Saturday, March 19, 2011

“The Wanderer”

AN ANCIENT ANGLO-SAXON poem “The Wanderer”, here presented in prose translation. I read this poem in the hour before dawn, in bleak late winter, during Lent, contemplating the terrifying disaster in Japan, thinking about my livelihood, all the while preparing to attend two funerals later in the day, and so it seems somehow resonant. A broader spiritual reading may be appropriate.
The solitary man is constantly looking for mercy and God's compassion, though over the watery ways with gloomy heart he has long had to stir with his arms the icy sea, treading the paths of exile. Fate is absolutely fixed!

These are the words of a wanderer whose memory was full of troubles and cruel carnage, wherein his dear kinsmen had fallen:
'Ever it has been my lot to bewail my sorrows in solitude in the twilight of each morning. There is now no-one left alive to whom I dare tell frankly the feelings of my heart. I know truly that it is a mark of nobility in a knight that he should fasten securely and keep to himself the treasury in which his thoughts are stored — think what he will! For all his grief of heart a man cannot resist Fate, nor can his troubled spirit give him any help. And so those who are eager to be of good report generally keep their sorrow imprisoned in the secret chamber of the heart.

'I myself too, in my misery and distress, have constantly had to bind my feelings in fetters — exiled from home and far from my kinsmen — ever since the day when the dark earth closed over my generous lord, and I wandered away over the expanse of waters, destitute and distraught with the dangers of winter, looking in sorrow for the abode of a generous prince — if far or near I could find one who would feel regard for me in his banqueting hall, or comfort me in my friendlessness and entertain me with good cheer.'
It will be realised by him who experiences it what a cruel companion anxiety is to one who has no kind protector. His thoughts are full of homeless wanderings — not of gold rings; of his shivering breast — not of the good things of the earth. He calls to mind the men of the hall and the giving of treasure, and how when he was young he was entertained to his heart's content by his generous lord. But now all his happiness has passed away!

It will be realised, assuredly, by him who will have to forego for all time the instructions of his dear lord and friend. Ever when distress and sleep together lay hold on the poor solitary, he dreams that he is greeting and kissing his liege-lord, and laying his hands and head on his knee — just as he used to do when he enjoyed the bounty of the throne in days of old. Then the friendless man awakes again and sees before him the grey waves — sees the sea-birds bathing and spreading their wings, and rime falling, and snow mingled with hail. The grievous wounds, which the loss of his lord has made in his heart, are all the harder to bear, and his sorrow comes back to him when the memory of his kinsmen passes through his mind. He greets them in glad strains and scans them all eagerly. His warrior comrades again melt away, and as they vanish their spirits bring no familiar greetings to his ear. His sorrow comes back to him as on and on he must urge his aching heart over the expanse of waters.

Assuredly I cannot think of any reason in the world why my spirit should not be clouded, when I reflect upon the whole life of noblemen — how halls have suddenly been left destitute of proud warrior squires — just as mankind here droops and perishes day by day.

Assuredly no man can acquire wisdom until he has spent many years in the world. A man of authority must be patient, — not too impetuous, or too hasty of speech, or too slack or reckless in combat, or too timid, or jubilant, or covetous, or too ready to boast ere he knows full well the issue. When an impetuous warrior is making a vow, he ought to pause until he knows full well the issue — whither the impulse of his heart will lead. A wise man must perceive how mysterious will be the time when the wealth of all this age will lie waste — just as now in diverse places throughout this earth walls are standing beaten by the wind and covered with rime. The bulwarks are dismantled, the banqueting halls are ruinous; their rulers lie bereft of joy and all their proud chivalry has fallen by the wall. Some have been cut off by battle, borne on their last journey. One was carried by birds over the deep sea; one was given over to death by the grey wolf; one was buried in a hole in the earth by a knight of sad countenance. Thus did the Creator of men lay waste this place of habitation until the clamour of its occupants all ceased, and the buildings raised of old by giants stood empty. He then who in a spirit of meditation has pondered over this ruin, and who with an understanding heart probes the mystery of our life down to its depths, will call to mind many slaughters of long ago and give voice to such words as these:
'What has become of the steed? What has become of the squire? What has become of the giver of treasure? What has become of the banqueting houses? Where are the joys of the hall? O shining goblet! O mailed warrior! O glory of the prince! How has that time passed away, grown shadowy under the canopy of night as though it had never been! There remains now of the beloved knights no trace save the wall wondrously high, decorated with serpent forms. The nobles have been carried off by the violence of spears, by weapons greedy for slaughter and by mighty Fate, and these ramparts of stone are battered by tempests. Winter's blast, the driving snow-storm enwraps the earth when the shades of night come darkly lowering, and sends from the North a cruel hail-storm in wrath against mankind.

'All the realm of earth is full of tribulation. The life of mankind in the world is shattered by the handiwork of the Fates. Here wealth and friends, liegemen and kinsfolk pass away. Desolation will hold sway throughout the wide world.'
Thus spake the man wise of understanding as he sat communing with himself in solitude. Good is he who keeps his faith. A warrior must never be too precipitate in giving vent to the grief in his heart, unless he has learnt zealously to apply the remedy. Well will it be for him who seeks mercy and comfort from the Father in Heaven, upon whom all our security rests.
[Edited and translated by N. Kershaw, Cambridge University, 1922]

This poem embodies what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘Northern-ness’, describing bleak winter skies, vast empty places, and a longing for the now-lost good things of the past. As Catholics believe that the world was made very good, we are fully in our right to mourn over things lost. But even in loss there is always a glimmer of hope. Lewis considered this sense of longing a component of joy.

The Latin phrase ‘Ubi sunt...’ translated as ‘Where are...’ is well represented in this poem, and is a key idea of Northernness. It is not just nostalgia, but rather is a meditation on the brevity of life. Ubi sunt was common in Medieval Catholic poetry, can be found in Country music, and was even a common theme in popular music of the 1960s.

In the North, winter is a stern disciplinarian; indeed, one could say that winter is a disaster of great scale that repeats itself inevitably every year. Northerners will undoubtably have a sense of inevitable loss; and yet, summer follows winter, and so there is always hope.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing; I never heard of that poem before and it's very moving. It seems to come from a wiser, more reflective age, an age without TVs or iPods.

    Part of that poem was very familiar, so I looked it up and sure enough, Tolkien adapted it for one of his characters in Lord of the Rings. A bit of it made it into the movie version of The Two Towers. Here's Tolkien's version:

    Where now the horse and the rider? where is the horn that was blowing?
    Where is the helm and the hauberk and the bright hair flowing?
    Where is the hand on the harp-string, and the red fire glowing?
    Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
    They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
    The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
    Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning?
    Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?