Wulf and Eadwacer

Today I was reading about this poem, Wulf and Eadwacer, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. The manuscript of the poem dates to the late 900s c.e. and it struck me immediately with its ache and mourning. I must admit, I was somewhat shocked to read that there is a lack of consensus around what the text means. Each interpretation that I read seemed to get at a piece of the whole — but, I felt a key element was being missed entirely.

I came to the below interpretation based on my experience as a writer and as someone who studied anthropology and linguistics in undergrad. Obviously, I have not written a dissertation on the subject (yet…hmmm), and I’m sure that I would need to do so to exhaustively “prove” my interpretation. Nonetheless, I am proceeding with this casual entry, I suppose, because I am curious if anyone else agrees with me.

First: the poem itself. This version is borrowed from the current Wikipedia entry on the subject (apologies for how the web design mucks up the enjambments):

Leodum is minum   swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan,   gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege,   ic on oþerre.

Fæst is þæt eglond,   fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe   weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan,   gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum   wenum dogode;

þonne hit wæs renig weder   ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa   bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon,   wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf,   wena me þine
seoce gedydon,   þine seldcymas,

murnende mod,   nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?   Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð Wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð   þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

It is to my people as if someone gave them a gift.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.
Wulf is on one island I on another.

That island, surrounded by fens, is secure.
There on the island are bloodthirsty men.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.
I thought of my Wulf with far-wandering hopes,

Whenever it was rainy weather, and I sat tearfully,
Whenever the warrior bold in battle encompassed me with his arms.
To me it was pleasure in that, it was also painful.
Wulf, my Wulf, my hopes for you have caused
My sickness, your infrequent visits,

A mourning spirit, not at all a lack of food.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf is carrying
our wretched whelp to the forest,
that one easily sunders which was never united:
our song together.

Now, a line by line exegesis of sorts:

It is to my people as if someone gave them a gift.
Here, the speaker is referencing the child that she is pregnant with. She is calling the unborn child a gift that has been given to her, and by extension, to her people (even though, as we see immediately following, that gift is unwanted).

They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
Her group of people wants to kill the child, lest his birth bring an influx of the father’s group into their own.

It is different for us.
The speaker and father come from different groups of people. ALSO, their feelings about the child (as parents) are different than the feelings felt by the groups they belong to. (This is such a lovely doubling.)

Wulf is on one island and I on another.
The father, Wulf, is on a different island, and she, the speaker, is on another.


That island, surrounded by fens, is secure.
Wulf’s island, surrounded by bogs, is difficult to cross into or out of.

There on the island are bloodthirsty men.
Wulf’s island is full of men quick to kill.

They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
Like her own people, Wulf’s people also want to kill the child, if the child’s birth means an influx of the mother’s group of people into their own.

It is different for us.
The speaker and father come from different groups of people. ALSO, their feelings about the child (as parents) are different than the feelings felt by the groups they belong to.

I thought of my Wulf with far-wandering hopes,
The speaker longed for Wulf.


Whenever it was rainy weather, and I sat tearfully,
When it rained, the speaker cried and thought of Wulf where he was.

Whenever the warrior bold in battle encompassed me with his arms.
When the warrior man of her own people made love to her, she thought of Wulf.

To me it was pleasure in that, it was also painful.
It felt good, but it reminded the speaker of Wulf, and she missed him, and this was hard.

Wulf, my Wulf, my hopes for you have caused
Wulf, darling Wulf, the speaker’s daydreams have caused—

My sickness, your infrequent visits,
—the speaker to become sick with missing Wulf, visits are not enough.


A mourning spirit, not at all a lack of food.
The speaker is heart-sick, not literally starving.

Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf is carrying
our wretched whelp to the forest,
Do you hear, man of the speaker’s people OR Wulf’s people – literally “property watcher”? (Eadwacer could also be interpreted as a calling out of Wulf as the father’s child, if the child is interpreted as the property in question.) The child of Wulf and the speaker has been born and determined wretched because it is not purely of one people, and so it has been discarded. (The use of whelp/hwelp here, and the mention of the wolf, makes it clear to me that the child was the offspring of the speaker and Wulf.)

that one easily sunders which was never united:
The speaker never held the child and so they are easily separated (mother and child were never united). The child was taken from the speaker.

our song together.
Wulf never held the child either. This is what Wulf and the speaker share, apart: this loss, their child left for dead.

Previous interpretations have noticed the child being taken away, but seem not to have grasped the child’s presence throughout the poem. I suspect this is because contemporary English speaking people have such strong taboos about infanticide.

As I read the poem, I was reminded of a story from an anthropology class I took many years ago, in which we read an essay by an ethnographer who was studying a group of people that practiced regular infanticide. In this group, a newborn child was not considered human until the mother claimed it. When the ethnographer witnessed a mother give birth and not claim her infant, the ethnographer was shocked when that infant was then left to die in the woods. The ethnographer was torn, wanting to rescue the newborn from exposure. However, she knew that to interfere and save the child would be to interrupt a regular cultural practice with her own values, and doing so would compromise her own position — she would be, essentially, overstepping her role as an observer amongst people who had a completely different moral system than she did, and in doing so, would exert undue influence. (To save the child would also likely mean raising the child, as the group had already determined the child was not categorically worth raising in their own group.) As I recall this now, I wish I could tell you which ethnographer wrote about this dilemma (and which people she was referring to — if you know, please comment); these many years later, I remember only that the story moved me immensely, and it taught me that much of the moral principles we take for granted as being “universal” or “natural” are very culturally-determined.

To that end, it seems that this poem’s ambiguity has long been preserved by a lack of understanding of the cultural circumstances in which it was written (or, less generously, a willful desire to not want to face how common infanticide has been throughout history, and especially in circumstances where offspring were known to be the product of a person from a neighboring or enemy group). In cursory research, I found that there is even already known evidence that infanticide was a common practice amongst Anglo-Saxons at the time when the poem was written (pre-Norman Conquest). Literary criticism and interpretation can always benefit from historical and anthropological contributions that offer extra-textual context. (Honestly, until I started thinking about this, it had never occurred to me how much I would enjoy such interdisciplinary pursuits.)

I find Wulf and Eadwacer to be a heart-rending lament that captures both the limerence of forbidden love and the sadness brought by the loss of the speaker’s child with her lover. I wonder how many others might see evidence for my interpretation as well? Let me know.

xo,

LJ

Whoa Wednesday

THEY SAY
Sidney Poitier is still alive and can sometimes be seen at the dinosaur McDonald’s* on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, ordering pancakes at all hours of the day. At least, this is what I learned on Monday evening when Tye Pemberton and I were sitting in our living room discussing the important details of McDonald’s new all-day breakfast policy (p.s. all-day breakfast menus vary by location). While I have never been to L.A., it didn’t surprise me that a place known as the dinosaur McDonald’s—soherenamed because it used to be a Sinclair fill-up station—would have an all-day pancake policy for one. Poitier deserves all the delicious pancakes he can eat. The man is a living national treasure. When I asked Mr. Pemberton how he knew the dinosaur McDonald’s would make pancakes for Poitier whenever he wanted them, Mr. Pemberton said he had seen it himself when he was in college.** The staff even wrote Poitier a note on his to-go box: “Only for you, Mr. Poitier.” This much is true: I don’t doubt Mr. Pemberton, and neither should you.     —LJ

*Current L.A. residents invited to confirm or deny whether the dinosaur McDonald’s still stands.
**Over a decade ago.

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Image Credit: Columbia Pictures, Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, 1967.