He who lives / most prosperously on land does not understand / how I, careworn and cut off from my kinsmen, / have as an exile endured a winter / on the icy sea...
The Seafarer has undertaken voluntary exile and now spends his days at sea. In this passage, he reflects upon the difficulty of his chosen life in comparison to life on land. While the latter is comfortable and filled with camaraderie, it is not as conducive to pensivity or reflection. The Seafarer knows that his land-dwelling counterparts don't understand his choice to face the dangers of a life at sea. However, he believes that his solitary experience has taught him to trust in God alone for security. Men who live on land are not as reflective, and therefore, tend to believe their lives are long and safe. They do not turn their thoughts to God as much as they revel in mead, friends, and battle. The Seafarer's chosen journey marks him as the kind of man whom the Anglo-Saxons revered: a man who accepted his fate and endeavored to attain divine wisdom.
Nothing is ever easy in the kingdom of earth / the world beneath the heavens is in the hands of fate.
The Wanderer is adrift in the world, separated from his lord and his homeland. His solitude forces him to ruminate on the ephemerality of life and the material world. This passage shows that he also learns to accept fate, one of the most prominent themes in Anglo-Saxon literature. He knows that life on Earth is hard and short, and material wealth is fleeting. Someday, the civilized world will revert back to a state of wilderness (a similar theme appears in "The Ruin"). In order to avoid total despair, a man must remain brave, as he cannot control his own fate. Instead, he should look to God for comfort.
Grief goes side by side with those / who suffer longing for a loved one.
One of the reasons Old English poetry has remained poignant throughout the centuries is the frequent evocation of universal human themes. In "The Wife's Lament," the poet depicts grief in an immediate and powerful way through the titular character of the wife, who cannot endure the loneliness and separation from her husband. She remembers when she and her husband swore that nothing but death would part them and now, they are suffering apart. She feels envy towards happy lovers, because it makes her remember what she once had. Her mournful lament speaks to anyone, male or female, old or young, who has experienced loss. As most Old English poetry was assumed to have been delivered orally, hearing this poem would have been an emotional experience for listeners during the Anglo-Saxon era. While contemporary audiences will likely read it instead of hearing it, the emotional weight of the Wife's words is timeless.
The earth's embrace, / its fierce grip, holds the mighty craftsmen; / they are perished and gone. A hundred generations / have passed away since then. / This wall, grey with lichen / and red of hue, outlives kingdom after kingdom
In "The Ruin", the narrator gazes upon ancient ruins and ruminates on their former glory and the transience of mortal life. The idea that nothing can stand up to the passage of time is a common theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry, as is represented by these lines.
Similar passages appear in "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer". Here, the narrator understands that the powerful men who built this kingdom perhaps thought themselves invincible. However, they are now dead and buried, and several kingdoms came after them. Finally, the lichen that has accumulated on the walls has outlived any of the human inhabitants.
That passed away, this also may.
This short refrain appears at the end of each verse in "Deor". Although this statement is very brief, it is the core of the poem's meaning. In "Deor", the poet/narrator is exhorting his listeners/readers to remember that no matter how bad a particular situation seems, it will eventually pass away, ameliorated by either time or by death. "Deor" offers both physical and mental examples of suffering, culled from history and legends that readers during the Anglo-Saxon era would have been familiar with. Therefore, Anglo-Saxon listeners would have felt comfort in the reminder that their own sorrows would not last forever. In this way, this message is also relevant to modern readers.
This is one of the horrors / I bring men, obediently crashing / On my rough way. And Who can calm me?
The riddles in Exeter Book run the gamut from profound to folksy, religious to obscene, heroic to celebratory of the everyday. This third riddle, which might actually have been intended to be part of the second riddle, is considered one of the "storm riddles" because of the images of nature as a fearsome and mighty force. When the poet uses the word "obediently" here, he is referring to the fact that even nature is controlled by the hand of God. The Anglo-Saxons often felt the effects of nature's destruction, as they would have experienced plagues, crop failures, massive storms, freezing winters, and draughts. The storm riddles are thus an expression of the Anglo-Saxons' reverence for nature, believing it to be an act of God, even when its effects are so destructive.
A worm ate words. I thought that wonderfully / Strange -a miracle -
Several of the Old English riddles are excellent examples of double entendre. They attempt to entertain and stimulate their listeners' imagination, asking them to look beyond the surface and discern the answer to the question posed. In this short riddle, the poet marvels at a worm that eats words. He thinks it wondrous and strange that the worm now has thoughts and ideas in his belly. On the surface, this riddle seems to be about a book-moth (an insect that literally devours the pages of books). This is a definite possibility, but scholars have posited that it might be deeper than that. Some claim that the riddle may be an elaborate pun on literature, language, and knowledge. The famed Oxford philologist and author J.R.R. Tolkien, who studied the works of the Anglo-Saxons, included his own riddles in his beloved children's classic The Hobbit (1937). This demonstrates their continuing popularity and resonance with the English-speaking world.
Foolish is he / who fears not his Lord: death catches him unprepared.
The Anglo-Saxons believed that men should have an awareness of fate (wyrd in Old English) when making major decisions. They should not act brash, arrogant, anxious, or prideful. Rather, they should be humble and strive to perform great deeds for the benefit of humanity, so they may ascend to Heaven. In this didactic passage from "The Seafarer", the narrator has achieved wisdom during his solitary journey and exhorts his listeners to heed his advice. He warns his listeners that that it is foolish not to have a healthy fear of God, who can at any moment strike a man down with illness, the sword, or old age. A man who is ignorant and blithely comfortable in his life will not be prepared for the afterlife when death takes him. He will not have accomplished great deeds on earth and will thus not go to Heaven after death. His pursuit of worldly goods will have been in vain, as he will not be able to take them beyond the grave.
Mindful of hardships, grievous slaughter, / the ruin of kinsmen, the wanderer said: / 'Time and again at the day's dawning / I must mourn all my afflictions alone.
"The Wanderer" is truly a mournful poem. It presents the Wanderer's sufferings in a vivid, immediate fashion. He suffers physically because of the cold weather and emotionally because of the extreme mental duress of being an exile, separated from his lord and kinsmen. This poem evokes the common theme of exile, one of the harshest punishments an Anglo-Saxon person could endure. Since the relationship between a lord and his retainer was so cherished, a man without a lord would have felt like less of a man. However, the Wanderer knows that he must suffer in solitude in order to attain God's wisdom, and so he accepts his fate.
Then I found my husband was ill-starred, / sad at heart, pretending, plotting / murder behind a smiling face.
Many Anglo-Saxon poems seem fairly straightforward upon the surface, but scholars have been offering varying interpretations through the centuries. Depending on the translation from Old English, each poem can have a slightly different meaning. There is also a dearth of historical documents from this era. For these reasons, "The Wife's Lament" has been challenging literary scholars and critics for generations. For example, in this passage, it is unclear whether the narrator's husband plotted against her willfully or if he was forced into doing so by his kinsmen. The nature of the husband's culpability would change the tone of his wife's grief, and therefore, the meaning of the poem. Is she devastated because her husband's kin ruined their relationship and because she misses her husband, or is she devastated because her husband was false and betrayed her? Does she actually miss her husband, or does she long to return to happier times, before she knew his true nature?
Exeter Book Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Exeter Book is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.