"The Seafarer," "The Wanderer," & The Venerable Bede


Exeter Book No Biography

The Exeter Book is the largest extant collection of Old English poetry. Copied c. 975, the manuscript was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric (died 1072). It begins with some long religious poems: the Christ, in three parts; two poems on St. Guthlac; the fragmentary "Azarius"; and the allegorical Phoenix. Following these are a number of shorter religious verses intermingled with poems of types that have survived only in this codex. All the extant Anglo-Saxon lyrics, or elegies, as they are usually called--"The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," "The Wife's Lament," "The Husband's Message," and "The Ruin"--are found here. These are secular poems evoking a poignant sense of desolation and loneliness in their descriptions of the separation of lovers, the sorrows of exile, or the terrors and attractions of the sea, although some of them--e.g., "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer"--also carry the weight of religious allegory. In addition, the Exeter Book preserves 95 riddles, a genre that would otherwise have been represented by a solitary example.
The remaining part of the Exeter Book includes "The Rhyming Poem," which is the only example of its kind; the gnomic verses; "Widsith," the heroic narrative of a fictitious bard; and the two refrain poems, "Deor" and "Wulf and Eadwacer." The arrangement of the poems appears to be haphazard, and thebook is believed to be copied from an earlier collection.

"The Seafarer"
translated by Burton Raffel

This tale is true, and mine. It tells
How the sea took me, swept me back
And forth in sorrow and fear and pain,
Showed me suffering in a hundred ships,
In a thousand ports, and in me. It tells (5)
Of smashing surf when I sweated in the cold
Of an anxious watch, perched in the bow
As it dashed under cliffs. My feet were cast
In icy bands, bound with frost,
With frozen chains, and hardship groaned (10)
Around my heart. Hunger tore
At my sea-weary soul. No man sheltered
On the quiet fairness of earth can feel
How wretched I was, drifting through winter
On an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow, (15)
Alone in a world blown clear of love,
Hung with icicles. The hailstorms flew.
The only sound was the roaring sea,
The freezing waves. The song of the swan
Might serve for pleasure, the cry of the sea-fowl, (20)
The death-noise of birds instead of laughter,
The mewing of gulls instead of mead.
Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed
By icy-feathered terns and the eagle's screams;
No kinsman could offer comfort there, (25)
To a soul left drowning in desolation.
And who could believe, knowing but
The passion of cities, swelled proud with wine
And no taste of misfortune, how often, how wearily,
I put myself back on the paths of the sea. (30)
Night would blacken; It would snow from the north;
Frost bound the earth and hail would fall,
The coldest seeds. And how my heart
Would begin to beat, knowing once more
The salt waves tossing and the towering sea! (35)
The time for journeys would come and my soul
Called me eagerly out, sent me over
The horizon, seeking foreigners' homes.
But there isn't a man on earth so proud,
So born to greatness, so bold with his youth, (40)
Grown so brave, or so graced by God,
That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl,
Wondering what Fate has willed and will do.
No harps ring in his heart, no rewards,
No passion for women, no worldly pleasures, (45)
Nothing, only the ocean's heave;
But longing wraps itself around him.
Orchards blossom, the towns bloom,
Fields grow lovely as the world springs fresh,
And all these admonish that willing mind (50)
Leaping to journeys, always set
In thoughts traveling on a quickening tide.
So summer's sentinel, the cuckoo, sings
In his murmuring voice, and our hearts mourn
As he urges. Who could understand, (55)
In ignorant ease, what we others suffer
As the paths of exile stretch endlessly on?
And yet my heart wanders away,
My soul roams with the sea, the whales'
Home, wandering to the widest corners (60)
Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,
Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me
To the open ocean, breaking oaths
On the curve of a wave.
Thus the joys of God
Are fervent with life, where life itself (65)
Fades quickly into the earth. The wealth
Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains.
No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's (70)
Sword, snatching the life from his soul.
The praise the living pour on the dead
Flowers from reputation: plant
An earthly life of profit reaped
Even from hatred and rancor, of bravery (75)
Flung in the devil's face, and death
Can only bring you earthly praise
And a song to celebrate a place
With the angels, life eternally blessed
In the hosts of Heaven.
The days are gone (80)
When the kingdoms of earth flourished in glory;
Now there are no rulers, no emperors,
No givers of gold, as once there were,
When wonderful things were worked among them
And they lived in lordly magnificence. (85)
Those powers have vanished, those pleasures are dead.
The weakest survives and the world continues,
Kept spinning by toil. All glory is tarnished.
The world's honor ages and shrinks,
Bent like the men who mold it. Their faces (90)
Blanch as time advances, their beards
Wither and they mourn the memory of friends.
The sons of princes, sown in the dust.
The soul stripped of Its flesh knows nothing
Of sweetness or sour, feels no pain, (95)
Bends neither its hand nor Its brain. A brother
Opens his palms and pours down gold
On his kinsman's grave, strewing his coffin
With treasures intended for Heaven, but nothing
Golden shakes the wrath of God (100)
For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing
Hidden on earth rises to Heaven.
We all fear God. He turns the earth,
He set it swinging firmly in space,
Gave life to the world and light to the sky. (105)
Death leaps at the fools who forget their God.
He who lives humbly has angels from Heaven
To carry him courage and strength and belief.
A man must conquer pride, not kill It,
Be firm with his fellows, chaste for himself, (110)
Treat all the world as the world deserves,
With love or with hate but never with harm,
Though an enemy seek to scorch him in hell,
Or set the flames of a funeral pyre
Under his lord. Fate Is stronger (115)
And God mightier than any man's mind.
Our thoughts should turn to where our home is,
Consider the ways of coming there,
Then strive for sure permission for us
To rise to that eternal joy, (120)
That life born in the love of God
And the hope of Heaven. Praise the Holy
Grace of Him who honored us,
Eternal, unchanging creator of earth. Amen.

”The Seafarer” Discussion Questions

1) What are three images the poet uses in the first stanza to convey his sense of isolation?
2) The poet names "Fate's three threats." What are they?
3) What happens to "fools who forget the God"? What happens to those who "live humbly"?
4) How might you explain the mixed feeling about the sea that the poet seems to feel?
5)Pagans in Anglo-Saxon England, that is, non-Christians, felt themselves at the mercy of forces utterly beyond their control, while Christians put their trust in salvation and heaven. In what way do lines 39 through 4 show the influence of both beliefs?
6) Explain lines 66 and 67: "The wealth / Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains."
7. "The Seafarer" is a poem of contrasts. What contrast is implied in lines 80 through 102?

Anonymous "The Wanderer"

Oft to the wanderer, weary of exile,
Cometh God's pity, compassionate love,
Though woefully toiling on wintry seas
With churning oar in the icy wave,
Homeless and helpless he fled from fate.
Thus saith the wanderer mindful of misery,
Grievous disasters, and death of kin:
"Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left,
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
Is keeping his counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will! For, woe of heart
Withstandeth not fate: a falling spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in the breast.
'So have I also, often In wretchedness
Fettered my feelings, far from my kin,
Homeless and hapless, since days of old,
When the dark earth covered my dear lord's face,
And I sailed away with sorrowful heart,
Over wintry seas, seeking a gold-lord,
If far or near lived one to befriend me
With gift in the mead-hall and comfort for grief.
"Who bears it, knows what a bitter companion,
ShouIder to shoulder, sorrow can be,
When friends are no more. His fortune is exile,
Not gifts of fine gold; a heart that is frozen,
Earth's winsomeness dead. And he dreams of the hall-men,
The dealing of treasure, the days of his youth,
When his lord bade welcome to wassall and feast.
But gone is that gladness, and never again
Shall come the loved counsel of comrade and king.
"Even In slumber his sorrow assaileth,
And, dreaming he claspeth his dear lord again,
Head on knee, hand on knee, loyally laying.
Pledging his liege as in days long past.
Then from his slumber he starts lonely-hearted.
Beholding gray stretches of tossing sea,
Sea-birds bathing. with wings outspread.
While hailstorms darken, and driving snow.
Bitterer then is the bane of his wretchedness,
The longing for loved one: his grief is renewed.
The forms of his kinsmen take shape in the silence;
In rapture he greets them; in gladness he scans
Old comrades remembered. But they melt into air
With no word of greeting to gladden his heart.
Then again surges his sorrow upon him;
And grimly he spurs his weary soul
Once more to the toil of the tossing sea.
"No wonder therefore, in all the world,
If a shadow darkens upon my spirit
When I reflect on the fates of men-
How one by one proud warriors vanish
From the halls that knew them, and day by day
All this earth ages and droops unto death.
No man may know wisdom till many a winter
Has been his portion. A wise man is patient.
Not swift to anger. nor hasty of speech.
Neither too weak, nor too reckless, in war,
Neither fearful nor fain, nor too wishful of wealth,
Nor too eager in vow- ere he know the event.
A brave man must bide when he speaketh his boast
Until he know surely the goal of his spirit.
"A wise man will ponder how dread is that doom
When all this world's wealth shall be scattered and waste
As now, over all, through the regions of earth,
Walls stand rime-covered and swept by the winds.
The battlements crumble, the wine-halls decay;
Joyless and silent the heroes are sleeping
Where the proud host fell by the wall they defended.
Some battle launched on their long, last journey;
One a bird bore o'er the billowing sea;
One the gray wolf slew; one a grieving earl
Sadly gave to the grave's embrace.
The Warden of men hath wasted this world
Till the sound of music and revel is stilled,
And these giant-built structures stand empty of life.
"He who shall muse on these moldering ruins,
And deeply ponder this darkling life,
Must brood on old legends of battle and bloodshed,
And heavy the mood that troubles his heart:
'Where now is the warrior? Where is the war horse?
Bestowal of treasure, and sharing of feast?
Alas! the bright ale-cup, the byrny-clad warrior,
The prince in his splendor -those days are long sped
In the night of the past, as if they never had been!'
And now remains only, for warriors' memorial,
A wail wondrous high with serpent shapes carved.
Storms of ash-spears have smitten the earls,
Carnage of weapon, and conquering fate.
"Storms now batter these ramparts of stone;
Blowing snow and the blast of winter
Enfold the earth; night-shadows fall
Darkly lowering, from the north driving
Raging hall in wrath upon men.
Wretchedness fills the realm of earth,
And fate's decrees transform the world.
Here wealth is fleeting, friends are fleeting,
Man is fleeting, maid is fleeting;
All the foundation of earth shall fail!"
Thus spake the sage In solitude pondering.
Good man is he who guardeth his faith.
He must never too quickly unburden his breast
Of its sorrow, but eagerly strive for redress;
And happy the man who seeketh for mercy
From his heavenly Father, our fortress and strength.

”The Wanderer” Discussion Questions

1) Do the elements of this poem appeal to a modern audience?
2) What development causes the wanderer to go into exile? What is the goal of his search?
3) Locate the brief passage in which he expresses his philosophy on life.
4) Because this is an elegy, it features aspects of mourning. What are some of these elements and why do they generate emotion?
5) Explain how the poetís repetition of words and phrases contributes to the mood of the poem.

The Venerable Bede (Biography)

English historian, a Benedictine monk, called the Venerable Bede. He spent his whole life at the monasteries of Wearmouth (at Sunderland) and Jarrow and became probably the most learned man in Western Europe in his day. His writings, virtually a summary of the learning of his time, consist of theological, historical, and scientific treatises. Like a modern scholar, he consulted many documents, discussed their relative reliability, and duly cited them as sourcesópractices then most unusual. His theological works are commentaries on the Scriptures in the light of the interpretations of the Church Fathers. He wrote biographical works such as the life of St. Cuthbert (in prose and verse) and the History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow). His Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin prose, remains an indispensable primary source for English history from 597 to 731. It gives the most thorough and reliable contemporary account of the triumph of Christianity and of the growth of Anglo-Saxon culture in England. He also relates the political events that had bearing on these developments. Long venerated in the church, Bede was officially recognized as a saint in 1899 and was named Doctor of the Church, the only Englishman so honored. Feast: May 27.

from Bede's A History of the English Church and People

The Situation of Britain and Ireland: Their Earliest InhabitantsBritain, formerly known as Albion, is an island in the ocean, facing between north and west, and lying at a considerable distance from the coasts of Germany, Gaul, and Spain, which together form the greater part of Europe. It extends 800 miles northwards, and is 200 in breadth, except where a number of promontories stretch farther, the coastline round which extends to 3675 miles. To the south lies Belgic Gaul, from the nearest shore of which travelers can see the city known as Rutubi Portus, which the English have corrupted to Reptacestir. The distance from there across the sea to Gessoriacum, the nearest coast of the Morini, is 50 miles or, as some write it, 450 furlongs. On the opposite side of Britain, which lies open to the boundless ocean, lie the isles of the Orcades. Britain is rich in grain and timber; it has good pasturage for cattle and draft animals, and vines are cultivated in various localities. There are many land and sea birds of various species, and it is well known for its plentiful springs and rivers abounding in fish. There are salmon and eel fisheries, while seals, dolphins, and sometimes whales are caught. There are also many varieties of shellfish, such as mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of several colors: red, purple, violet, and green, but mainly white. Cockles are abundant, and a beautiful scarlet dye is extracted from them which remains unfaded by sunshine or rain; indeed, the older the cloth, the more beautiful its color. The country has both salt and hot springs, and the waters flowing from them provide hot baths, in which the people bathe separately according to age and sex. As Saint Basil says: "Water receives its heat when it flows across certain metals, and becomes hot, and even scalding." The land has rich veins of many metals, including copper, iron, lead, and silver. There is also much black jet of fine quality, which sparkles in firelight. When burned, it drives away snakes, and, like amber, when it is warmed by friction, it clings to whatever is applied to it. In old times, the country had twenty-eight noble cities, and innumerable castles, all of which were guarded by walls, towers, and barred gates.
Since Britain lies far north toward the pole, the nights are short in summer, and at midnight it is hard to tell whether the evening twilight still lingers or whether dawn is approaching; for in these northern latitudes the sun does not remain long below the horizon at night. Consequently both summer days and winter nights are long, and when the sun withdraws southwards, the winter nights last eighteen hours. In Armenia, Macedonia, and Italy, and other countries of that latitude, the longest day lasts only fifteen hours and the shortest nine.
At the present time there are in Britain, in harmony with the five books of the divine law, five languages and four nations-English, British, Scots, and Picts. Each of these have their own language, but all are united in their study of God's truth by the fifth, Latin, which has become a common medium through the study of the scriptures. The original inhabitants of the island were the Britons, from whom it takes its name, and who, according to tradition, crossed into Britain from Armorica, and occupied the southern parts. When they had spread northwards and possessed the greater part of the islands, it is said that some Picts from Scythia put to sea in a few long ships and were driven by storms around the coasts of Britain, arriving at length on the north coast of Ireland. Here they found the nation of the Scots, from whom they asked permission to settle, but their request was refused. Ireland is the largest island after Britain, and lies to the west. It is shorter than Britain to the north, but extends far beyond it to the south towards the northern coasts of Spain, although a wide sea separates them. These Pictish seafarers, as I have said, asked for a grant of land to make a settlement. The Scots replied that there was not room for them both, but said: "We can give you good advice. There is another island not far to the east, which we often see in the distance on clear days. Go and settle there if you wish; should you meet resistance, we will come to your help." So the Picts crossed into Britain, and began to settle in the north of the island, since the Britons were in possession of the south. Having no women with them, these Picts asked wives of the Scots, who consented on condition that, when any dispute arose, they should choose a king from the female royal line rather than the male. This custom continues among the Picts to this day. As time went on, Britain received a third nation, that of the Scots, who migrated from Ireland under their chieftain Reuda, and by a combination of force and treaty, obtained from the Picts the settlements that they still hold. From the name of this chieftain, they are still known as Dalreudians, for In their tongue dal means a division.
Ireland is broader than Britain, and its mild and healthy climate is superior. Snow rarely lies longer than three days, so that there is no need to store hay in summer for winter use or to build stables for beasts. There are no reptiles, and no snake can exist there, for although often brought over from Britain, as soon as the ship nears land, they breathe Its scented air and die. In fact, almost everything in this isle enjoys immunity to poison, and I have heard that folk suffering from snakebite have drunk water in which scrapings from the leaves of books from Ireland had been steeped, and that this remedy checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling. The island abounds in milk and honey, and there is no lack of vines, fish, and birds, while deer and goats are widely hunted. It is the original home of the Scots, who, as already mentioned, later migrated and joined the Britons and Picts in Britain. There is a very extensive arm of the sea, which originally formed the boundary between the Britons and the Picts. This runs inland from the west for a great distance as far as the strongly fortified British city of Alcuith. It was to the northern shores of this firth that the Scots came and established their new homeland.

from A History of the English Church and People
Discussion Questions

1) What countries formed the greater part of Europe at the time of Bede's history?
2) In Bede's time, what were the four nations in Britain. What united them?
3) What animals does Bede say were widely hunted in Ireland?
4) What does the explanation about scarlet dye imply about the lifestyle of the people?
5) Bede states that Britain once "had twenty- eight noble cities ... guarded by walls, towers, and barred gates." What does this statement suggest about the political situation at the time?
6. What is one unlikely tale that Bede includes in his history?