Poet's Pick April 23
Anonymous: "Wulf and Eadwacer"
Selected and translated by Katie Peterson
National Poetry Month 2014

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Katie Peterson for today's Poet's Pick!

We are bringing you a special poem and commentary each weekday in April as part of our annual fund-raising campaign and in celebration of National Poetry Month. Please help us to continue our service to you and to poetry by making a tax-deductible contribution to Poetry Daily! Click here to find out how you can contribute online or by mailing a check or money order.

Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!

Warmest regards,

Don Selby & Diane Boller

Katie Peterson's Poetry Month Pick, April 23, 2014

"Wulf and Eadwacer"
by Anonymous (960-990), translated by Katie Peterson

The poem that inspires this translation can be found in the Exeter Book, an anthology of poetry so old you have to use the word millennia: scholars believe the book was compiled between 960 – 990. Called “Wulf and Eadwacer” by most who know it, the poem was written down in Old English. It is magical because it is so old, and because it is spoken in a woman’s voice. And it is magical because of those two elements considered together. We can’t know who wrote the poem exactly, but it remains true that what we hear is a woman’s voice. 

Old English is the language of Beowulf, an epic that’s basically about national security. In the story, a hero defends his country (which happens to be having a huge sleepover in the mead hall, as nations used to do) from a vicious and wily (obviously male) monster, Grendel. But there’s a problem –when Beowulf kills Grendel, he discovers the monster has a mother who’s even more menacing, and who seeks revenge. So he’s got to do the whole thing again. The English language has a mother also, and this poem is composed in it. Listening to the original (which you can do here: http://www.poemsoutloud.net/mp3/oe-wulf.mp3) feels a little bit like listening to mud. In more national terms, it sounds like modern German at times, or Icelandic. It reminds me of Bjork in her lower registers.

It is for you to decide whether our language’s mother is more vicious than the original. But Old English, certainly, after millennia, is a bit more wily. Much of what we know about “Wulf and Eadwacer” confuses us. It’s generally accepted that the speaker is remembering a state of ardor that existed between her and some outsider Wulf, the first man mentioned in the poem. It appears likely that, after Wulf’s disappearance and departure she was taken by another man, Eadwacer, or gave herself to him, out of sorrow and necessity. But even this interpretation is contestable. “Eadwacer” translates to “wealth-holder,” and this second name, called to in the final haunting question, may refer to the husband who now holds the speaker as part of his wealth, but it might refer simply to a tribesman who has her imprisoned, or a stranger, or it might be another name for Wulf himself (I’d rather get myself a Wulf than an Eadwacer, but depending on your economic conditions and the presence of a small child to support you might disagree). The poem’s been called an elegy, because of its tone of lamentation, and because of its positioning in the book near others like it. It’s been called a riddle, because so much of its language is deeply coded, hinting at some other question within the narrative puzzle, because of the voice’s unanswered query and its haunting, elliptical prophecy. And it’s been called a ballad because of its refrain and story. Surely you can hear elements of all three. Still another interpretation argues that the poem’s bones are actually magical, and that in reading “Wulf and Eadwacer” we’re reading the remains of a shape-shifting transformation tale from Iceland, brought to England’s shores, stripped of some of its more overt magical elements, but still, blurring the line between animals and people, collapsing a wolf and a Wulf.

But what we know for sure is that the poem stands at the beginning of our written language, and is in the voice of a woman. And we know we can hear that voice, not simply through these critical difficulties, but because of them. Giving an account of her own vexed state of mind, the woman in question is herself confused about the consequences of her own story. This is a poem of conflicting loyalties. But she’s no shrinking violet. In the midst of anguish, she’s got the confidence of a warrior. In the midst of personal turmoil she’s got political savvy. The poem starts in lament but ends in veiled threat. Sorrow doesn’t mean weakness. Grief doesn’t preclude attack. Her hopes for Wulf have pitted her both against her tribe and against her own happiness. Somewhat unsentimentally she describes how one thing led to another, by the fire one dark night, and she ended up in the arms of another. And let’s not forget – it’s this woman’s lack of sexual shame makes the poem sexy.

Her sense of tension between her interior life, and a larger world she can’t control, and her wisdom about both reminds me of George Eliot’s quote from Middlemarch (which is also the epigraph to Adrienne Rich’s 1974 National Book Award winning feminist classic Diving into the Wreck): “There can be no private life without a wider public life.” It seems this was just as true when fires heated mead-halls as it was when fires burned draft cards, or now, when suicide bombers turn themselves into fires. The poem feels like part opera, part battle-plan, part to-do list, part therapy session, part girl talk, part secret threat: it’s the voice of a woman dealing with a complicated emotional reality. She consoles itself – a mother and a wife and a woman, being all, or a few of those things, or none of them, at the beginning of our language’s time. What if we actually thought of this as a founding story of who we are?

The problems of translation are more than just problems. The refrain, for example, which I have translated below as “what we share is unlikeness,” actually has a sense that’s more like “difference exists between us,” or “a state of difference exists between us,” which, in its stately brutality, is hard to get across in our English. But there are also transcendent luminosities – moments where the poem reminds us of ourselves in its language, as in the last lines, which recall the words of the marriage service taken from the Gospel according to Mark, or moments when a concept is introduced in Old English like “seldom-coming,” which is so wonderfully strange intuitive as a single word, it makes me want to re-introduce it because it would make certain aspects of breakups a bit easier to talk about. There’s so much about the poem's coordinates to be doubted. Some of the words used can’t even be clearly identified. But I am sure – absolutely sure – you can enjoy it any way, that you can hear what it has to offer. What follows is my own (humble, offered with great humility!) translation. I am indebted to my medievalist friends Rebecca Schoff and Kate Horsley for introducing me to the poem and helping me a bit with it over the years. There are several other translations worth looking at, especially Paul Muldoon’s artful modern version, which you can find here: http://poemsoutloud.net/audio/archive/muldoon_reads_wulf_and_eadwacer/

For my people, it’s like they’ve gotten a gift.
They’ll take him if he comes to their camp.
What we share is unlikeness.
Wulf is on one island, I on another,
this place held fast, surrounded by marshes.
Blood-hungry, the men who live on this island.
They’ll take him, if he comes to their camp.
We will share our unlikeness.
Wulf’s far roads disappeared like my hopes,
when it was rainy weather, and I sat weeping.
Battle-hungry, a man surrounded me with his arms.
Pleasure, yes, it was, but nevertheless pain.
Wulf! my Wulf! my hopes of you
made me sick, your seldom coming.
My soul got anxious – I wasn’t hungry.
Are you listening, Eadwacer? A wolf will bring
our wretched whelp back to his woods.
Easily torn what was never in one piece,
the tale of us together.

About Katie Peterson:
Katie Peterson is professor of the practice of poetry at Tufts University. She earned a BA at Stanford University and a PhD at Harvard University, where her dissertation won the Howard Mumford Jones Prize. She is the author of three collections of poetry, This One Tree (New Issues Press, 2006), Permission (New Issues Press, 2013), and The Accounts (The University of Chicago Press, 2013). The Accounts won the 2014 University of North Texas Rilke Prize. Katie Peterson lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Don't forget! If you enjoy our regular features and special events like this one, please join Katie Peterson in supporting Poetry Daily by making a tax-deductible contribution.