The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Wanderer: two visions

Posted on: November 13, 2007

Note: This turned out to be much longer than I intended so I’m splitting it into two posts.

After I read Michael Alexander’s translation of “The Wanderer” I thought it would be neat if I did a comparison between his and the one in The Keys of Middle-Earth done by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova. I find the translators’ analysis of any Old English work essential to my reading of the poem, even moreso so for “The Wanderer” as the two versions are different in significant ways.

My sympathies laid largely with Alexander; I found myself nodding at various points throughout the introduction. He is a reader who thinks that verse should be translated as verse, something with which I heartily agree. (Prose translations of verse burn my skin on contact.) On reading the introduction further, and the poem, you’ll see that Alexander is concerned with rendering the Old English as heroic poetry and will not only keep the alliteration (although not rigidly beholden to Old English rules) but create and extend imagery or metaphor as another way to hold the poem together and create something aesthetically interesting and compelling. This may lead him beyond strict accuracy, not suited for poor undergraduates stuck with Seamus Heaney So-ing them into comas, but for me, the carefree Reader for Pleasure, it places the artistic quality of the work in the foreground. Another example of this is the poem’s structure, which posed a problem. There are no breaks in the line to form anything like stanzas, so it is left up to the translator to divide it into separate small portions of thought.

In an older post I mentioned that the opening and ending of the poem conveyed a comforting Christian sentiment at odds with the bleaker lines that make up most of the poem. There are critics who opine that the prologue and epilogue were meant to highlight the poem’s hollow pagan mores but Alexander disagreed. “Having made due allowance for the intention of the author, one has to register the impact of the poem itself on one’s own consciousness; and to me these genuflexions to the Creator seem somewhat perfunctory.” There are also textual issues as to whether the sections were even apart of the original oral work. Lee and Solopova did not think so, and go further than Alexander by asserting that they were likely added by a scribe.

It seems odd then that the two translators would hinge their interpretation on Christian beliefs, but perhaps that is based on the one or two references to the “Maker” in the bulk of the poem, as well as the historical and social context. Alexander saw “The Wanderer” as being different from all other (surviving examples of) Old English poetry, which were either dramatic works or descriptive set pieces. The exile gives the usual answer of staying the course and striving for fame but then goes beyond to consider what happens if there are no “after-speakers” to carry on one’s name. We get the Christian answer but for my reading it does not suffice. Lee and Solopova (L&S) never refer to this, instead comfortably equating the Wanderer’s exile position with one that all Christians occupy (as the poet would know), since they are all barred from Eden and separated from heaven.

L&S’s translation also adheres to accuracy above all things. The poem’s 115 lines are written with no stanza breaks and keep to the original sentence arrangements. So, counterintuitively , the poem doesn’t read as especially Old English at all, especially since there is no regular, noticeable alliteration, although they do try to catch the two stresses in every half-line with caesuras ever so often. Their translation also conveys “The Wanderer”‘s obscure, vague meanings that L&S identified in the original — apparently Tom Shippey described the poem as “vexed” — which I did not pick up on until I read Alexander’s, and noticed how in his images and ideas came more clearly to me as I read. There is something to be said for their approach: because they were comparatively more faithful I was better able to follow it with the Old English from line to line, and ascertain how they translated specific words. It also served to clarify Alexander’s approach beyond what he mentioned in introductions. And it was their translation that really motivated me to seek out more Old English literature. It’s not a bad one it’s just…missing something.

Hmmm. So many words and I haven’t even started on the poems yet. Here’s a quick summary: the speaker in “The Wanderer” is an exile without family nor cynn to call his own. He starts out by acknowledging that his only choice is to soldier on, but he slips back into reminisces about happier times (told in the third person). He moralises on how the uncertainties of life should caution others against taking life for granted. He posits what a “wise man” would say when faced with a community’s total destruction by war and then by nature. It closes with a Christian sentiment of cleaving to God as a refuge. Michael Alexander mentioned an ¹anecdote the venerable Bede tells about Paulinus‘ conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to get readers into the mood. The King has summoned a Council about the monk’s arrival and intentions.

And one of the King’s chief men presently said: ‘Thus seems it to me, thou King, the present life of man on earth against that time which is unknown to us: it is as if thou wert sitting at a feast with thy chief men and thy thanes in the winter-time; the fire burns and the hall is warmed, and outside it rains and snows and storms. Comes a sparrow and swiftly flies through the house; it comes through one door and goes out another. Lo, in the time in which he is within he is not touched by the winter storm, but that time is the flash of an eye and the least of times, and he soon passes from winter to winter again. So is the life of man revealed for a brief space, but what went before and what follows after we know not.’

Weepy, yet? Good! On with “The Wanderer”. L&S’s translations will be in brown, Alexander’s in blue.

Always for himself the solitary man waits for grace,
the mercy of the creator, although he, sad at heart,
throughout the seaways must for a long time
stir with his hands the ice-cold sea,
and wade the paths of exile. Fate is entirely set.

Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart,
— trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile — Wierd is set fast.

I remember being confused when I first started the Alexander and after a few fumbles, decided that it was pretty late (about 1:00 AM) so I’d go to bed. I wasn’t expecting to come upon an entirely different poem, which is what it looked like initially. I figured he had fucked up royally. But on a closer reading I found it so much more rewarding. In the first line alone every letter repetition of one kind or another served to enhance the its meaning. The words “liveth” and “longeth” are alliterated, creating an association between the two. Then “alone” which immediately precedes “longeth” has the repetition of the long vowel sound. Taking in those effects, when you read aloud the pause between the half lines serve to sharpen the effect (of the vowel repetition specifically). The exile’s sorrow is strongly expressed from the first line and you feel it that much more sharply than the more subdued, the elegant L&S version that simply doesn’t carry the same emotional impact or intellectual pleasure (because there’s not much to pay attention to, in and of itself, in comparison).

He also alliterates the last stressed word of each line with the first stressed word in the following in three out of four lines. I’m pretty sure this isn’t characteristic of Old English but in gives the verse a unity that is pleasing and certainly fits in with the spirit of Old English lit. He does keep to the brief, regular Old English rhythm with the pause at the pause at every half-line. The result is that at the end after the interjection, when you read “Wierd is set fast” it acts as a trap, structurally and rhythmically, echoing the wanderer’s fate in the poem. L&S’s translation actually has that line on its own as a sentence and yet it’s not even a weaker reflection of what Alexander achieved because the word “entirely” has too many syllables and instead echoes the longer, easy rhythms of the previous sentence.

That captures in a nutshell the general differences between the two versions. Alexander will take a description and extend it in different ways. In the first stanza both translators describe the waters as “ice-cold” but Alexander extends that into the second. (Keep in mind that Lee and Solopova did not break theirs into stanzas.)

Thus spoke the Wanderer, mindful of hardships,
of cruel slaughters, and of the fall of beloved kin:

Thus spoke such a ‘grasshopper’, old griefs in his mind,
cold slaughters, the death of dear kinsmen:

We’ve already been introduced to the exile’s inhospitable climate in the weather and the punishing solitude of his loss. Alexander underscores that by describing the slaughters as “cold” instead of “cruel”, not only recalling the icy waters but invoking another meaning in association with “old griefs”. Much time has passed and the deaths are no longer fresh, but “cold”. He brings the same heightened emphasis to the theme of restraint, if not imprisonment, that runs through the first half. The speaker in both poems repeatedly mention “binding” his thoughts and emotions, holding in the sorrow, in order to stay true to lofty aims. Aesthetically it comes off more coherently in Alexander’s translation because all the other parts of the poem similarly built and connected, helped again by the alliteration and consequent word association — “So must I also curb my mind,/ cut off from country, from kind far distant” — absent from L&S’s.

There are overt signs of Alexander simplifying any obscurities present in the original, according to L&S. When the wanderer shares his futile efforts in finding a new gold-giver with a joyous meadhall they write

I sought, sad at the loss of the hall, a giver of treasure,
where I far or near might have found
him who in the meadhall might know my own [people],
or me, friendless, would comfort,
and entertain with pleasures.

Alexander renders this

dreary I sought hall of a gold-giver,
where far or near I might find
him who in meadhall might take heed of me,
furnish comfort to a man friendless,
win me with cheer.

He drops anything in reference to the implied incomplete thought that L&S revealed. Apparently the exile hoped to find a lord who perhaps knew something about his former cynn ? (I can’t read Old English so I can’t do my own investigation. 😦 Maybe this doesn’t seem like such a crazy purchase after all.) Alexander does this at least one more time, this time straightening out what L&S curiously placed in parentheses: curious because the Old English in The Keys of Middle-Earth also had the brackets. That can’t be right, I thought, Old English had parentheses? It isn’t in The Earliest English Poems printing of the Old English so not sure what’s going on there…. Anyway, the wanderer is about to launch into his memories.

Therefore he understands (who must forgo the counsels
of his beloved dear lord for a long time),
when sorrow and sleep both together
often bind the wretched solitary man.

He knows this who is forced to forgo his lord’s,
his friend’s counsels, to lack them for long:
oft sorrow and sleep, banded together,
come to bind the lone outcast;

He integrates it smoothly into the line, and adds a bit about the friend too. That decision seemed more obvious than most to me, and so makes me intensely curious about what in the Old English persuaded L&S that brackets were the way to go.

¹This translated quote is attributed to a “Miss Williams” who took it from the Word-Hoard, doubtfully given authorship to King Alfred.

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