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.




Yesterday I was alerted to this article on The Rumpus exploring Kim Kardashian West as a self-portrait artist situated in the intellectual and cultural history of such feminist icons as Frida Kahlo.  Tye, who has written for The Rumpus in the past, pointed out that the structure and certain turns of phrase were eerily similar to an article I wrote for VICE last year. After I posted about the similarities on Facebook, several dear writer friends came to my defense by posting Facebook comments on The Rumpus’s link to their piece. (image below)

So I emailed The Rumpus with my concerns and they responded. The correspondence went as follows:

From: Laura Jean Moore
Date: Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 11:33 PM
Subject: Regarding the Kahlo / Kardashian piece
To: xxxx@therumpus.net

Dear xxxxxx,

Although I am aware of the possibility that such intellectual arguments can emerge independently of one another, the similarities in structure and certain turns of phrase to my VICE article (http://www.vice.com/read/kim-kardashian-west-is-the-outsider-artist-america-deserves-848) are striking.

While it is obvious that the author did her own research and contributed further supporting points to my original argument, my concern is that my work was not cited or acknowledged. This would not bother me, so much, except that the main thesis of the article is practically identical to my own and without divergence.

I would appreciate it if you would read my article and make your own determination. If you find that the similarities are too striking to ignore, a simple cross-posting or linking of my article to acknowledge precedent would satisfy.

Thank you for your swift response and consideration.

Best regards,
Laura Jean

Laura Jean Moore

From: xxxxxxxx <xxxxx@therumpus.net>
Date: Fri, Sep 30, 2016 at 9:11 AM
Subject: Re: Regarding the Kahlo / Kardashian piece
To: Laura Jean Moore

Hi Laura,

Thanks for reaching out. Our editorial team is looking into this, and the editor who worked with Sarah on the piece is trying to get in touch so they can discuss how Sarah and The Rumpus might want to address this issue.

That said, can you help us understand the specific similarities and turns of phrase? I see why you might feel that your article could have been cited, but certainly don’t think this was plagiarism (there seems to be no lifted text) and I am now finding that this a topic frequently explored:


And that’s just a quick Google search and the first few results. I do believe that Sarah wrote this piece without being aware of your piece, and other pieces she did not cite. So while she may choose to add a note about this (that is what our Film/TV/Media Editor is exploring with her), I don’t think that the piece that ran yesterday is identical in thesis or execution to your piece (also a valid, well-done take on Kardashian and selfies).

But as a writer, I understand your feelings completely and don’t want to minimize them. Again, if you could point me to specific examples that make you feel suspicious that this was taken from your article that would be helpful. And please know that we are a small, volunteer-run literary site and of course we did not know of your article when this piece went up. As I said, I’m taking this very seriously and we will continue to look into it. Plagiarism is a serious word to use and we treat it as such.

Again, thanks for reaching out to me directly. I really do hope we can work this out in a way that leaves everyone feeling okay about the situation.

With thanks,

While formulating my response. I received additional correspondence from another editor at The Rumpus.

From: YYYYYYYY <YYYYYYY@wustl.edu>
Date: Fri, Sep 30, 2016 at 10:33 AM
Subject: Re: Regarding the Kahlo / Kardashian piece
To: XXXXXXXX <xxxxx@therumpus.net>, Laura Jean Moore
Hi XXXXX and Laura,

I want to reaffirm that I, too, take this extremely seriously. As a writer myself for whom ideas are the main form of currency, and as someone who has for over a decade vetted plagiarism cases at a university level, few issues mean more to me. Since I was apprised of the VICE piece last night, I have contacted the author, Sarah Murray, and conveyed that she needs to acknowledge Moore’s piece from 2015 and make clear how she is building on it. The author indicated that she had not seen this essay before in her research, and would be happy to acknowledge it in a new paragraph she drafted early this morning:

“The claim that Kardashian West is an “artist” has already been made by authors such as Laura Jean Moore for Vice; her 2015 article “Kim Kardashian West Is The Outsider Artist America Deserves” outlines the ways that Kardashian West has pursued a traditionally male genre, the self portrait (aka the selfie), to break free from gendered stereotypes of what it means to be a woman—essentially beating them at their own game. While Moore believes that America itself is well suited for Kardashian West’s creative reception, I would argue that she is especially improving the landscape for women artists and entrepreneurial creatives for those to follow.”

To clarify, when Murray’s piece was first submitted to me, it was only 600 words and its basic premise was pretty simple: Kardashian West should be considered a self-portrait artist. Given how many articles, including Moore’s, have orbited this general claim, that on its own doesn’t seem to be plagiarism. I was admittedly surprised by the syntactic crossover of “Enter Kim Kardashian West” and “Enter the female self-portrait artist.”, and I do feel adamantly that Moore’s work should be acknowledged. But given that Murray’s work is nearly 2500 words and focused more in depth on the art historical context of both Kardashian West and Kahlo (something that I encouraged her to do in my feedback), so long as Moore’s idea is cited, I don’t think the Rumpus essay should be pulled.

Please let me know if this solution is amenable to you. The author–a new author for The Rumpus–is understandably troubled by this turn of events, and eager to make things right. So am I–and I also completely understand why Laura has every right to be concerned about her ideas not being cited. At this point I’d like to come to a resolution that satisfies all parties involved to the fullest extent possible. I welcome your feedback.


Rumpus Film & Media Editor

And then the original editor responded:

From: XXXXXXX <XXXXXX@therumpus.net>
Date: Fri, Sep 30, 2016 at 10:36 AM
Subject: Re: Regarding the Kahlo / Kardashian piece
Cc: Laura Jean Moore

I will share with both of you my concern in adding that paragraph—there are at least 3-4 other essays that exist that also touch on this. Laura, I’m curious to know how you feel about this as a solution. If this works, and Sarah is comfortable with it, we can add that paragraph. But I also want to be careful about setting a precedent. Because Sarah didn’t know about your article, citing it seems a little unusual.

For now, I’m going to wait to hear back from you, Laura, before making any changes.

And finally I was able to articulate myself:

From: Laura Jean Moore
Date: Fri, Sep 30, 2016 at 10:41 AM
Subject: Re: Regarding the Kahlo / Kardashian piece
To: XXXXXXX <XXXXXX@therumpus.net>, YYYYYY <YYYYYY@wustl.edu>

Hello all,

Please see the attached document for a side by side comparison of similarities in the article published yesterday on the Rumpus and my piece from VICE. Examples include thematic / content similarities and odd “coincidences” in certain turns of phrase.

The links that XXXXX provided do not share the same similarities.

The point here, and my concern, was never plagiarism of the copy-paste variety, but a stealing of argument and idea without acknowledging source. I would prefer a publishing landscape in which we, as writers and cultural commentators, were in dialogue with each other rather than tearing each other down. I feel as though my piece was used as a structural guide for Murray’s. While hers adds even more supporting evidence for the larger point of the selfie as art, and Kardashian as its expert non grata, it does little (in my opinion) to present a new perspective beyond that (or even a complication of my original argument).

If my piece had even received a minimal nod, I would not be bothered. She clearly did a lot of work to cite additional sources here.

I am perfectly satisfied by the author’s new paragraph.

I appreciate all of you taking this seriously. Thank you for your swift response.

Best Regards,
Laura Jean

Attached document: (link below)


And so the resolution was found. The point of all of this, and the reason I am sharing, is two-fold.

We have a responsibility as writers and cultural commentators to do our due diligence and acknowledge the thinkers who have come before us. They are asking that we stand on their shoulders. We can only build upwards with a solid foundation of intellectual history behind us.

And secondly, in a media landscape where writers get paid so little, and the editors who even work for The Rumpus and other literary publications do so out of a love and commitment to good writing, rather than because of any monetary renumeration, it is worth it to consider that the only currency we have as writers is the ownership of our ideas.

When Tye first alerted me to the similarities in the two pieces, I did not know if I should even say anything. I am so accustomed to the melt and churn of content creation that I had an attitude of learned helplessness, even when confronted with what appeared to be someone using my piece as the structural backbone of their own. However, thanks to my dear community, and the love and respect of my peers, I got to stand up for myself and for my work and original thinking. My hope is for most such potential controversies to end with the same dialogue and acknowledgement. We do ourselves no favors when we vilify fellow wordsmiths.

I suppose I still believe in an olive branch before the guillotine.

Thank you to everyone who defended me, to the editors at The Rumpus for being so professional, and to Murray for her ultimate compromise.  — LJ

Image Credit: Detail of the cover of ‘Selfish’ (2015) by Kim Kardashian West
Pro-tip: email subscribers, click title to see embedded images and a hot pic of Ms. West