“Deor” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” from the Exeter Book
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Deor

A handful of scholars have argued in favor of the thematic and stylistic similarity among Deor, Wulf and Eadwacer, and another poem, Soul and Body II, based on their close proximity in the Exeter manuscript. It seems logical that over the course of its circulation the manuscript's contents would have been deliberately reordered at some point. Since the three poems appear together and in the middle of the book's collection of riddles, it suggests further that the triad should be read compiled as a "multi-text riddle" not originally intended by the poets. All three poems are enigmatically short, though Soul and Body is generally agreed to be of poorer poetic quality.

Deor and Wulf, on the other hand, are two excellent poems that also have refrains. Their case is unique in Old English poetry. The refrain of Deor casts an optimistic light on the poet's recital of fabled misfortune. For example, Beadohild's son Widia, the result of Weland's rape, became a famous hero in later myths. Whether a lamenting reflection of loss of status or simply a professional "begging poem," Deor's poet ensured that his work achieved the legendary status of the stories he evokes.

Line English Old English
Weland himself knew the writhing torments of misery: Welund him be wurman wræces cunnade,
a strong-willed nobleman who suffered hardships, anhydig eorl earfoþa dreag,
3 he had dissonance and discontent as company, hæfde him to gesiþþe sorge ond longaþ,
a wintercold wrack; tetters often took hold wintercealde wræce; wean oft onfond,
after Nithad fettered him; siþþan hine Niðhad on nede legde,
6 bonds of sinews bent easily in the better man. swoncre seonobende on syllan monn.
It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
Beadohild was not suffering in mind at her brothers' death Beadohilde ne wæs hyra broþra deaþ
9 so much as she was over her silver trinkets— on sefan swa sar swa hyra sylfre þing—
at that she had readily perceived þæt heo gearolice ongieten hæfde
that she was with child; never might she þæt heo eacen wæs; æfre ne meahte
12 have thought about how that should be. þriste geþencan, hu ymb þæt sceolde.
It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
Many of us have heard about the business of Mäthild: We þæt Mæðhilde monge frugnon—
15 the sexual passions of Geat became so boundless wurdon grundlease Geatas frige,
that his grieving love cheated death in every way. þæt him seo sorglufu slæp ealle binom.
It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
18 Theodric had held thirty winters as a usurper Ðeodric ahte þritig wintra
in the Märingan city—that was known to many. Mæringa burg—þæt wæs monegum cuþ.
It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
21 We had heard of Ermanaric's We geascodan Eormanrices
100v wolfish mind—he possessed the wide nations wylfenne geþoht—ahte wide folc
of the Goths' kingdom. That was a fierce king. Gotena rices. Þæt wæs grim cyning.
24 Many warriors sat stricken with sorrow, Sæt secg monig sorgum gebunden,
waiting for trouble, often wishing wean on wenan, wyscte geneahhe
that his kingdom would be overcome. þæt þæs cynerices ofercumen wære.
27 It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
If one sits in despair, deprived of all pleasure, Siteð sorgcearig, sælum bidæled,
his mind becomes muddled reflecting on sefan sweorceð, sylfum þinceð
30 upon his seemingly endless share of troubles; þæt sy endeleas earfoða dæl;
he should then remember that sagacious Lord mæg þonne geþencan þæt geond þas woruld
wending throughout middle-earth, witig dryhten wendeþ geneahhe,
33 bestowing the gift of wisdom eorle monegum are gesceawað
to many noble men, to others a sad lot. wislicne blæd, sumum weana dæl.
I will say this about myself, Þæt ic bi me sylfum secgan wille,
36 that I was a Heodeningan scop þæt ic hwile wæs Heodeninga scop,
dear to my host—I was named Deor. dryhtne dyre—me wæs Deor noma.
I had for many winters a good retinue Ahte ic fela wintra folgað tilne,
39 and a loyal lord, until now Heorrenda holdne hlaford, oþþæt Heorrenda nu,
the man skilled in song, received the land-right leoðcræftig monn, londryht geþah
that my sovereign had previously bestowed to me. þæt me eorla hleo ær gesealde.
42 It passed over that; it may this. Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
William Blake, "The Voice of the Ancient Bard," Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Metropolitain Museum of Art), 1825. Image from the William Blake Archive.

Wulf and Eadwacer

Only at the more abstract level of theme and tone does the poem become more or less coherent, as a bitter personal reflection on separation and longing, an expression of intense feeling, apparently addressed by the female speaker ... to an absent "Wulf."

Few Anglo-Saxon poems are as difficult and obscure to Old English scholars as is Wulf and Eadwacer. Along with The Wife's Lament, this is one of two secular lyrics in the corpus in a female voice. It has been treated as a cryptic riddle or charm before. The poem expresses its elusive message as a stricken lament of terrible beauty. Although not much is known of the poem's context, the text contains enough clues in itself to make an informed attempt at grounding its message. The unnamed speaker appears to embark on a heartfelt soliloquy in miserable consideration of her situation between husband and lover.

The characters Wulf and Eadwacer, considering their names, seem to portray character types rather than actual people. Defined as such even in the modern-day Oxford English Dictionary, the word wolf infers a comparative "allusion to the fierceness or rapacity of the beast ... in contrast with the meekness of the sheep or lamb." Taken metaphorically, the outlaw archetype would have every reason to avoid his enemies. Unlike the more upstanding Eadwacer (meaning "property-watcher," with connotations of "good fortune" or "happiness"), Wulf's "far wanderings" render him unable to provide for the baby from his affair with the speaker. This gives the poem a sense of timeless relevance riddled with mystery. The possibility always remains that Wulf and Eadwacer are really the same character.

Line English Old English
It's as if my people have been handed a sacrifice; Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
they'll tear him to pieces if he come upon a band of men. willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
3 How different we are! Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on one island, I on another. Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.
That island is protected, enclosed by a fen. Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen.
6 Those on the isle are bloodthirsty men; Sindon wælreowe, weras þær on ige;
they'll tear him to pieces if he come upon a band of them. willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
O! how different we are! Ungelice is us.
9 I thought with worry of my Wulf's wide wanderings; Wulfes ic mines widlastum wenum hogode;
then it was raining and I sat tearful, þonne hit wæs renig weder ond ic reotugu sæt,
until the prompt warrior embraced me in his arms; þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde,
12 as delightful as it was to me afterwards, it was nevertheless unpleasant to me. wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað,
Wulf, mine Wulf! my yearning for you Wulf, min Wulf, wena me þine
101r and your rare visits trouble me with sickness seoce gedydon, þine seldcymas,
15 and a mourning heart, no measurable starvation. murnende mod, nales meteliste.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? The wolf carries Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer? Uncerne earmne hwelp
our pitiful whelp to the woods. bireð wulf to wuda.
18 Men can easily sever that which has never joined in unison— Þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs—
our song together. uncer giedd geador.

Bibliography

Muir, Bernard J., editor. "Deor" and "Wulf and Eadwacer." In The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, Vol. I: Texts, pp. 283--286. Exeter: University Press, 1994.

———. "Deor" and "Wulf and Eadwacer." In The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, Vol. II: Commentary, pp. 566--573. Exeter: University Press, 1994.