin Crossley-Holland translates this line as “a man who would welcome me into his mead-hall” (Longman, 151) -- a more logical translation as well as a less cheesy one -- whereas I have gone with the more straightforward “he that in mead-hall/of me knows,” for the wanderer would need to find a place where they knew of him and of his connections.
I liked Crossley-Holland’s translation a great deal. He manages to
explain cultural allusions while preserving the feel of the text, and subtly adds the explanation his readers need. For example, in lines 27-28, he gives an explanation of the importance of finding a lord in his friendless state without making this explanation laborious, speaking of looking for “a man who would welcome me into his mead-hall/give me good cheer (for I boasted no friends)” (Longman, 151). Including the explanation that the wanderer boasts no friends allows the reader to make the connection between his outcast status and the need to find a new lord. However, despite the excellent balance in this translation between accessibility and flow, I found it a bit too modern overall. Since one of the purposes of a translation is to allow the reader to experience Anglo-Saxon culture, and since AS poetic techniques are part of that culture, I consider it important to preserve as much of the original style of the work as possible. Crossley-Holland, while he translates the work well with regards both to literal meaning and cultural implication, preserves less of the Anglo-Saxon-ness of the work, particularly in regards to syntax. For example, he translates lines 37-38 as, “A man who lacks advice for a long while/from his loved lord understands this” (Longman, 151). While this is a faithful translation, and quite easy to read and understand, I feel that, with a little more attention to archaic syntax, these lines could be made just as comprehensible, but older and more Anglo-Saxon-sounding, which is why I have translated those lines as, “Therefore understands he who must his beloved lord’s/dear counsel long do without.” I feel that this different word order sounds older, and “long do without” is, I feel, an improvement on “lacks...for a long while.” In addition, Crossley-Holland’s vocabulary choices, while overall quite acceptable, are occasionally jarring and more Latinate than I feel is suitable for a translation, so long as other words are available. In line 5, he writes that “Fate is inflexible” (Longman, 151). This is an accurate translation of the phrase ful aræd, but it lacks a certain punch, failing to convey the truly irresistible nature of Wyrd. One’s mother is inflexible about whether or not one eats one’s vegetables; Fate, on the other hand, has a definite goal in mind and will bring it about. Inflexible is a rather weak term, as well as being very un-Anglo-Saxon. For this line, I chose to say rather that “Fate is full resolute,” which I think says much more effectively that Fate is a powerful force which cannot be thwarted, as well as sounding less cold and logical; Fate, rather than being merely some impersonal tendency of the universe, is much more imposing if it has a will and a purpose. Crossley-Holland’s translation is very good in most ways, but I feel it could be improved upon by closer attention to the feel of the poetry itself, enforcing the cultural references and faithful translational choices he makes. His translation, while suitable for a beginning class, could be made just as suitable, and somewhat more poetic, by somewhat more Germanic word choice and an older grammar than the one he sometimes uses.
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