Obscure Star Trek reference notwithstanding, I've been thinking a lot about The Wanderer again. It isn't really a surprise -- speaking to my old adviser over the winter break, the topic came up and I expressed my disbelief that five years later I'm still struggling with that poem (five years to the day on the 17th struggling with Old English, actually -- hard to believe it) -- her response was that it's like a disease. Irony aside, there's something to that statement.
I've loved Adrienne Rich since my senior year of college. I was a late-comer to American poetry, but when I read (and then wrote, compulsively) on Rich for my class on US Women Poets -- something struck me about her. I don't have The Dark Fields of the Republic in front of me, but the paper I wrote (still moldering on my hard drive, as do all my Wake Forest papers) was on the hideous consequences of the failure of language in Rich's Then or Now poems. Looking back at the paper, many things are quite fascinating, not least of which are the quotations from Rich's work that weren't from the series of poems I was focusing on. For example, from "Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman":
The necessity of poetry has to be stated over and over, but only to those who have reason to fear its power, or those who still believe that language is only words and that an old language is good enough for our descriptions of the world we are trying to transform.My epigraph is similarly striking:
"When language fails us, when we fail each otherI claim that that last quote is from "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far" but I can't seem to find the citation at the moment.
there is no exorcism. The hurt continues."
Language has always been a preoccupation of mine, then. Unsurprising -- I've written a senior honors thesis and a Master's thesis on the Wanderer, and both are caught up in questions of language, and to what end language is employed.
What bothers me still about the Wanderer and his plight -- is the question of subjectivity. At first, as I was thinking this through and before I decided to post it, I thought this was the old, haunting question -- is there a subject to be found in Old English poetry, in the theoretical sense of the term. But in the end I don't think that's what I'm worried about at all. My concern, rather, is with my own subjectivity -- the subjective way in which I approach a text, which though I might struggle to overcome it, is latent even in my most academic of writings. Hidden just beneath the surface of that subjectivity is another fear -- that I'm not "Finding the Wanderer," as I've claimed elsewhere in far more formal settings, but that I'm really more interested in finding myself in his world.
It seems to me that much of Old English poetry (and prose -- even the Grammar!) struggles with finding words -- words to speak of heroes and monsters, words to find a place in the world, words to describe a world that is always passing away, always lost even as its praise is articulated, words to describe a language (Latin) that is not, and never can be, one's own. It's a feeling I understand, as a human being who used to write creatively and as a young scholar of Old English. How do I articulate to a world that doesn't understand its own past why this matters so much? How do I find words to express what this old language can do? How do I find a way to reach out, past a millennium of history and linguistic change, and shifting cultural codes and values -- and bring the Wanderer, and his voice, into the present?
Elsewhere and autrefois in the blogosphere, at the blog of Dr. Virago, there has been thought provoking discussion of related issues, which were far more academic in their orientation. My intentions in revisiting the topic aren't really scholarly per se.
I suppose that when it comes to the Wanderer, I've taken an anonymous voice, and through my own experiences -- of Old English and medieval literature, to be certain, but also of loss and loneliness and pain -- found a common ground through which to engage a voice that comes to me out of the past. This old language isn't the language that Rich speaks of above, though it has been used that way before. I also think there's a distinction to be made between the Wanderer's elegiac tone and Rich's concern in another of her poems, "In those years":
In those years, people will say, we lost trackPerhaps I am treating literature too much as though it were life, but a part of me doesn't know how else to approach it. Is compassion for this figure we name "Wanderer" worth anything as a feeling? Is it even possible to feel such a thing?
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
I end with an affirmation: We do share a common ground with the Wanderer. Not because Old English is our linguistic forebear. Rather, because we, too, are mired in language-- exiled by, and so exiles in, language. We can't find him now, because it's too late -- but, to borrow a phrase from a poet I don't read too often (Philip Larkin), "we should be careful / of each other, we should be kind / while there is still time." If someone 1000 years ago could feel such evident loneliness and pain, and if we can feel compassion for him, how much easier is it to feel compassion for others in this time, in our world?
In my oddly Forsterian approach to scholarship then, perhaps compassion is not only possible but necessary to forge the connection with the past that allows one to bear witness to something other than "a personal life" -- to avoid the end Rich (fore)saw to such self-concern:
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plungedIt isn't as simple as a distinction between personal and professional when it comes to reading the Wanderer, a distinction between thinking and feeling. It is, and must be both. In this old language, we can find a voice that was exiled from any sense of belonging, any sense of a live-able world that he could be a part of -- but still found strength to speak. By learning to hear him -- I hope there might be a chance that we can train our collective ears to hear other voices, other exiles. To realize they aren't so different after all -- to realize, finally, that like the Beowulf poet, we got our pronouns confused. It isn't they who are the exiles, the different, the outsiders -- it's all of us.
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I
As a postscript, I should note that I tend to ignore the last lines of the Wanderer in my analysis of his psychological place in the body of the poem. That makes my analysis here rather convenient, but I think it also makes the poem far more interesting. And to be honest, I've never liked endings much.