Exeter Book

Exeter Book Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How are "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer" similar?

    Both of these poems are elegies with some aspects of wisdom poetry. Each is divided into roughly two parts. Each tells the tale of a solitary figure (although some scholars believe that "The Wanderer" has an additional narrator) exiled from his homeland. These figures mourn their old lives: the laughter and joy in the mead-hall, the warmth of the banqueting room, the friends and kinsmen and women they knew, and the bond with their lords. They are both traveling alone at sea and experiencing the harshness of the elements; they speak of the freezing winter, driving rain, shrieking birds, and swirling storms. While the Wanderer is in forced exile and the Seafarer is in voluntary exile, they are in parallel emotional states. They are outside the Anglo-Saxon society, which gives them an opportunity to reflect. They both preach that faith in the Lord is more valuable than faith in material wealth. In this way, both poems contain a Christian message and an exhortation to Christian values, although those found in "The Seafarer" are more explicit.

  2. 2

    What is the Christian message in "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer"?:

    Both of these famous Old English poems have Christian themes, but scholars disagree on which poem offers a more potent sermon. "The Wanderer" also displays some Pagan elements, but mentions God at the end of the poem. Some scholars believe the addition of this message at the end of the poem may have come after its initial publication, especially as the poem has a mostly secular tone throughout. However, it is clear that there is some Christian admonishment in "The Wanderer." "The Seafarer" has a more explicitly Christian message. The narrator speaks of attaining wisdom through his journey and his realization that since earthly life is transient, he should put his faith in God and turn his thoughts toward everlasting life. Both of these poems offer the advice that men should avoid accumulating material wealth and realize that nothing can protect them from the ravages of illness, battle, or old age. Instead of trying to fight their fate, they should instead focus on the afterlife and turn to God for security.

  3. 3

    How does "The Seafarer" characterize life on land versus life on the sea?:

    The Seafarer describes his life as miserable. He is freezing cold, lonely, and fearful of storms and waves. He has no friends or women. However, this life has brought him closer to God. He connects misery on Earth to a secure and happy afterlife. By contrast, the Seafarer insinuates that those who live a life of ease on land are not as connected to God. They are used to comfortable living conditions and the camaraderie of others; while this may bring earthly felicity, they are not as apt to think deeply about their lives and how fleeting they are. They are less humble and desire wealth and power. Therefore, they are less likely to think beyond life on Earth. This connects the idea of living on land to earthly sin, and therefore, to Hell.

  4. 4

    What is the message of "Deor"?:

    Deor is a short lament that consists of several historical and legendary examples of men and women who have survived terrible experiences. All of these stories serve to reinforce one central message embodied in the refrain, "That passed away, this also may". "Deor"'s meaning is, in effect, that no matter what terrible thing befalls a man in his earthly life, it will pass away. Perhaps death will serve to end the suffering, or a resolution will come. Whatever way the suffering ends, the important message is that it [does] end. This poem is made up of depressing anecdotes, but the overall effect is hopeful.

  5. 5

    What is the hidden meaning, if any, of the Wanderer's description of the seabirds?:

    When the Wanderer is at sea, he starts seeing the faces of his lost comrades on the circling seabirds. The simplest critical interpretation of lines, which are notoriously difficult to translate, suggests that the Wanderer misses his old friends to the point where he hallucinates their faces on the birds. However, some critics believe that the Wanderer be describing a visit from the spirits of his dead comrades, and they fade away when he joyfully greets them. The Wanderer may also be scanning passing vessels, keeping a look-out for people he knows. Another critic occupies the middle ground between the two poles of thought, suggesting that there is an un-translatable word in Old English that alludes to the Wanderer's connection to the spirit world. Thus the Wanderer may actually be connecting with the spirits of his friends, which would fit with the divine themes inherent in the poem. Some Anglo-Saxons did believe that the soul could take the form of an animal.

  6. 6

    Why is the Wife suffering, and why is this significant?

    The Wife is suffering due to her isolation and her estrangement from her husband. She was sent by her husband to this strange land, perhaps as a peaceweaver. While she was away, either her husband or his kinsmen orchestrated her capture. Her husband was somehow implicated in her betrayal and so her sadness either comes from finding out his true nature or simply from being away from him. Whatever the circumstances, the core of the poem is the Wife's loneliness. The Wife clearly loves or did love her husband. Regardless of the state of their marriage, she longs for happier days. Marriage was highly valued in Anglo-Saxon society and this poem symbolizes this. Wives had much less independence than they do now, and this kind of estrangement would have been unusual and recognizably painful. However, the poem does invoke universal suffering, empathizing with anyone who has ever been separated from a loved one.

  7. 7

    How would you define the tone of "The Ruin"? Does it change during the course of the poem?:

    "The Ruin" expresses the way a man is feeling while looking at the ruins of a once-majestic court, most likely at Bath or Hadrian's Wall. At first, he describes the ruins, invoking a sense of nostalgia for the grand halls and mighty warriors who once roamed these grounds. However, he soon becomes fatalistic, describing the way that several kingdoms have risen and fallen within these walls. His tone takes on notes of warning when he uses the ruins as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life on Earth. Scholar Kevin Crossley-Holland writes that the poem's overall tone is not sad but is one of "admiration and celebration." It is a straightforward reflection upon the passage of time, but it does not possess the personal turmoil of "The Wife's Lament" or "The Wanderer."

  8. 8

    What are the characteristics of Old English poetry as seen in Exeter Book?

    The Anglo-Saxon poets had a wide scope of literary expression. They wrote elegies and laments to mourn lost loves, fading glory, and fallen kingdoms. They also composed gnomic verses and wisdom poetry, charming riddles, heroic poems, and even a major epic poem, "Beowulf." Some poems have pagan and Germanic influences while others tend toward Christian themes and subject matter. The poems in Exeter Book express societal values of the time, like the attainment of wisdom and omnipotent divine control. The culture celebrated grand heroes, and the poetry is appropriately filled with images of battles, monsters, warriors, and benevolent lords. Exile was a preeminent concern, as one's lord often defined his or her identity. Many poems also allude to the ephemerality of human life, warning the reader that a person cannot ever escape his or her fate. In terms of creation and structure, it is believed that Anglo-Saxon poetry was composed by a scop and delivered orally because most of it is written in alliterative voice.

  9. 9

    Why are Riddles 1-3 called the "storm riddles"? What do they reveal about Anglo-Saxon Society?:

    Riddles 1-3 stand out from the collection of the riddles. They are often grouped together even though Riddle 3 is very long. Unlike the other riddles, they are not humorous. Rather, each depicts wild and fantastic scenes of nature in all its power. Riddle 1 appears to describe a frightening and puissant thunderstorm raging across the land, so "all the world/crackles with the sounds of pain and death." This storm has the power to destroy everything man can create. Riddle 2 describes some sort of jetstream or spout on the sea floor that can explode at any second. In Riddle 3, the combination of wind and atmospheric pressure cause houses and halls to shake, and the ocean to flood towns. These riddles capture the terror that the readers often felt at the hands of nature. However, it is clear in these riddles that they justified nature's unpredictable rage by ascribing all control to God.

  10. 10

    What is the significance of other famous Anglo-Saxon poems, including those that do not appear in Exeter Book?:

    Scholars often use "The Husband's Message" as a companion to "The Wife's Lament", though the connection has not yet been proven. The husband in the former poem has been separated from his wife due to a feud, and is now writing her a message many years later, pleading with her for reconciliation. This could be a conclusion to the tale of estranged lovers in "The Wife's Lament". "Juliana", a poem ascribed to Cynewulf, addresses Christian themes of martyrdom and sainthood. "Wulf and Eadwacer" resembles both an elegy and a riddle, because the female narrator is pining for either a husband, lover, or child (the meaning is unconfirmed). "The Fortunes of Men" discusses the cycle of life and fortunes and misfortunes that may befall a man, similar to the themes in "The Wanderer", "The Seafarer", and "The Ruin". It also has Christian themes. "The Dream of the Rood," in the Vercelli book, is a Christian dream poem in which the narrator addresses the Cross on which Christ died. And, of course, "Beowulf," the epic poem from the Nowell Codex, tells the epic tale of the titular hero fighting the monster Grendel and his mother. This list is not exclusive, as there are many other works in Old English, but these are the most commonly studied examples.