Exeter Book

Representations of the Past in The Seafarer and The Wanderer College

The poems The Seafarer and The Wanderer are both elegiac in nature: each speaker delivers a reflective monologue about their journey from the past they have lost to the solitary present they face, although there are limitations to the past’s disappearance, as it clearly lingers in their memories of ‘days of toil’. The ‘ubi sunt’ formula used in both is a traditional method to voice a realisation of loss and the transitory nature of life: for example, in a rhetorical set-piece in The Wanderer it takes the form of a list.

‘Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maÞÞumgyfa?

Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?’

The poet here expresses how distant the past now really is, as the hypothetical wise man asks after treasure-givers and the place of banquets in vain, as these fundamental examples from his past life are now gone. This rhetorical despair is emphasized by the repeated use of ‘Hwær’, as he appears to be in denial about the permanent loss of his familiar surroundings. The oral tradition in which Old English manuscript poetry had its roots influences this structure, as the mono-syllabic word demanding answers directly from any potential audience creates a striking new ‘movement’ within the poem, as though...

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