Thursday, July 24, 2008

Believing the Wanderer

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of my best friends, Emily, wrote to me a few months ago asking me to write an essay for a CD she wants to put together. It consists in "This I Believe" style essays from a number of people she's close to, and her rationale for putting it together is that eventually she'll lose all our voices -- to death, or to time, or to distance -- and she wants to preserve them now, what we believe, who we are (at least, this is my interpretation of what she told me). And so I found myself, at long last, returning to a theme of mine. My first attempt, written for my final University Writing class this year, is available at OENY. My current attempt can be found under the "read more" cut below.

I've written on the Wanderer many times before. An honors thesis, a Masters thesis, various translations. This is the first time I've tried to articulate the poem's meaning to me in a spoken format. Moreover, it is the first time I've tried to articulate my first meeting with this poem, and more importantly, what it means to me personally -- and so I wanted to share it, not just with Emily (whom I met in the same Old English in which I met the Wanderer), but with other medievalist interlocutors. I realized, while writing it, that I really can pinpoint the moment medieval studies changed my life. It was imperceptible at the time, but this figure became central to my world for years. I wonder if others have found texts that have touched them in an academic way -- generating a passion for the medieval, or another field -- but also touched them in a profoundly life-altering, personal way. And I wonder if some of you might share those here, in the comments (I'm very interactive this week!).

So, this I believe, the Old English Edition.

Even voices from the distant past can change your life. Here is a voice I first met in a poem—first in its original Old English, then in translation:

Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan.

Often, alone
I have spoken my cares in the hours before dawn.
No one now lives to whom I could tell
my heart’s secrets.

When I first encountered this character—this voice—from an eighth-century Old English poem, he was alone. He, the so-called “wanderer,” was bereft. He had fought loyally for his lord, but his lord had died, and now he was left in exile. In those times, a warrior depended on his lord for housing, legitimacy, and protection. His world had changed forever, and he could not change with it.

At nineteen I could understand that feeling. It was February, 2002: the year my life had—like his-- changed irreparably. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five months before had exposed the prejudices of my peers, as the world became an uncertain, violent place. My personal losses were no less life-altering: I had recently buried a friend who hadn’t yet turned 15, and was mourning a cousin who never saw his eleventh birthday. The Wanderer’s losses felt very familiar.

As a college sophomore, I enrolled in a class in Old English language and literature. It was there that I first met the Wanderer, and that meeting would change my life. Like friends who met their future life partners in college, I met the person—the voice— who would alter my life in a poem on that course syllabus. His words changed me, even though he spoke a language that hadn’t been spoken in a thousand years.

The Wanderer—exiled and alone—was traveling over the wintery waters, trying to find a place in which he could belong. He sleeps and dreams of his people, and, awakening to sea-birds, mistakes them for his companions. They swim away, leaving him to ponder his loneliness, and the empty ruins which remain from other civilizations that have been destroyed by time – the old work of giants, now empty.

The poem offers no homecoming for this exile. The tagged-on, four-line Christian ending brings the poem to a neat, Heavenly close, but it is not clear whose voice it is that speaks of Christian comfort. So when my literature professor asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in this Wanderer’s exile, in this place without certainty of a future, or hope for a better world, I immediately identified with the existential angst of his plight. How all life vanishes under night’s shade, as if it never were!

Time vanishes, with all the works of human beings. But the lesson I learned from the Wanderer wasn’t about loss. Rather, I learned that the words of others could cross time to touch the present day from a past so distant that its language had to be learned. If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most. Voices from the past can still speak to a present world, and with them bear an important lesson. To live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past touch us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

cross posted to ITM.


Ben Johnson said...

Hey there--I'm one of those English PhD's who knows Medieval lit about as well as I know Swahili (I do 20th Cent Am Poetry), but this is a really lovely essay. My recollection is that Moby Dick hit me in about the same place when I was that age.

Will Elliott said...

This is very powerful. I'm thankful to you for writing it. You've articulated something that speaks to experiences I've had with literature. It is the very stuff of our souls. I'm glad you will assist in the shaping of bright minds. :)

Topher said...

I'm working on an essay on the Wanderer and stumbled upon this essay. It's quite well written, and I wonder if a lot of English majors have stories like this. Like Ben above, I have a story that is much the same. Dante's Inferno really hit me senior year of high school. I was grappling with morals and college and the Inferno was just the story I needed.

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