Wulf and Eadwacer (From Old English)

Wulf and Eadwacer
Click to hear me recite the poem in Old English
Click to hear me read this translation out loud in English

He's as good as wild game given to my folk.
They want to kill him if he comes to their clan.
Different is our lot.
Wulf is on an isle, I on another.
Secure is that island, surrounded by marshland.
Men brawl on that isle beset with bloodlust.
They want to kill him if he comes to their clan.
Different is our lot.
My wayfaring hope tracked my Wulf like a hound,
When I sat wailing in rain-wracked weather,
When that sword-strong lord laid his limbs about me
And gave me joy though it grieved me greatly.
Wulf, my Wulf! It wasn't lack of food
But the lack of you, my longing for you,
And how seldom I saw you that made me sick.
Eadwacer, do you hear me? Wulf whisks our poor whelp
Away to the woodland.
What was never united is not hard to sunder:
Our tale together.


The Original:

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīc is ūs.
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Fæst is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode,
þonne hit wæs rēnig weder ond ic rēotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
Wulf, mīn Wulf! wēna mē þīne
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.
Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer? Uncerne earme hwelp
bireð wulf tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.



Wulf and Eadwacer, as this poem has been called by posterity, is one of the most enigmatic, ambiguous, vexing and haunting works of all Old English literature, not only because there is hardly a line whose meaning is not subject to question and which doesn't contain a difficult word or two, but because the very poem's composition and structural format seem curiously out of place. It is the only Old English poem that has come down to us with two characters named "Wulf" and "Eadwacer," the only one with a repeating refrain.

As a taste of just how ambiguous the poem is, consider the following:

lāc means not only "wild game" but "gift"
āþecgan means not only "to kill" but "to accept (a guest)"
þrēat could mean "threat," "crowd," "clan," "horde" or "hostile army"
dogode is a verb whose meaning is almost completely unknown, for the simple reason that it occurs nowhere else in the surviving OE corpus, and therefore is at best no more than the subject of educated guesswork.

Here's what we know for certain about the poem: It has at least three characters, two of which are male, one of which is female. We can't even be sure that all the characters are human. The female character is bemoaning some sort of difficulty which has beset the male character because of blood-thirsty men. At some point, she comes to miss someone named "Wulf" and allows a lord to have his way with her, and later feels a sense of loss when some wolf (or "Wulf") takes away her child (the word hwelp has animal connotations.)

The whole thing, to me, has the feel of a poem about a story or legend that, at the time of composition, was widely known to the poet's intended audience, but which we now no longer have any knowledge of. Reading the poem today is rather like reading Tennyson's "Ulysses" or Brodsky's "Odysseus to Telemachus" without being aware of the Homeric legends: a moving experience in its own right to be sure, but hardly the one the poet could have intended.

So why translate it, one might ask.

My answer, quite simply, is that I enjoy it in Old English despite the manifold ambiguities, and hope to communicate and impart some of that enjoyment in translation.

9 comments:

  1. Only if you accept that common emendation. The original text as found in the Exeter book only has "dogode." I am on the assumption that "dogode" is the preterit form of an otherwise unattested verb docgian which, if a nonce-word, would presumably mean "to act dog-like (in some way)."

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  2. I enjoyed your translation and commentary very much. Few other linguists or Anglo-Saxon scholars mention that lāc can mean "wild game," which seems most correct given the animal theme.

    I have also felt that the poem is probably a variation or poetic treatment of a story well-known to readers of the time, but now lost, which would account for much of the poem's ambiguity.

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  3. Hello there! I very much enjoyed the audio of you reading Caedmon's Hymn and was looking forward to the recording of this poem, but the file doesn't appear to be there. Any chance that could be fixed? :) Also, any chance I could download the files somehow? I think your pronunciation is one of the better I've heard online and I'm trying to work on my own... :)

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  4. i cant believe ur hot and lyk old english!!!!??!??!?!?!?!!!! xxxxoxoxoxx

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  5. You should've seen King Alfred. He was a native speaker of it, and the hottest ticket this side of the Thames.

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  6. brilliant. I don't know any old english so I can't comment on the translation but this works really well in its own right.

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  7. This is a brave and moving translation of Wulf. Especially wonderful was, "When I sat wailing in rain-wracked weather,

    When that sword-strong lord laid his limbs about me

    And gave me joy though it grieved me greatly." The hunger and yet the tristesse of that tryst comes through. Lovely. From this I get that Eadwacer is both the name of that hook-up as well as a term of endearment (Guardian of Happiness) for her distant man. What a pivot. What a poem.Thank you.

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  8. Wonderful, wonderful translation! Please do more of this! Many greetings from Germany

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  9. Here is my translation of the poem ...

    http://www.thehypertexts.com/Wulf%20and%20Eadwacer%20Translation.htm

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