The Seafarer

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Compare and contrast the poems the "Wife's Lament," "The Wanderer," and "The Seafarer."

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These three poems are some of the better-known examples of Old English elegiac poetry. The theme of the outcast, someone who is now alone and outcast from his or her society, forms the basis for all three poems, with the alliterative language across the poems revisiting similar concerns such as "mod" (mind, or mindset) and "wyrd" (fate). Perhaps the major difference between "The Wife's Lament" and the other two is that it offers us an early example of the female voice in poetry, with the woman in question mourning for her "hlaford" in the sense of husband, rather than appealing to her vassal or lord.

It is also worth noting that "The Wife's Lament" can be placed with less certainty into the category of elegy than either of the other two poems. While it is generally thought to be an example of the "frauenlied", or woman's song, in the Germanic tradition, its placement in The Exeter Book has caused some to query whether it may in fact be a riddle poem of sorts. Compare "Wulf and Eadwacer," also in The Exeter Book, which shares themes with "The Wife's Lament" but also, in some ways, seems to defy obvious categorization. Who the "Wife" may be, after all, we do not know. Proponents of the riddle theory have pointed to the reference to the wife dwelling "under an oak tree in this earth grave" (28). Is the Wife dead and consigned somehow to her earthly grave while her husband is separated from her? Or is the poem, perhaps, about a personification of the Church, with the "Lord" in question ("resurrected, departed from his people") being Jesus Christ? This would be far from the only poem in the Anglo-Saxon canon to cast Christ in the guise of the traditional Lord or hero (compare "The Dream of the Rood".)

Still, it is certainly the case that "The Wife's Lament" holds many similarities to "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer." The story the wife tells about herself describes her as a "friendless wanderer," longing for her beloved lord, while the sea appears as an obstacle between them. In "The Seafarer," we find a very similar opening in which the narrator declares himself to be telling "a true song about me, myself" and the struggles he has endured, which circle around "the terrible tossing of the waves."

The theme of being bound or enclosed also appears in this poem, where the unwilling seafarer is "fettered" by cold, "bound by frost," as the Wife is bound in her curious grave. Like the Wife, too, the seafarer feels that the joys of the Lord (probably Jesus, but potentially also referring to his sire) are in stark contrast to the misery of his earthly life. In his conclusion, the seafarer declares that "wyrd bith swithre / meotud meahtigra, thonne aenges monnes gehygd" (Fate is greater / and God is mightier / than any man's thought), a refrain that appears in much of Old English poetry.

"The Wanderer" also depicts a sorry-hearted figure who must tread the "hrimcealde sae" (ice-cold sea) alone but who feels he cannot alter fate—"wyrd...

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“The Wife’s Lament,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer” are Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, elegies. They share the standard Anglo-Saxon poetic technique of alliteration and kennings, and use ubi sunt to indicate the mournful cultural loss of comitatus. Each of these poems reflect a time of cultural change from the heroic values of the past to the Christian present in which the poems were written.

Elegies are a popular category of Anglo-Saxon poetry that focus on loss and carry a melancholic tone. Ubi sunt is a literary term from Latin used to categorize a certain type of elegiac regret: that of the loss of something from the past. While the details from each of these poems are different, in all three poems, loss is linked to a type of Feudalism known as comitatus. Within comitatus, many individuals were connected to a lord, or ring giver, who provided for the group in return for their loyalty and work. If the individual is separated from the group, the comitatus is broken. In each of these poems, the first-person narrator is lamenting the loss of his or her place within the group. In fact, the most classic example of ubi sunt in Anglo-Saxon poetry is the section of “The Wanderer” that begins “Where is the horse? Where the rider? / Where the treasure giver?” and ends with the loss of the entire world (92-93).

Christianity is referenced as a powerful force within each poem, but the narrators receive different levels of solace from the religion. Some argue that the narrators demonstrate different levels of belief and acceptance of Christianity. “The Wife’s Lament” suggests the wife had a Christian wedding, but may now be seeking solace in a pre-Christian sacred grove. In “The Wanderer,” the narrator longs much for his old life, and attributes its destruction to God—his only relief will be with the “Father in heaven” at death (115). Only in “The Seafarer” does the narrator end joyously with “a belonging life / in the love of the Lord” (121). Therefore, while “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer” each demonstrate classic aspects of Anglo-Saxon elegies, they also show different levels of acceptance of their societies’ changing values and religion.