Every now and then I post a bit of a story or poetry I’ve written, or a translation that I’ve done of one of the Old English poems that I study on my degree. This is one of the latter, a slightly liberal prose translation of the OE poem, The Wanderer. This is one of the best known poems from the time (Beowulf aside), and strikes me every time I read it as something that I can still learn from. I’ve just quickly translated it this afternoon as part of my exam revision, but I figured that I might as well share the result with you guys, as I genuinely believe that this is a poem that can still speak today.
The Wanderer (by an unknown poet)
“The one who wanders alone always waits on the grace and mercy of the Most High, though he journeys across the sea’s expanse with a careworn heart. He must travel far and wide over those ice-cold waves, with no oars but his hands. That is the fate that has been set for him.”
So speaks the earth-strider, recalling his own sorrows, how the bloodlust of his enemies overtook him, and his kinsmen fell beneath their slaughter.
“I have always had to speak my care alone, at every breaking dawn. There is no one alive to whom I dare reveal everything. I have discovered the truth: that it is a noble virtue in a man to bind fast his heart and think to himself as he will. The weary mind cannot withstand the tides of fate, nor can the troubled mind be of any help. Thus, those who seek glory and praise must always lock their sorrows behind the doors of their breast, as I myself have often had to. I am always careworn, deprived of my homeland, far from any free kinsmen and bound with fetters since, in past years, I buried my gold-friend, my lord, in the darkness of the earth. I went from there, utterly desolate, winter howling through my mind, over the mingling waves. Memories of my hall sent pangs of misery through me, yet I sought a giver of treasure, someone in a mead-hall, whether far or near, who would welcome me, friendless though I was, and entice me once again with pleasures. But he who has experienced it knows how cruel grief is as a companion, especially for he who has few dear comrades left in the world. He is preoccupied by the miserable paths of exile, not piles of gold. He thinks on his own frozen heart, not the splendour of the earth. He remembers the men of the hall, and the receiving of treasure…how in his youth his gold-friend entertained him with feasts! But the joy is all perished now.
“The one who has been forced to go without his lord’s dear precepts for a long time knows all this, and sorrow and sleep come to him together, indistinguishable from each other. They hold fast the wretched man again and again. He sees his lord in his mind! He runs to him, embraces and kisses him! Once again he lays his hand and head on his dear lord’s knee, as he did in times now past, when he enjoyed the gift-throne.
“But then he awakens again, the friendless man, and sees before him the grey waves, with only bathing sea birds for company. They spread their feathers amidst the frost and the snow that falls, mingled with hail. The heart’s wounds are all the more painful for the one who longs for his lost love. Then he looks out, and greets them eagerly, joyfully regarding the companions of men! But always they swim away…those floating ones do not bring him any familiar words. Sorrow is renewed once more in the one that often sends his weary spirit out over the waves that imprison him.
“Therefore I just can’t think why in the world my mind doesn’t grow dark when I think about the lives of all men, how quickly the brave young princes give up the floor. Just as now, this middle-earth is declining and falling day after day. It seems to me that you can call no man wise before he has seen his share of winters in the kingdom of this world. A wise man must be patient, and not too hot-headed, nor too hasty of speech, nor too weak a warrior, nor too reckless, nor too fearful, nor too blithe, nor too greedy for wealth, nor too eager to boast before he knows clearly what he’s saying. Before he speaks a boast, a man must wait until he is sure that he knows where the thoughts of his heart will turn next.
“The prudent man must also realise how awful it will be when all of the riches of this world stand desolate, just as now, in some places throughout this middle-earth, walls stand, blown by wind and covered in frost. The buildings are battered by storms, the wine-halls crumble, and the rulers lie dead, deprived of all joy. That noble company all fell, still proud, by the wall; some fell in battle and departed on the path beyond, some were borne away, over grey waves, by birds, the grey wolf received a share of the deaths of others, and some were buried by sad-faced men in graves of earth. In this way, the creator of men has laid waste this city, and deprived the people of their revels. The old work of giants stood empty.”
The wise man who has considered this place, and deeply thought about this dark life in his heart, recalls from times past a multitude of slaughters, and speaks this word:
“Where are the horses? Where are the kinsmen? Where are the treasure-givers? Where are the joys of the halls? Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the armoured warrior! Alas for the glory of princes! How time went on, and grew dark under the cover of night, as if it never was. There now stands, in the track of the dear company, a wall, wondrously high and decorated with snake patterns. The men took away a host of ash-spears, weapons greedy for slaughter and renowned by fate. These rocky slopes remain, battered by storms, with snow falling, frost binding them, and winter howling all around. When darkness comes, with the descending night-shadow, fierce hailstorms are sent from the north, terrifying humanity.
“Everything is full of hardship in the kingdom of this world; the will of fate often changes in the world under heaven. Here wealth is fleeting, friends are fleeting, man is fleeting, and kin are fleeting, for all the foundations of the world will become empty!”
So speaks the man, wise in mind, who is sat apart in contemplation.
“Worthy is he who keeps his word. A man must never be too quick to reveal the anger in his breast before he knows the solution to it, and has the courage to put it into effect.
“It will go well with the one who seeks grace and comfort from our father in heaven; that is where, for us all, eternity stands.”