Move Over Beowulf: Why the first good poem in English may be something else

Several English-language literary works survive from the first millennium AD and it is still uncertain which is the oldest. However, a short elegy called The Wanderer stands out as English’s oldest-surviving good poem, according to IDEAS producer Tom Howell. Experts in ‘Old English’ help explain the appeal and the complexity of this ancient but strangely accessible work.

An ancient poem called The Wanderer is arguably the first ‘good’ work of English literature.

An excerpt of The Wanderer in Old English from the Exeter Book, a manuscript dating from the late 10th century. (Wikipedia)

*Originally published on March 15, 2021.

It was cold. It was freezing. The old man was — probably — sneezing.

But we don't know about the final detail. Sneezes are not specified. Or about the old man — was he old? We don't know. 

Old enough to have regrets, but they can occur at any age, can't they? 

Despite featuring some gaps we need to fill in with our imagination, English's (possibly) oldest surviving poem, The Wanderer, nails the nostalgia-and-boredom-and-dread mixture felt by so many today.

Jo Livingstone is a culture writer for The New Republic. (Supplied by Jo Livingstone )

Culture writer Jo Livingstone speaks of an immediate emotional connection with the voice of the ancient elegy.

"In a way, it doesn't feel like bridging a gap. It feels like we're just standing on the same side of the gap together, but I never noticed you were there. It is the perfect pandemic poem," said Livingstone, who described feeling a visceral connection across the millennium to the poem's speaker.

Like its more famous contemporary, Beowulf, we do not know how old the poems that make up The Wanderer are. 

A manuscript of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf believed to date from the 10th century. This, the only surviving ancient copy of the story is kept in the British Museum. ( Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Wanderer speaks in an eerily familiar tongue. It uses many of our common words, such as "where" and "how" and "wretch," but pronounces and spells them unrecognizably:

Hwær is this "wanderer" person? And hu did he come to be a wrecce

Inquiring minds have wanted the answers for centuries, but they almost certainly never find them. 

Instead, today's readers of The Wanderer must commune with a 1,100-year-old half-imagined poet and his or her whining, complaining, nostalgic main character.

Translating The Wanderer's opening lines

The poem begins with these four lines:

Oft him anhaga

are gebideð,

metudes miltse

þeah þe he modcearig

Here's one translation of those lines: 

Often a person who is a "one-thinker" (which probably means they sit alone thinking about things, not that they have a "one-track mind," but again we're guessing)

… bides their time waiting for some sort of respite

… maybe from God (but maybe just a local government authority or service-provider)

… even though this person is moody and cares too much.

Other translations abound; some emphasize the poem's inner tussle between Christian-inspired hope and a forlorn world-weariness.

'Beautiful but bleak'

American-Irish poet Greg Delanty reads The Wanderer as a beautiful but bleak poem, fundamentally secular, and overcome with a sense of loss of habitat, spoken by someone facing the end of a civilization.

Manish Sharma, a Montreal-based specialist in Old English literature, responds to the poem's plea for closer social contact, from a "wanderer" figure who has spent too long isolated from friends.

"His craving for community, I find deeply poignant," says Sharma. "Especially in this moment."

Circa 1656: The north front of the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Peter, Exeter, Devon, showing the 12th-century twin towers. The cathedral houses The Exeter Book. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

To go back all the way to the beginnings of the English language, only to find an early English-speaking figure complaining about social isolation and how much better his social life was in the past, is both a comforting and a saddening experience.

"The Wanderer reads to me like one long howl of pain," Livingstone said.

"I think if there's anything about the Wanderer's point of view that living under quarantine has helped us understand, it's that the suffering of loneliness and being away from people has a lot of different forms. You know, there's the sharp pain, there's the aching pain, there's the sense of being trapped, there's the sense of being pulled in too many directions. And The Wanderer takes that feeling of loneliness and longing really, really seriously."

The poems from the Old English period survive today because of several books that lived to tell the tale from the first millennium in southern Britain.

Bruised and battered but still readable after their thousand-year journey to the present, the four books are each unique and priceless artifacts. 

Much of The Exeter Book, which contains The Wanderer amongst several other elegies, is given over to riddles, some of which barely rise above the level of immature humour. 

It hits all the notes of sadness that you could hope for.

However, The Wanderer manages to be both artifact and currently relevant art work.

"I think The Wanderer is really good," emphasizes Mo Pareles, who teaches courses in Old English literature in translation, among other topics, at the University of British Columbia. 

"But The Wanderer is so sad. And that's part of why people like it. You know, it hits all the notes of sadness that you could hope for."

*This episode was produced by Tom Howell. 

Guests in the program 

Jo Livingstone is the culture staff writer at The New Republic magazine. 

Manish Sharma is chair of the English department at Concordia University, where he specializes in Old English and medieval literature. His book The Logic of Love in the Canterbury Tales is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

Greg Delanty writes books full of what he hopes are poems. The new collection is No More Time. His anthology of translations from Old English poems, co-edited with Michael Matto, is The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. 

Mo Pareles is assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where ze teaches courses on Old English and translation, among other topics.

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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