The lonely always look for grace,

for the almighty’s mercy,

even as, downhearted,

they touch their hands 

to the rime-cold sea, 

stirring the exile’s expanse.

Things go as they must.

 

The wanderer said as much, dwelling on hardships,

on blood-fierce slaughter and the fall of friends:

“Alone each dawn I’d talk about my troubles

but there’s none now living I can speak my mind to.

I know warriors have a treasured custom

of locking their soul-chest tightly,

of guarding their hoarded thoughts,

thinking what they want.

But a weary mind can’t withstand events,

the turbulent heart can’t help itself.

Instead the glory-eager bind up anguish

tightly in their breast-coffer;

far from friends and away from home,

I’ve had to fasten my mind with fetters,

since long ago my gold-companion

was hidden under the hard ground,

and I waded in a wintry mood

through the biting sea-waves,

sorrowed for lack of a lodging,

looked for a new lord

lavishing swords and silver,

for where I might find a mead-hall

with one who knows my own mind,

who could comfort me with pleasures.

 

You know how tough it is to take

sorrow as a fellow-traveller

for one who has few companions:

the exile’s path grips him, not gold-set gems,

an icy spirit-locker, not earth’s splendour.

He recalls friendship and riches,

how in his youth the gold-giver

got him used to gifts and feasting

—such joys fade away.

He understands he must endure

without the wisdom of his hall-friend.

 

When sadness and slumber together

take the troubled thinker,

it seems that he clasps and kisses

the lord of men in his mind,

lays head and hand in his lap,

just like long ago when he enjoyed

the gift-throne’s golden rewards.

The solitary warrior stirs again,

sees steel-grey breakers ahead,

the sea-birds bathing, widening wings

amid whirls of hardening ice and hail.

Then the heart’s wounds are heavier,

after the loss of his lord. Sorrow returns 

when the mind wanders through

the memories of his kinsmen,

greets the old songs, searches

for the figures of hall-friends.

They always swim away,

the floating spirits singing

none of the familiar stories.  

Care comes back for him

who sends his tired soul

out over the surging waves.

I don’t know why my spirit

doesn’t darken in this world,

when I consider the lives of earls,

how they hastily left the hall,

those high-minded thegns. 

This middle-earth and everything in it

ebbs and falls away each passing day.

A man cannot be wise without

having his measure of winters

in the kingdom of the world.

 

A wise man must be patient:

not too hot-hearted, nor rash with words,

not too weak a warrior, nor too bloody-minded,

not grasping, gloating, craven,

nor too eager to impress,

before he’s lived his life.

 

A man must bide his time 

when he utters an oath,

until he knows clearly

his heart’s true intention.

 

The wise man sees how shattering it is

when all this world stands wasted,

just as now throughout the land

old walls stand wind-haunted,

cold ruins draped with frost-fall. 

The wine-hall crumbles away, 

rulers lying robbed of joy,

retainers slumped proud along the ramparts.

War took some to their doom,

crows carried others over fathomless seas,

while the grey wolf dealt death

to men with tear-stained faces,

hidden under earthen hollows.

The shaper of all living things

laid waste to the circle of the world,

until the ancient works of giants

stood silenced, their people gone. 

 

The wise man wondered at these 

flickering foundations, learned in spirit,

thought deeply about this dark life,

remembers war and blood-shed,

and speaks these words:

Where is the horse, where is the warrior?

Where is the gift-giver, the glee at feasting?

Where are our earthly joys?

The bright cup, 

the byrnied hero, 

the king’s strength?

All’s now gone, 

grown dark under night-shadow,

as if it had never been;

a high wall stands instead

etched with serpents.

Earls are taken by iron-tipped ash,

slaughter-starved weapons

(so it always goes)

storms knock the slanting fells,

billowing snow-sheets blanket the land,

deep-winter’s tumult; then darkness comes,

louring night-shadow, while from northern reaches

rushing hail greets humankind with wrath.

All is hardship in this kingdom of earth,

twisting chance changes the world under heaven.

Here life is only loaned

—friends are fleeting,

family are fleeting,

folk fall away—

the whole earth becomes empty.”

 

Thus said the wise man in his mind. He sat apart, pondering these things.

Joy is for the one who keeps faith, who doesn’t let suffering show

unless he first knows how to help himself.

He’ll be well if he looks for his own grace,

the comfort of the father in heaven, 

where our foundation stands.



Original ↓

Oft him ānhaga āre gebīdeð,

Metudes miltse, þēah þe hē mōdcearig

geond lagulāde longe sceolde

hrēran mid hondum hrīmcealde sǣ,

wadan wræclāstas. Wyrd bið ful ārǣd.

Swā cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,

wrāþra wælsleahta, winemǣga hryre:

Oft ic sceolde āna ūhtna gehwylce

mīne ceare cwīþan. Nis nū cwicra nān

þe ic him mōdsefan mīnne durre

sweotule āsecgan. Ic tō sōþe wāt

þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þēaw

þæt hē his ferðlocan fæste binde,

healde his hordcofan, hycge swā hē wille.

Ne mæg wērig mōd wyrde wiðstondan,

ne se hrēo hyge helpe gefremman;

for ðon dōmgeorne drēorigne oft

in hyra brēostcofan bindað fæste;

swā ic mōdsefan mīnne sceolde,

oft earmcearig, ēðle bidǣled,

frēomǣgum feor, feterum sǣlan,

siþþan geāra iū goldwine mīnne

hrūsan heolstre biwrāh, ond ic hēan þonan

wōd wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,

sōhte seledrēorig sinces bryttan,

hwǣr ic feor oþþe nēah findan meahte

þone þe in meoduhealle mīne wisse,

oþþe mec frēondlēasne frēfran wolde,

wenian mid wynnum. Wāt se þe cunnað

hū slīþen bið sorg tō gefēran

þām þe him lȳt hafað lēofra geholena.

Warað hine wræclāst, nales wunden gold,

ferðloca frēorig, nalæs foldan blǣd.

Gemon hē selesecgas ond sincþege,

hū hine on geoguðe his goldwine

wenede tō wiste. Wyn eal gedrēas.

For þon wāt se þe sceal his winedryhtnes

lēofes lārcwidum longe forþolian.

Ðonne sorg ond slǣp somod ætgædre

earmne ānhogan oft gebindað,

þinceð him on mōde þæt hē his mondryhten

clyppe ond cysse ond on cnēo lecge

honda ond hēafod, swā hē hwīlum ǣr

in geārdagum giefstōlas brēac.

Ðonne onwæcneð eft winelēas guma,

gesihð him biforan fealwe wēgas,

baþian brimfuglas, brǣdan feþra,

hrēosan hrīm ond snāw, hagle gemenged.

Þonne bēoð þȳ hefigran heortan benne,

sāre æfter swǣsne. Sorg bið genīwad

þonne māga gemynd mōd geondhweorfeð;

grēteð glīwstafum, georne geondscēawað

secga geseldan. Swimmað eft on weg.

Flēotendra ferð nō þǣr fela bringeð

cūðra cwidegiedda. Cearo bið genīwad

þām þe sendan sceal swīþe geneahhe

ofer waþema gebind wērigne sefan.

For þon ic geþencan ne mæg geond þās woruld

for hwan mōdsefa mīn ne gesweorce,

þonne ic eorla līf eal geondþence,

hū hī fǣrlīce flet ofgēafon,

mōdge maguþegnas. Swā þes middangeard

ealra dōgra gehwām drēoseð ond fealleþ.

For þon ne mæg weorþan wīs wer, ǣr hē āge

wintra dǣl in woruldrīce. Wita sceal geþyldig;

ne sceal nō tō hātheort ne tō hrædwyrde

ne tō wāc wiga ne tō wanhȳdig

ne tō forht ne tō fægen ne tō feohgīfre

ne nǣfre gielpes tō georn, ǣr hē geare cunne.

Beorn sceal gebīdan, þonne hē bēot spriceð,

oþ þæt collenferð cunne gearwe

hwider hreþra gehygd hweorfan wille.

Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle hū gǣstlic bið,

þonne ealre þisse worulde wela wēste stondeð,

swā nū missenlīce geond þisne middangeard

winde biwāune weallas stondaþ,

hrīme bihrorene, hrȳðge þā ederas.

Wōriað þā wīnsalo, waldend licgað

drēame bidrorene, duguþ eal gecrong,

wlonc bi wealle. Sume wīg fornom,

ferede in forðwege: sumne fugel oþbær

ofer hēanne holm, sumne se hāra wulf

dēaðe gedǣlde, sumne drēorighlēor

in eorðscræfe eorl gehȳdde.

Ȳþde swā þisne eardgeard ælda Scyppend

oþ þæt burgwara breahtma lēase

eald enta geweorc īdlu stōdon.

Se þonne þisne wealsteal wīse geþōhte

ond þis deorce līf dēope geondþenceð,

frōd in ferðe, feor oft gemon

wælsleahta worn, ond þās word ācwið:

Hwǣr cwōm mearg? Hwǣr cwōm mago? Hwǣr cwōm māþþumgyfa?

Hwǣr cwōm symbla gesetu? Hwǣr sindon seledrēamas?

Ēalā beorht bune! Ēalā byrnwiga!

Ēalā þēodnes þrym! Hū sēo þrāg gewāt,

genāp under nihthelm, swā hēo nō wǣre.

Stondeð nū on lāste lēofre duguþe

weal wundrum hēah, wyrmlīcum fāh.

Eorlas fornōman asca þrȳþe,

wǣpen wælgīfru, wyrd sēo mǣre,

ond þās stānhleoþu stormas cnyssað,

hrīð hrēosende hrūsan bindeð,

wintres wōma, þonne won cymeð,

nīpeð nihtscūa, norþan onsendeð

hrēo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.

Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rīce;

onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.

Hēr bið feoh lǣne, hēr bið frēond lǣne,

hēr bið mon lǣne, hēr bið mǣg lǣne,

eal þis eorþan gesteal īdel weorþeð.

Swā cwæð snottor on mōde; gesæt him sundor æt rūne.

Til biþ se þe his trēowe gehealdeþ; ne sceal nǣfre his torn tō rycene

beorn of his brēostum ācȳþan, nemþe hē ǣr þā bōte cunne

eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þām þe him āre sēceð,

frōfre tō Fæder on heofonum, þǣr ūs eal sēo fæstnung stondeð.

Translator's Note

My aim when translating Old English poetry is to try and do justice to the alliterative texture of the original verse form without copying it exactly. At every point, sense and aural patterning take priority over adherence to strict rules: while I mostly stick to line-internal alliteration like in the Old English original (‘the exile’s path grips him, not gold-set gems’), I am happy to vary this with alliteration across lines (‘The shaper of all living things / laid waste to the circle of the world’), and occasionally I might use assonance or consonance instead (‘the turbulent heart can’t help itself’). Metrically, Old English poetry is governed by the principle of four stresses per line (plus a variable number of weak stresses), but my own translation is in free verse. I take rhythm into careful consideration from line to line, however, and include typical Old English quirks like multiple unstressed syllables (especially at the start of a line) or the ‘rising-falling’ pattern of compound words (‘soul-chest, sea-waves’) in order to maintain the feel of the original language.

One major crux for the prospective translator of The Wanderer is how to render the famous half-line wyrd bið ful aræd. Most go for something along the lines of ‘fate is fully fixed’, with ‘fate’ translating the word wyrd. However, wyrd probably didn’t have any connotations of divinely predetermined fate, and instead is likely closer in meaning to ‘the course of events’ without any sense of destiny. As a result, I opted for the translation ‘things go as they must’, which maintains the gnomic aspect while also being more in keeping with Christian ideas of free will. As the poem emphasizes, events may remain outside our control, but it is how we respond to them that matters.


Nik Gunn

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In the Classroom

Homophonic Diversion: Sounding out the words according to your own best guess at Old English pronunciation, try reading the original text of The Wanderer aloud to hear the alliterative texture and aural patterning Nik Gunn describes in his Translator's Note. Then attempt a “homophonic” retranslation of the poem (or an excerpt from it) that is based on sound alone, by choosing words solely for their sonic, rather than semantic, resemblance to the original.
Bonus points if you discover Old English roots in any of the modern English words you choose.

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