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The Wanderer: An Anglo-Saxon Poem: Translated By Jeffrey Hopkins


ISSUE:  Spring 1977

(Conjecture about the setting of the poem: In Anglo-Saxon England a warrior owed complete fealty to his chief. A warrior was stunned unconscious during a battle in which his chief died. He revived after the battle and found himself chiefless. Several years later he recounts his plight.)

Often the lonely receives love,
The Creator’s help, though heavy with care
Over the sea he suffers long
Stirring his hands in the frosty swell,
The way of exile. Fate never wavers.

The wanderer spoke; he told his sorrows,
The deadly onslaughts, the death of the clan,
“At dawn alone I must
Mouth my cares; the man does not live
Whom I dare tell my depths
Straight out. I see truth
In the lordly custom for the courageous man
To bind fast his breast, loyal
To his treasure closet, thoughts aside.
The weary cannot control fate
Nor do bitter thoughts settle things.
The eager for glory often bind
Something bloody close to their breasts.

“Wretched, I tie my heart with ropes
Far from my home, far from my kinsmen
Since a hole in the ground hid my chief
Long ago. Laden with cares,
Weary, I crossed the confine of waves,
Sought the troop of a dispenser of treasure,
Far or near to find the man
Who knew my merits in the mead hall,
Who would foster a friendless man,
Treat me to joys. He who has put it to a test
Knows how cruel a companion is sorrow
For one who has few friendly protectors.
Exile guards him, not wrought gold,
A freezing heart, not the fullness of the earth.
He remembers warriors, the hall, rewards,
How, as a youth, his friend honored him at feasts,
The gold-giving prince. Joy has perished,

“He knows how it is to suffer long
Without the beloved wisdom of a friendly lord.
Often when sorrow and sleep together
Bind the worn lonely warrior
It seems in his heart that he holds and kisses
The lord of the troop and lays on his knee
His head and hands as he had before
In times gone by at the gift-giver’s throne.
When the friendless warrior awakens again
He sees before him the black waves,
Sea birds bathing, feathers spreading,
Frost and snow falling with hail.
The wounds of his heart are heavier,
Sore after his friends. Sorrow is renewed
When the mind ponders the memory of kinsmen;
He greets them with joy; he anxiously grasps
For something to say. They swim away again.
The breasts of ghosts do not bring the living
Much wisdom. Woe is renewed
For him who must send his weary heart
Way out over the prison of waves.

“Therefore in this world I cannot think of a reason
Why my soul does not blacken when I seriously consider
All the warriors, tested at war,
How they suddenly sank to the floor,
The brave kinsmen. But this world
Every day falls to dust.
No man is wise until he lives many winters
In the kingdom of the world.
The wise must be patient,
Never too hasty with feelings nor too hot with words
Nor too weak as a warrior nor too witlessly brash
Nor too fearful nor too ready nor too greedy for reward
Nor even too feverish for boasting until testing his fibre.
A man should wait before he makes a vow
Until, like a true warrior, he eagerly tests
Which way the courage of his heart will course.
The good warrior must understand how ghostly it will be
When all this world of wealth stands wasted
As now in many places about this massive earth
Walls stand battered by the wind,
Covered by frost, the roofs collapsed.
The wine halls crumbled; the warriors lie dead,
Cut off from joy; the great troop all crumpled
Proud by the wall. One war took,
Led to his death. One a bird lifted
Over the high sea. One the hoary wolf
Broke with death. One, bloody-cheeked,
A warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.”

Then the wise man thinks about the wall
And deeply considers this dark life.
From times far away the wanderer recalls
The deadly slashes and says,
“What happened to the horse? What happened to the war-
    rior? What happened to the gift-giver?
What happened to the wine hall? Where are the sounds of
    joy?
Ea-la bright beaker! Ea-la byrnied warrior!
Ea-la the chiefs majesty! How those moments went,
Grayed in the night as if they never were!
A wall still stands near the tracks of the warriors,
Wondrously high! Worms have stained it.
A host of spears hungry for carnage
Destroyed the men, that marvelous fate!
Storms beat these stone cliffs,
A blanket of frost binds the earth,
Winter is moaning! When the mists darken
And night descends, the north delivers
A fury of hail in hatred at men.
All is wretched in the realm of the earth;
The way of fate changes the world under heaven.
    Here is treasure lent, here is a friend lent,
    Here is a man lent, here is a kinsman lent.
    All of the earth will be empty!”

So spoke the wise in heart; he sits alone with his mystery.
He is good to keep faith; grief must never escape
A man’s heart too quickly unless with his might like a true
    warrior
He has sought a lasting boon. It is best for him who seeks love,
Help from the heavenly Father where all stands firm.

2 Comments

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Joshua 's picture
Joshua · 1 year ago

This is a touching piece about loss and the effects of war and all that's evil in this world.

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Claudia Putnam's picture
Claudia Putnam · 11 months ago

I've read at least a dozen translations of this poem. This is terrific. OE is not so far from English that we have to lose the alliteration completely, or the music, but most sacrifice the poetry for the literal translation. This poem is a near-perfect balance. Very graceful. Congratulations. 

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