A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

lament for the transitoriness of life’s glory, expressed in ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The
Ruin’ in the image of a ruined hall. All three poems are informed by a Christian view
of earthly glory; ‘The Ruin’ is set in the ruins of a Roman city with hot baths, often
identified as Bath. The Wanderer’s painful lack of a lord and companions can be
remedied, as the poem indicates quietly at its ending, by turning to a heavenly lord.
‘The Seafarer’ fiercely rejects a comfortable life on land in favour of the ardours of
exile on the sea, and then turns explicitly towards the soul’s true home in heaven.
Ezra Pound’s spirited version of ‘The Seafarer’ (1912) expresses the isolation and the
ardour. It should be read for the feel of the verse rather than for the poem’s Christian
sense, which Pound thought a later addition and cut out.
‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ are passionate and eloquent. They are conve-
niently self-explanatory, have been well edited, and fit into the social and intellectual
background suggested by other poems. They also appeal because they read like
dramatic soliloquies of a kind familiar from Romantic literature, in which the reader
can identify with the self-expression of the speaker. The situations of the speakers
are, however, imaginary, and all three poems appropriate heroic motifs for the
purpose of a Christian wisdom. If ‘The Seafarer’, like The Dream of the Rood, is affec-
tive devotion, ‘The Wanderer’ might be called affective philosophy.
The second trio of elegies is less self-explanatory. Not evidently Christian or
Stoic, they express secular love, not devotion between men. The enigmatic ‘Wulf and
Eadwacer’ is spoken by a woman married to Eadwacer but bearing the child of her
lover Wulf. The speaker of ‘The Wife’s Complaint’ (or ‘Lament’) is banished to a

‘S ome lovers in this world
Live dear to each other, lie warm together
At day’s beginning; I go by myself
About these earth caves under the oak tree.
Here I must sit the summer day through,
Here wee p out the woes of exile ....’

Passionate feelings voiced in a desolate landscape are typical of the elegies. ‘The
Husband’s Message’ departs from type: in it a man expresses a tender love for his
wife and calls her to a happy reunion.

Battle poetry

In Germania(ADc.98),the Roman historian Tacitus says that German warriors
recited poetry before battle; and Beowulf recalls his victories before going in to fight.
Waldereand Finnsburhare early battle poems; but even when England had been long
settled,invasion renewed the occasion for battle poems.
Two survive from the 10th century,Brunanburhand Maldon.Brunanburhis the
entry for 937 in the ASC, a record of the crushing victory of the West-Saxons over
an invading force of Scots, Picts, Britons and Dublin Vikings. It is a panegyric in
praise of the victorious king Athelstan, and was translated by Tennyson in 1880.
Although it deploys time-honoured motifs such as birds of prey, it has a historical
purpose, and ends with a reference to written histories (quoted above on p. 29),
claiming Brunanburh as the greatest victory won by the English since their origi-
nal conquest of Britain five hundred years earlier.Maldonis also traditional, with
clashing swords, brave words and birds of prey, but with more historical details of

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