Greetings, dear audience! As a comparativist of medieval comp lit and researcher of storytelling methods, I am excited to take you on a journey through one of the most poignant and moving pieces of English literature – The Wanderer.
The Wanderer is an elegy, a poetic lament for the loss of a loved one or for a bygone era. It is a powerful and emotive reflection on the transience of human life and the inevitability of change. The poem was likely composed in the early medieval period, sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries, and has survived in the Exeter Book, a manuscript collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The poem is told from the perspective of a wandering warrior who has lost everything – his lord, his comrades, his home. The Wanderer reflects on the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. The tone is melancholic and mournful, yet there is also a sense of hope and redemption that permeates the poem.
One of the most striking conventions of The Wanderer is the use of the first-person point of view. The poem is deeply personal, and we feel as though we are experiencing the emotions and thoughts of the speaker firsthand. This is a common technique in elegies, as it allows the poet to convey the raw emotions of grief and loss.
Another convention of the elegy is the use of imagery and symbolism. The Wanderer is filled with vivid descriptions of the natural world, which serve as metaphors for the speaker’s internal turmoil. For example, the sea is described as a “whale-road” and the earth as a “mead-hall.” These descriptions not only paint a vivid picture for the reader but also add depth and complexity to the poem.
Reading The Wanderer can be a powerful experience, as it encourages us to reflect on our own mortality and the impermanence of all things. The poem reminds us that everything we hold dear – our homes, our friends, our families – will one day be gone. But it also encourages us to find hope and meaning in the face of this inevitability.
This is a beautiful and poignant elegy that has stood the test of time. Its conventions and themes are still relevant today, and its message of hope in the face of loss is a valuable lesson for all of us. So pick up a copy of this classic piece of English literature and let yourself be moved by its emotive storytelling.
Some Passages of Note
Certainly! As a literary critical theorist, it is important to delve deeper into the key passages of The Wanderer and analyze their significance. Here are some of the most striking passages from the poem, along with my analysis and supporting citations:
“Thus spoke the earth-stepper, mindful of hardships, of fierce slaughters, and the downfall of kinsmen, the ruin of warriors and the wayfaring of exiles.”
This opening passage sets the tone for the entire poem, as the speaker reflects on the hardships and losses that he has experienced. The use of alliteration, such as “earth-stepper” and “wayfaring of exiles,” adds a musical quality to the language and emphasizes the sense of loss and displacement.
“The days are gone when the sword-hilt was the mark of a man, his armor and mail-shirt; the way of the world has changed.”
This passage speaks to the fleeting nature of human achievements and the inevitability of change. The warrior’s sword and armor, once symbols of his power and masculinity, are now worthless in the face of death and loss. This is a common theme in elegies, as they often reflect on the transience of human life.
“Death has taken away all my warriors, the companions of my youth; no kinsman remains to bear the sword, to offer me the cup.”
Here, the speaker reflects on the loss of his companions and the loneliness he feels as a result. The repetition of “no” emphasizes the finality of his loss and the emptiness he feels without his fellow warriors. This passage also speaks to the importance of kinship and companionship in Anglo-Saxon society, where warriors formed tight bonds with their comrades.
“Where is the horse now? Where the hero? Where is the treasure-giver? Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas, bright cup! Alas, knight’s mirth! How the time has passed, dark under the cover of night, as if it never were!”
This passage is particularly striking for its use of rhetorical questions and exclamations. The speaker laments the loss of everything that once brought him joy and happiness – his horse, his fellow warriors, and the feasts they shared. The repetition of “Where” emphasizes the sense of loss and the speaker’s desperate search for meaning in a world that has taken everything from him.
In conclusion, The Wanderer is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon literature that speaks to the universal human experience of loss and displacement. Its vivid language and emotive storytelling have captivated readers for centuries and continue to inspire new generations of scholars and poets. If you’re interested in learning more about The Wanderer and its place in literary history, I recommend the following sources:
- “The Wanderer and Other Old English Poems” edited by Craig Williamson (2007)
- “The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature” edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (1991)
- “The Anglo-Saxon World” by Kevin Crossley-Holland (2014
From The Old English Poetry a project
“How often the lone-dweller anticipates
some sign, this Measurer’s mercy
— must always must—
mind-caring, along the ocean’s windings,
stirring rime-chill seas, hands as oars
many long whiles, treading the tracks of exile—
the way of the world an open book always.” (1–5)
So spoke the earth-stepper, a memorial of miseries
slaughter of the wrathful, crumbling of kinsmen:
“Often, every daybreak, alone I must
bewail my cares. There’s now no one living
to whom I dare mumble my mind’s understanding.
I know as truth that it’s seen suitable
for anyone to bind fast their spirit’s closet,
hold onto the hoards, think whatever — (8–14)
“Can a weary mind weather the shitstorm?
I think not.
Can a roiling heart set itself free?
I don’t think so.
So often those hustling for the win must
clamp down grim mindings in their coffer,
just as I ought fetter my inborn conceit,
often wounded, wanting where I know,
kindred pulled away, how many winters now?
I shrouded my giver in dark earth
and wended away worrisome,
weather-watching the wrapful waves,
hall-wretched, seeking a center,
far or near, where they might be found,
in some mead-hall, who knows of my kind,
willing to adopt a friendless me,
though they be joyful enough. (15–29a)
“The well-travelled know how slicing
sorrow can be by one’s side,
short a struggle-friend, however dear.
The ways of wandering wind him round
not even a wire of wound gold—
a frigid fastness, hardly any fruits of the fold.
This one lists the hall-lads swilling rings,
giver-drenched in youngsome days,
in both furnishing and feasting.
Joys all flown, vanished all away! (29b-36)
“Therefore one knows who long forgoes
the friendly words of their first,
when sleep and sorrow stand together
clutching at the crestfallen alone.
Somehow seems that somewhere inside
this one enwraps his lord and kisses his lord,
and laps both hands and head
on his knee, when, once upon a year
blurry in time now, one thrived by the throne —
too soon rousing, a friendless singular
seeing all around a fallowness of waves,
sea-birds bathing, fanning their feathers,
ice and snow hurtling, heaved up with hail. (37-48)
“So heavy and heavier the hurt in heart
harrowing for the lost. Sorrow made new
whenever recalling pervades the mind,
greeting kindred joyfully, drinking in the look of them
fellowable and fathoming—
they always swim away.
Gulls ghost-call — I don’t know their tongue too well,
much of their comfort weird. Worrying made new
to that one who must send more and more, every day,
a bleary soul back across the binding of waves. (49-57)
“Therefore I cannot wonder across this world
why my mind does not muster in the murk
when I ponder pervading all the lives of humans,
how suddenly they abandon their halls,
proud princes and young. Right here in the middle
it fumbles and falls every day — (58-63)
“No one can be wise before earning their lot of winters
in this world. The wise one, they stay patient:
not too heart-heated, not so hasty to harp,
not too weak-armed, nor too wan-headed,
nor too fearful nor too fey nor too fee-felching,
and never tripping the tongue too much, before it trips them. (64-9)
“That one bides their moment to make brag,
until the inner fire seizes its moment clearly,
to where their secret self veers them.
Who’s wise must fore-ken how ghostly it has been
when the world and its things stand wasted —
like you find, here and there, in this middle space now —
there walls totter, wailed around by winds,
gnashed by frost, the buildings snow-lapt.
The winehalls molder, their wielder lies
washed clean of joys, his peerage all perished,
proud by the wall. War ravaged a bunch
ferried along the forth-way, others a raptor ravished
over lofty seas, this one the hoary wolf
broke in its banes, the last a brother
graveled in the ground, tears as war-mask. (70-84)
“That’s the way it goes—
the Shaper mills middle-earth to waste
until they stand empty, the giants’ work and ancient,
drained of the dreams and joys of its dwellers.” (85-7)
Then one wisely regards this wall-stead,
deliberates a darkened existence,
aged in spirit, often remembering from afar
many war-slaughterings, and speaks these words: (88-91)
“Where has the horse gone?
Where are my kindred?
Where is the giver of treasure?
Where are the benches to bear us?
Joys of the hall to bring us together?
No more, the bright goblet!
All gone, the mailed warrior!
Lost for good, the pride of princes!
“How the space of years has spread —
growing gloomy beneath the night-helm,
as if it never was! (92-6)
“Tracks of the beloved multitude, all that remains
walls wondrous tall, serpents seething—
thanes stolen, pillaged by ashen foes
gear glutting for slaughter — we know this world’s way,
and the storms still batter these stony cliffs.
The tumbling snows stumble up the earth,
the clash of winter, when darkness descends.
Night-shadows benighten, sent down from the north,
raw showers of ice, who doesn’t hate humanity? (97-105)
All shot through in misery in earthly realms,
fortune’s turn turns the world under sky.
Here the cash was a loan.
Your friends were a loan.
Anyone at all, a loan.
Your family only ever a loan—
And this whole foundation of the earth wastes away!” (106-10)
So says the wise one, you don’t hear him at all,
sitting apart reading their own runes. (111)
It’s better to clutch at your counsel,
you ought never manifest your miseries
not too quickly where they well,
unless the balm is clear beforehand,
keep whittling at your courage. (112-14a)
It will be well for those who seek the favor,
the comfort from our father in heaven,
where a battlement bulwarks us all. (114b-5)
Thinking Outside the Canon: Putting out readings into practice.
The act of reading across cultures and times is of immense importance and significance for anyone seeking to broaden their intellectual horizons and deepen their understanding of the human experience. By engaging with literary works from different cultures and historical periods, readers can gain insights into the diverse ways in which people have made sense of the world around them, and develop a more nuanced understanding of the complex social and cultural factors that shape our lives.
One particularly fruitful area of comparative reading is the study of medieval literature, both in Japan and in England. Despite the vast distances and cultural differences that separate these two literary traditions, there are striking similarities and overlaps between the two, which offer rich opportunities for cross-cultural comparison.
In Japanese medieval literature (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods), for example, we find a strong emphasis on themes such as honor, loyalty, and the struggle for power and authority. These themes are explored in works such as the Tale of the Heike, a sweeping epic of war and political intrigue that chronicles the rise and fall of the Taira clan during the late twelfth century. Similarly, in English medieval literature, we find a preoccupation with issues of power and authority, as seen in works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which explore the challenges faced by heroic figures in a world where the balance of power is constantly shifting.
Reading these works side by side allows us to see both the similarities and differences in the ways that these cultures grappled with issues of power, loyalty, and honor. We can see how cultural differences shaped the portrayal of these themes in each tradition, as well as how they were influenced by broader historical factors such as war, social upheaval, and changing religious beliefs.
Moreover, the act of reading across cultures and times allows us to appreciate the unique qualities of each literary tradition, and to gain a deeper understanding of the rich artistic and intellectual heritage of each culture. By reading Japanese medieval literature alongside English medieval literature, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the distinct aesthetic qualities and cultural values that shaped each tradition, as well as the ways in which these traditions have influenced each other over time.
How does the English medieval elegy, The Wanderer, compare to medieval Japanese literature elegies
The English medieval elegy “The Wanderer” and medieval Japanese literature elegies share some similarities in terms of their themes and style, despite being from different cultures and times.
Both “The Wanderer” and medieval Japanese elegies are characterized by a sense of melancholy and a preoccupation with the transience of human life. “The Wanderer” laments the passing of a bygone age of glory and the inevitability of death and loss, while medieval Japanese elegies often express a sense of grief and sorrow over the passing of loved ones and the impermanence of all things.
Furthermore, both “The Wanderer” and Japanese elegies make use of literary devices such as metaphor, alliteration, and repetition to create a somber, meditative mood. In “The Wanderer,” for example, the use of alliteration and repetition serves to underscore the sense of loss and disorientation felt by the speaker. Similarly, in Japanese elegies, the use of metaphor and imagery helps to evoke a sense of loss and longing.
However, there are also notable differences between “The Wanderer” and medieval Japanese elegies. One major difference is the religious and cultural context in which these works were produced. “The Wanderer” reflects the Christian worldview of medieval England, with its emphasis on sin, redemption, and the afterlife, while Japanese elegies often reflect Buddhist and Shinto beliefs about the cyclical nature of existence and the impermanence of all things.
Moreover, while “The Wanderer” is a solitary lamentation, medieval Japanese elegies often have a more communal or social dimension, reflecting the importance of communal mourning and remembrance in Japanese culture. For example, the classical Japanese poetry anthology Hyakunin Isshu contains numerous elegies that express communal grief over the loss of prominent figures, such as emperors and courtiers.
In conclusion, while there are similarities between “The Wanderer” and medieval Japanese elegies in terms of their themes and style, there are also notable differences in their religious and cultural contexts and their social dimensions. Nevertheless, both works offer rich insights into the universal human experience of loss, grief, and the transience of life.
Exile as Metaphor: A Comparative Perspective on Medieval England and the misaligned “Medieval” Japan (the Heian, Kamakura, Muromachi periods)
Exile is a theme that is present in both Medieval English literature and Japanese Medieval literature. In both literary traditions, exile is often used as a metaphor for the human condition and the experience of being alienated or disconnected from one’s surroundings.
In Medieval English literature, the theme of exile is a common thread in many of the most famous works, including The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf. In these poems, exile is used to symbolize the transience of human existence and the inevitability of death. The wanderer, for example, is a character who has been forced to leave his homeland and wander the earth alone, seeking meaning and purpose in his life. His experience of exile is a metaphor for the universal human experience of loss and dislocation.
Similarly, in Beowulf, the character of Grendel is depicted as a monster who has been exiled from human society, living in isolation and bitterness. His exile is symbolic of the human experience of being cut off from others and the pain that comes with that sense of separation.
In Japanese Medieval literature, the theme of exile is also a recurring motif, often tied to the experience of political and social upheaval. The Tale of Genji, for example, features a number of characters who are exiled or forced to leave their homes due to political turmoil. In this work, exile is used to explore the themes of loss, nostalgia, and the fragility of human existence.
Similarly, in The Pillow Book, the author Sei Shonagon writes about the experience of being exiled from the imperial court and the sense of loss and disconnection that comes with that experience. Exile is used in this work as a metaphor for the impermanence of human relationships and the fleeting nature of life.
Overall, the use of exile as a metaphor in Medieval English literature and Japanese Medieval literature highlights the universal human experience of loss, dislocation, and the transience of life. In both traditions, exile is a powerful symbol of the human condition, and its use in literature provides a means of exploring some of the most profound aspects of the human experience.
Mono no aware is a Japanese term that refers to a sense of melancholy or empathy towards the impermanence of things, and is often associated with traditional Japanese aesthetics. Many Japanese elegies and long-form poems evoke this sense of mono no aware, either through their themes or their use of imagery and language.
One example of a Japanese elegy that embodies mono no aware is the “Ochikubo Monogatari,” a medieval tale of love and loss. The story tells of a young woman named Ochikubo who falls in love with a courtier named Ariwara no Yukihira. After Yukihira is exiled to a remote region, Ochikubo follows him there, but eventually dies of illness. The story is notable for its depiction of the transience of human love and the inevitability of loss and separation.
Another example of a Japanese elegy that embodies mono no aware is the “Hotoke no Iro,” a poem by the medieval poet Saigyo. The poem describes the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms in spring and laments the impermanence of all things. The poem’s use of natural imagery and its sense of melancholy resonate strongly with the concept of mono no aware.
In terms of long-form poems, one example that evokes mono no aware is the “Tosa Nikki,” a medieval diary by the poet Ki no Tsurayuki. The diary describes the poet’s journey from Kyoto to the Tosa region, and is notable for its lyrical descriptions of nature and its sense of nostalgia for the passing of time. The diary’s vivid depictions of the changing seasons and the poet’s reflections on the transience of life embody the sense of mono no aware.
Another example of a long-form poem that evokes mono no aware is the “Genji Monogatari,” a medieval tale of courtly love and intrigue. The story follows the life of the titular character, Prince Genji, as he navigates the complexities of the imperial court. The story is notable for its vivid descriptions of nature and its sense of melancholy, as many of the characters experience loss and separation over the course of the narrative.
There are many examples of Japanese elegies and long-form poems that embody the sense of mono no aware, whether through their themes or their use of imagery and language. These works offer rich insights into the human experience of loss, impermanence, and the beauty of the fleeting moment
Here’s the thing, now more than ever, reading across cultures and times is a vital and enriching activity for anyone seeking to broaden their intellectual horizons and deepen their understanding of the human experience. The study of medieval literature in Japan and England offers a particularly rich and fruitful area for comparative analysis, allowing us to gain insights into the similarities and differences between these two cultures and to appreciate the unique qualities of each literary tradition.
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