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Sven Grzebeta WS 94/95

Eulenbaumstr. 247 Hauptseminar Linguistik

44801 Bochum "The Old English Elegy"

9. Semester English/Philosophy Prof. Dr. H. J. Diller



Table of contents



1. Society and loneliness................................3

1.1. Introduction..........................................3

1.2. Social bonds in the Old English society...............3

1.2.1. Bonds to one's lord...................................3

1.2.2. Family ties...........................................4

1.3. Loneliness in the Old English elegies.................5

1.3.1. The Wanderer..........................................5

1.3.2. The Seafarer..........................................6

1.3.3. The Wife's Lament.....................................8

2. Experience of exile...................................9

2.1. Imagery of exile......................................9

2.1.1. Journey...............................................9

2.1.2. Ruin.................................................10

2.1.3. Forces of nature.....................................11

2.2. The Christian experience: peregrinatio...............12

2.3. Reaction to the experience of loneliness.............13

2.3.1. Complaint............................................13

2.3.2. Enduringness.........................................13

3. The virtue of loneliness.............................14

3.1. The brave man........................................15

3.2. The Christian way to eternal life....................15

3.2.1. Depreciation of earthly society......................16

3.2.2. Salvation in heavenly kingdom........................16

3.2.3. Value and virtue.....................................17

4. The Old English elegies between homily and poetry....17

4.1. Moral thrust and aesthetic value.....................18

4.2. Conclusion...........................................18


1. Society and loneliness

1.1. Introduction

Oft him anhaga are gebided - the opening line of the most famous of the Old English elegies contains, in an embryonic form, the central issues of the elegies as a whole. We are told stories of anhagan, and loneliness is lamented throughout the poems. But something seems to be set against the lamented miseries from the very beginning - are, mercy, is offered to the lonely man.

In this paper I will discuss the question of how the Old English elegies treat the theme of loneliness. Moreover, I will discuss whether loneliness is only seen as the opposite of life in society or whether there is more involved in the treatment of this sorrowful human experience. I have limited my study to the three most famous elegies, namely The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Wife's Lament.

1.2. Social bonds in the Old English society

In order to determine a socio-historical background for the examination of the Old English elegiac texts I will first briefly characterize the two most important social ties in the Old English society.

1.2.1 The bonds with one's lord

The relationship to one's lord within a group of other retainers was the central social tie in Germanic societies. A young man would at one stage of his early manhood enter a band of retainers and submit himself to the leader of this group, who, in turn, wouldl become his lord. "In return for their service the men expect horses and weapons, and feasting in the lord's household". The bond between lord and retainer was a mutual commitment to loyalty and gave the men a degree of security which could only be obtained within a group of organized warriors. However, "the bond between lord and retainer went deeper than material benefits on either side" since the group of warriors took part in social activities such as feasting together in the mead-hall. It involved emotional ties and ceremonial practices as well.

In his account of the Germanic tribes from the year 98 AD Tacitus describes the importance of the comitatus for both the young men and the society as a whole:

"[adulescenti] aetate robustioribus ac iam pridem probatis aggregantur. [...] Si civitas in qua orti sunt longa pace et otio torpeat, plerique nobilium adulescentium petunt ultro eas nationes quae tum bellum gerunt. [...] Exigunt enim principis sui libertate illum bellatorem equum, illam cruentam victicemque frameam; nam epulae et quamquam incompti, largi tamen apparatus pro stipendio cedunt".

It is important that this "loyalty is personal, not tribal, for a successful chief may attract to him men from many tribes". Thus the comitatus formed the basic social structure for the men and it was certainly more than just an army.

1.2.2. Family ties

Although a young man might have to leave his kinsmen in order to enter the service of a lord, the family was a viable social structure in Anglo-Saxon societies. "Every individual depended on the support of the kindred in all the affairs of life".

The different tribal groups acted as parties in legal quarrels. The legal institution of vendetta proves both the strength of the loyalty to one's kinsmen and the importance of the extended family group for a regulated everyday life:

"If a man were killed, it was the duty of his kindred to take vengeance on the slayer or his kindred, or to exact compensation. [...] The vendetta was not a wild act of lawlessness; the conditions under which it was carried on and the details of the procedure, were carefully regulated by law".

An important bond within the family group was the state of matrimony as a token of mutual love and commitment. Tacitus reports:

"serva illic matrimonia, nec ullam morum partem magis laudaveris. nam prope soli barbarorum singulis uxoribus contenti sunt"

It can thus be assumed that the comitatus, the extended family group (kin) and marriage were the strongest bonds within each individual's life. When I talk of "society" and "loneliness" in the following chapters I refer to the presence or the absence of one or several of those social institutions. D. Whitelock remarks that the conversion to Christianity (from the 7th century on) did not essentially alter or even abolish these social structures (although, naturally, Christian ethics modified the habit of vengeance).

1.3. Loneliness in the Old English elegies

We have seen that the social life of Anglo-Saxon times was complex and well organized. Human beings are , as Aristotle puts it, and for Anglo-Saxons, society was obviously valuable. What kind of loneliness, as opposed to social life, do the three elegies present? How is loneliness described?

1.3.1. The Wanderer

That The Wanderer deals with loneliness becomes already clear in the very first line: it is the solitary man, anhaga, who often enjoys God's mercy. The eardstapa who tells his story in this poem is deprived of his home and far away from his noble kinsmen (edle bidaeled / freomaegum feor, l. 20b-21a). There is no one to whom he could relate his sufferings or who could even offer consolation:

Wat se pe cunnap

hu slipen bip sorg to geferan

pam pe him lyt hafap leofra geholena (29a-31),

where lyt leofra geholena is to be read as an understatement (litotes) which expresses the complete absence of any friends.

D. Grubl points out that the mentioning of three aspects of social life which have highly positive connotations serve as contrasts which help to express the wanderer's loneliness. The reader (or listener) is reminded of the happiness which one can enjoy within a social surrounding, and the wanderer's isolation becomes all the more vivid when it is contrasted with his past experience of happiness. He once had a lord and fellow retainers. Grubl detects three "points of light" in the wanderer's report of his loneliness:

"Vers 34-36a: Die Halle (mit Mannen und


Vers 41-44: Der Fürst

Vers 51-53a Die Gefolgschaft

Es sind an diesen Stellen die den Germanen bestimmenden Bindungen dargestellt: die Bindung an die Halle, den Fürsten und die Gefolgschaft"

The man who must stir the ice-cold sea with his own hands (hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sae, l.4) and who walks the exile's path (wadan wraeclastas) has lost all social ties: his family, his lord and his fellow retainers. It is remarkable that the poem even gives an accoustic image of the lack of confederates: when visual images of the kinsmen he lost appear to the wanderer in his dreams they do not provide him with the usual auditory signs. These visions neither sing nor speak, as opposed to living human beings: fleotendra ferd no paer fela bringed / cudra cwidegiedda (l. 54-55a).

The eardstapa has good reason to complain about his misery and the elegiac tone seems just fitting for the experience of isolation from which he has suffered.

"The figure of the lordless man adrift in a heroic society (in The Wanderer) would have been among the most powerful of contemporary secular symbols available to express the elegiac mood in its application to the individual human being".

1.3.2. The Seafarer

The seafarer's situation is in many respects very similar to that of the wanderer. Like him the seafarer has experienced exile in an unfriendly surrounding; like the wanderer he has been separated from all his dear kinsmen:

hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sae

winter wunade wraeccan lastum

winemaegum bidroren (l. 14-16)

In The Seafarer, as in The Wanderer, the technique of contrasting the situation of a wretched exile with that of someone who lives happily in society amplifies the impression of isolation and loneliness. Lines 44-46 of The Seafarer describe the contrast between what is usually connected with a happy life on land (music, ring-giving, joy of woman, a prosperous future) and what lies ahead for the man who plans an adventurous sea-voyage. Two of the four terms which describe lifes wyn in those lines directly refer to social bonds: hringpege as a ceremonial act between a lord and his retainers, and wifes wyn as part of life in a marriage. The seafarer himself has already experienced the loss of those essential social relationships, at least temporarily, when he had gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela (l. 5). When he was out on the sea no one was there to console him: Naenig hleomaega / feasceaftig ferd frefran meahte (l. 25b-26).

Another contrast is created between the unpersonal brutish sounds of the sea-birds and the well-known sounds of the mead-hall:

Hwilum ylfete song

dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleopor

and huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera

maew singende fore medodrince (l. 19b-22)

Grubl comments enthusiastically on this passage:

"Welcher Kontrast liegt in dieser Gegenüberstellung! Auf der einen Seite stehen die Bewohner des Meeres als des unwirtlichen und gehaßten Aufenthaltsortes und auf der anderen die Charakteristika des zurückersehnten, glücklichen Landlebens innerhalb der Gefolgschaft".

The repeated use of such contrasts highlights the value which social life had for both, the poet and his contemporary audience, who would otherwise not have been able to understand these contrasting comparisons. The lines quoted above again contain a clear reference to aural experience. Just like the respective passage in The Wanderer it is an accoustic impression of loneliness which is described here. Grubl remarks

"Es ist auffällig, daß das Bild vor allem von Vögeln belebt wird, die nicht in ihren Bewegungen, sondern in ihren Äußerungen, ihrem Gesang und Schreien dargestellt sind".

My analysis of the expression of loneliness in The Seafarer and The Wanderer has confirmed the traditional view that the two poems are very closely connected to each other by a common theme and similar imagery.

1.3.3. The Wife's Lament

Although The Wife's Lament is in many respects differnt from the two elegies discussed above, it shares their mood of isolation and loneliness. The situation of the speaker in the poem is completely new: a female voice complains about permanent separation from her husband. The husband's family has contrived a strategy to make them live far away from each other:

todaelden unc

paet wit gewidost in woruldrice

lifdon ladlicost, and mec longade (l. 12b-14)

The use of the (now obsolete) dual number in the pronouns "wit" (l. 13) and "unc" (l. 12b) emphasises the private, almost intimate character of their relationship as it used to be. The description of matrimonial bliss (l. 18-23a) yields the positive element for another contrast, which again intensifies the wife's desperately lonely situation and the cruelty of the disruption which has led to it.

Her grief is made worse by the fact that her husband is an exile as well. The wife's sadness is caused by a double sense of loneliness: she is alone and her beloved husband is alone, i.e. separated from her, as well. "Sie erkennt zweifellos in der Verbannung ihres Mannes den Ausgangspunkt ihres schweren Schicksals".

But it is not only this one very special social tie which has been cut. She has also lost all her friends and relatives: ahte ic leofra lyt on pissum londstede / holdra freonda (l. 16-17a). Here, once more, lyt (little) is to be understood as a litotes: She has in fact no friends at all. Her isolation is very adequately expressed in the description of her walking around the miserable abode which has been assigned to her:

ponne ic on uhtan ana gonge

under actreo geond pas eorpscrafu

(l. 35-36)

In The Wife's Lament the feeling of loneliness as the effect of a life in exile is the central reason for the speaker's desperation. As social bonds played an important role in the organization of everyday life in Anglo-Saxon societies (cf. chapter 1.2.), it is not surprising that in all the three elegies loneliness is the prevailing mood and that all three poems begin with descriptions of exile and isolation in an elegiac style.

2. Experience of exile

In this chapter I will analyse which functions the extensive descriptions of loneliness have in the Old English elegies.

2.1. Imagery of exile

After the prominent role of loneliness in the Old English elegies has been shown in the preceding chapters, I will now go on to analyse the imagery in which experience of loneliness is expressed in the poems. There are essentially three groups of images which are repeatedly used as metaphors of human loneliness. I will refer to these groups by the following headlines: "journey", "ruin" and "forces of nature". For each group I will discuss one image thoroughly and then give a list of all further passages in the poems in which we find the same kind of imagery at work.

2.1.1. Journey

The image of travelling, especially over the sea, reappears again and again in the elegies. That being on a journey is not a pleasure for the wanderer becomes clear from the expression wadan wraeclastas in line 5. Wraeclast is a compound of two nouns, wraec meaning "exile" or, more generally, "misery" and last meaning "track" or "trace", i.e. what is left behind by somebody who moves on the ground, like footprints, for instance. That he is walking in isolation is implied by the term anhaga, "the solitary man", in line 1, and of course by the term wraec if we take it to mean "exile". The eardstapa has to walk (wadan) without any prospects of help from human companionship. His journey is a powerful image of loneliness and helps to create the mood of absolute isolation in the poem.

Further instances in The Wanderer where the journey-image is employed are l. 6 (eardstapa) and l. 23-24 (ic hean ponan / wod wintercearig ofer wapema gebind), l. 32 (warap hine wraeclast).

In The Seafarer we find references to this image in l. 2 (sipas secgan), in l. 5 (ceole, the vehicle by which a sea-journey is made) and similarly in l. 7 (nacan), l. 14-15 (hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sae / winter wunade wraeccan lastum), l. 33-34 (paet ic hean streamas /... sylf cunnige), l. 37-38 (paet ic feor heonan / elpeodigra eard gesece), l. 42 (saefore), l. 47 (se pe on lagu fundap), l. 51 (sefan to sipe) and l. 57 (wraeclastas widost lecgad). The idea of going to some place is supported by the recurrence of telic verbs, which imply the attempt of reaching a goal (gesece, l. 38; gedon, l. 43; fundap, l.47 and more).

In The Wife's Lament the journey-image occurs as well: l. 5 (minra wraecsipa), l. 6-7 (min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum / ofer ypa gelac), l. 35-36 (ponne ic... ana gonge / under actreo geond pas eorpscrafu), l. 38 (mine wraecsipas).

2.1.2. Ruin

Another theme which recurs in images of loneliness is the destructioin of homes and buildings. In The Wanderer the poet describes a completely desolate landscape (l. 75-91) and mentions winde biwaune weallas and hrime bihrorene hrydge pa ederas. Woriap pa winsalo. Although most critics identify those stone edifices with the buildings that the Romans had left behind when they left England after the year 400, I think their main function is to illustrate two aspects of desolation. First, the destructed buildings as such, which exemplify the disintegration of all earthly creation (cf. chapter 3.2.1.), and second, the destruction of what was once a (physical and emotional) home , a shelter, to man. In this respect the ruin-image supports the theme of exile and stands beside the jouney-image. Further examples from The Wanderer: l. 85-87 (Ypde... aelda Scyppend) and l. 101 (pas stanhleopu stormas cnyssap). Although there is no direct reference to ruins in The Seafarer, we do find desolate abodes in The Wife's Lament: The wife herself lives in pam eordscraefe, which is further described as an eorpsele, a cave, surrounded by bitre burgtunas (l. 28-29, 31). Grubl gives the same interpretation of the wife's eorpscraefu:

"Ihre Wohnung ist eine Erdhöhle im Walde unter einem Eichbaum..., wo ihr das Nötigste zum Leben fehlte: eine rechte Wohnstatt für den Kummer und die Sorge, die der Verlassenen als Gefährten folgen".

Similarly her lord lives in a dreorsele (l. 50), under stanhlipe storme behrimed (l. 48). Those are miserable places (wic wynna leas, l. 32) and, in a metaphorical sense, only ruins of what once used to be homes.

2.1.3. Natural forces

If this theme of homelessness is further extended it reaches a state of universal destruction: earth itself as mankind's primary abode is degenerating. All three elegies contain images of natural forces whose effect is disastrous or at least very frightening for man:

Hrid hreosende hrusan bindep

wintres woma, ponne won cymed

niped nihtscua norpan ondended

hreo haeglfare haelepum on andan

(The Wanderer, l. 102-105)

Some natural forces are strikingly prominent in these images: snow and hail, storms, darkness and winter appear several times in the poems. They illustrate an insight which finally, the wanderer tells us explicitly:

onwendep wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum


Eal pis eorpan gesteal idel weorped

(l. 107, 110)

I will briefly quote other passages which refer to natural forces.

The Wanderer: l. 4 (hrimcealde sae), l. 24 (wod wintercearig ofer wapema gebind), l. 48 (hreosan hrim and snaw hagle gemenged), l. 77 (hrime bihrorene), l. 81-83 (fugel, heanne holm, se hara wulf), l. 95-96 (Hu seo prag gewat, / genap under nihthelm swa heo no waere), l. 101 (stromas cnyssad).

The Seafarer: l. 8-10a (calde geprungen / waeron mine fet, forste gebunden / caldum clommum), l. 14-15a (hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sae / winter wunade, ...bihongen hrimgicelum), l. 17b-19a (Haegl scurum fleag, / ...butan hlimman sae, / iscaldne waeg), l. 23 (Stormas paer stanclifu beotan), l. 31-33a (Nap nihtscua... corna caldast), l. 49b (woruld onetted).

In The Wife's Lament this thematic group of images is again under-represented, but there are however some hints to it: l. 28 (eorpscraefe), l. 29a-30 (Eald is pes eordsele..., / sindon dena dimme duna uphea), l. 48, 49b-50a (under stanhlipe storme behrimed, / ...waetre beflowen / on dreorsele).

This collection of passages shows that the three groups of images indeed contain the most powerful imaginative descriptions in the elegies. Moreover, the three basic images "journey", "ruin" and "natural forces" are not distinct ideas but are, in some passages, combined and interwoven.

2.2. The Christian experience: peregrinatio

Up to this point I have deliberately ignored the "instructive" parts of the poems. That the elegies have a didactic or moral tone cannot be denied; it is as well obvious that it is a basically Christian way of life which is advocated. "It is now generally agreed the The Wanderer is a complete poem dealing in a consistently Christian manner with a coherent theme". But how is this "moral force" created and which relation does it have to the experience of loneliness?

For a long time critics debated the question of whether the seafarer's story is a report about actual journeys or whether they are an allegory for a special kind of metaphorical journey, namely the Christian journey to salvation. The former view has been defended by D. Whitelock, the latter by G. V. Smithers. For him the laments are based upon "imaginary experience", employed by a poet as an allegory for the Christian idea of peregrinatio. This concept goes back to Augustine (354-430), who taught that a Christian is always a member of two civitates, or societies: his or her ultimate home is the civitas dei, God's eternal kingdom which has been promised to be instituted after Christ's second coming. But up to this eschatological turning point human beings will have to live their lives in this imperfect world and in more or less secular forms of social organization such as kingdoms. For the faithful Christian this earthly life is like exile from heaven. Christians can regard themselves as peregrini, aliens in exile, wayfarers on their journey in exile.

This allegorical reading of the elegies throws new light on the speakers' descriptions of loneliness. In a Christian context, what is expected of human creatures when they face general decay, degeneration and loneliness?

2.3. Reaction to the experience of loneliness

There are basically two conceivable reactions to the experience of loneliness. One can either complain about it and try to change it (activism) - or try to overcome the suffering by enduring it (passivism)

2.3.1. Complaint

In all three poems there is a consiberable amount of lament. This becomes sufficiently clear by the length and the intensity of those parts which deal with miserable experiences. The wanderer even complains about the fact that there is no living man to whom he could reveal his sufferings. In this respect the three elegies may be compared to Schubert's Winterreise or Parts 1 and 2 of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Modern existentialist philosophy, according to Camus, for instance, would recommend that, facing such misery, man should fight, and if his situation is as hopeless as the wanderer's, the seafarer's or the wife's seem to be - this would just be a case in point: the fight must be carried out all the harder. If we follow existentialist thinking, there is an epistemological quality in such fighting as well: the experience of suffering intensifies our understanding of the existentialist nature of our lives.

2.3.2. Enduringness

Although the experience of loneliness as described in the poems creates something very close to Camus' "existential situation" the poet's advice as to how to deal with it is completely different:

Ne maeg werigmod wyrde widstondan,

ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman

(The Wanderer, l. 15-16)

Here, the speaker even assumes an anthropological device which, according to him, enables brave men to endure their suffering silently:

Ic to sope wat

paet bip in eorle indryhten peaw

paet he his ferplocan faeste binde,

healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.

(The Wanderer, l. 11b-14)

It is not experience of suffering itself that is rejected but only the attempt to revolt against it by complaint. Thoughts of desperation are unavoidable and acceptable (hycge swa he wille) but they ought not lead to a complaining attitude.

The seafarer even goes a step further. Although the lonely voyage across the sea causes dreadful feelings (loneliness, loss of home and friends, fight against the forces of nature), it is a necessary undertaking for him. He repeatedly points out that those who stay at home safely can never reach his spiritual understanding of the world. This is expressed by the formula "he can little know who..." followed by the description of somebody who lives a peaceful earthly life (The Seafarer, lines 12b-17b, 27-30, 55b-57). The seafarer's conclusion is radical and unmistakable:

For pon cnyssad nu

heortan gepohtas paet ic hean streamas,

... sylf cunnige (l. 33b-35)

Even though he knows about the toil he is going to experience on such a journey he must set out once more.

In The Wife's Lament we find a similar attitude as in The Wanderer. The wife's ful gemaec monn hides his strong emotional affections and keeps up his demeanour. He is always mod mipende and blipe gebaero (l. 20a, 21a). And this is the same attitude she recommends in the last 15 lines of the poems:

A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod, / ... swylce habban sceal / blipe gebaero (l. 42, 43b-44a).

3. The virtue of loneliness

The experience of loneliness has a specific function in the poems. It is a touchstone for the audience's state of mind: "How would you react to experience of such a kind?". But what attitude do the elegies exactly advocate?

3.1. The brave man

As we have seen in the previous chapter all three elegies explicitly promote an enduring or even daring reaction to human suffering. It is the brave man (or woman), the stoic and the heroic, who manage to speak like the wanderer, the seafarer and the wife. For all three characters, complaint or rebellion would be useless because help is not available (this is part of their plight) and because wyrd bid ful araed (The Wanderer, l. 5b). Since society was so valuable to Anglo-Saxon peoples, the complete disruption of social bonds is the adequate challenge for a brave Anglo-Saxon.

"Einsam und allein soll der Mensch dies alles [the transitoriness of earthly pleasure, S. G.] überdenken, und daraus die Folgerung ziehen, wie er auf rechte Weise zu leben habe".

3.2. The Christian way to eternal life

But this passivism alone would be unusual for a Germanic society which at least stuck to remnants of its pagan past. Grubl argues:

"Der Germane kannte kein passives Schicksalsdenken, ...kein passives Hinnehmen des Zugedachten, sondern stemmte sich dagegen, wenn ihm die Wyrd Unglück beschied".

Thus, there has to be another lesson to be learnt from the elegies and from the way in which the poet deals with the themes of misery, isolation and suffering.

The Christian prospects of eternal life, of God's ultimate mercy and glory can function as the missing link between the value of society and the virtue of loneliness, or rather the virtue of accepting and enduring loneliness. Grubl concludes:

"Der Wanderer kennt nur ein passives Hinnehmen und Sich-Beugen unter die allgegenwärtige Wyrd, die nur durch den christlichen Gott überwunden werden kann.

3.2.1. Depreciation of earthly society

The first step to be taken towards the Christian conduct as the poet expects it is the recognition of the ultimate degeneration of all earthly creation, including and primarily the hopeless state of loneliness for the individual. Friends, relatives and lords will die (cf. The Seafarer l. 68-71, 80b-96). The material world (middangeard, eorpan gesteal) will collapse, precious things are only of transitory value: Ic gelyfe no / paet him eordwelan ece stondad (The Seafarer, l. 66b-67). A happy life on safe grounds is only transitory and therefore it cannot give lasting consolation to man. The wise man (snottor on mode) whom the wanderer quotes at the end of his poem has recognized that here, in this finite and worldly civitas "bid feoh laene, her bid freond laene, / her bid mon laene, her bid maeg laene".

3.2.2. Salvation in heavenly kingdom

Salvation, deliverance and eternal bliss are to be expected from the spiritual dimension of life: Micel bip se Meotudes egsa, for pon hi seo molde oncyrred (The Seafarer, l. 103).

Therefore, the seafarer prefers to seek God's bliss rather than worldly joy:

for pon me hatran sind

Dryhtnes dreamas ponne pis deade lif

laene on londe (The Seafarer, l. 64b-66a)

God is presented as the opposite of the transitoriness, decay and degeneration of the world. He can offer an eternal home to mankind, a home in civitate Dei which transcends both, earthly society and loneliness. It is the Old English noun faestnung which contains this whole concept: Wel bid pam pe him are seced, / frofre to Faeder on heofonum, paer us eal seo faestnung stonded (The Wanderer, l. 114b-115). A faestnung is exactly what the seafarer, the wanderer and the wife are searching. The themes of seafaring, wandering and exile as starting points for a moralizing homily serve

"to illustrate a contrast in theme between the transience of this world and the changelessness and security of the heavenly kingdom".

Smithers takes this elaboration of the eschatological vision in the poems as another argument in favour of his allegory theory:

"The use elsewhere of aelpeodig(-nes) to render peregrinus, peregrinatio shows that elpeodigra eard here means the heavenly home (patria) of good Christians (peregrini). [...] The prime impulse was clearly the purely doctrinal or literary topos of man's peregrination after Adam's exile form Paradise".

3.2.3. Value and virtue

The experience of utter loneliness has two functions in the poet's homiletic concept.

First, one has to experience the complete loss of social bonds in order to be prompted to look for another civitas. This happens emotively (fear, as expressed and, maybe, caused by the images in the poems) as well as cognitively (the argument behind these images).

Second, when the grounds are prepared in this way, man can recognize that turning away from this transitory earthly happiness is the right way to God.

"Das Abwenden von allen irdischen Freuden, der Weg des Mönchtums ist es, den der Dichter uns in diesem Gedicht vor Augen führen will".

Loneliness in its radical form is, at the same time, an effect of the genral decay of the world and an extraordinary social situation which allows the snottor on mode to find a solution for this unsatisfying worldly existence. Society is of great value - but it is a finite, transitory thing and belongs only to this earthly civitate. Loneliness is sorrowful - but through it, man can recognize that the way to eternal bliss can only be gone through the Christian God, who is regarded as a Lord more powerful than any Germanic hero.

4. The Old English elegies between homily and poetry

The elegies contain both, imaginative and richly decorated stories in elegiac style, and moralizing parts in homiletic style. To which of these genres does the theme of exile belong?

4.1. Moral thrust and aesthetic value

Smithers, in his allegorical interpretation of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, denies that real life experience of seafaring and exile motivated the poet to write the poems. "The peregrinus of real life is probably to be ruled out even in a limited secondary role". Smithers gives further evidence to his theory by showing

"that 'exile' or 'sojourn as an alien' was applied in ecclesiastical tradition to Adam and his descendants, and that the concept applied to good Christians only".

But we have seen in chapters 1 and 2 that the themes in question are developed in an original literary and poetical way. The poets chose a poetic rather than homiletic form for the elegies. Moreover, they wrote them in the vernacular instead of church Latin. "The tone of lament and the general poetic diction suggest elegy rather than allegory". Grubl stresses the aesthetic value of the poets' images:

"Im ersten Teil des "Wanderer" sind es die Verse 46-48, die uns ein schönes und einprägsames Winterseebild entwerfen. Es ersteht so deutlich vor unseren Augen, daß wir es malen könnten [...] Die Arbeitsweise des angelsächsischen Dichters, mit wenigen Worten ein Höchstmaß an Lebendigkeit und Prägnanz zu erreichen, ist bewundernswert".

And Smithers himself has to admit that the

"author or authors - though fully 'commited', as genuine Christians, so far as the received theme was concerned - have charged the two doctrinal devices with a poetic magic that creates a world of its own, the disinterested world of imaginative beauty, with it visual images, associations and feelings".

4.2. Conclusion

The elegies present laments about the decay to which this world is condemned and which is already palpable. The themes of loneliness, exile and desolation help to create the impression of a process of decay. Throughout the poems, misery and loneliness are contrasted with life in the heroic society. Thus, the poets do not deny the value of society. The wanderer, the seafarer and the wife tell their story of suffering, but throughout the poems they comment on their own experience: although they have suffered the worst that man can experience they do not succumb to despair but instead they recognize that braveness and a spirit to enduring the misery of this world are necessary. In The Wanderer and The Seafarer this epistemological aspect is applied to Christianity, the believe in which is, according to these poems, the only way to a safe home (faestnung) and eternal bliss (ecan eadignesse). The characteristics of a heavenly home are just oppsite to those of the dominant images which are used to express loneliness (cf. chapter 2.1.): it means staying at home instead of being on a journey, it is a heavenly home, not a ruin or a hole in the earth and it is not subject to the forces of nature. Recognition of this concept is the central matter of concern of the elegies. R. F. Leslie points out that the wanderer's miseries are told in the past tense, "all these things appended a long time ago". That the wanderer has gone through them has led to "his present ripeness in years and experience". The second half of The Wanderer (from l. 85) and of The Seafarer respectively (from l. 58) have homiletic qualities, their main function is to convey moral instructions and to change the recipients' ethical disposition. But the strength of these moral arguments rests upon the poetic and literary form of representation in the first parts.

Therefore I propose to take away the exclusive "either-or" between allegory and report of actual experience, and between homily and poetry. The poetic descriptions are to enhance man's understanding of his stituation. The moral thrust is created successfully because it has been related to personal experience and because it is expressed in beautiful language. The poetic images are so convincing because they deal with human existence on earth. The elegies are both, poetry and homily. I hope - although I do not believe - that Smithers is right when he claims that

"no one would nowadays deny that the full meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer is much more than the sum of the ideas expressed in them".





Gordon, I. L.: "Introduction: Theme and Structure", in:

------ (ed.), The Seafarer (London, 1964), p. 1-12.

Grubl, E. D.: Studien zu den angelsächsischen Elegien (Marburg, 1948).

Hamer, R. (ed.): A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (London, 1990).

Leslie, R. F.: "Introduction: Theme and Structure", in:

------ (ed.), The Wanderer (Manchester, 1966), p. 1-25.

Meritt/Hall, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Cambridge, 1962).

Smithers, G. V.: "The meaning of The Seafarer and The Wanderer", in: Medium Aevum 26 (1957), p. 137-153; 28 (1959), p. 1-22; p. 99-104.

Tacitus, P. C.: Germania. Edited by Allan A. Lund (Heidelberg, 1988).

Whitelock, D.: The Beginnings of English Society (Harmondsworth, 1968).