Year: 
2010

This is my modern English translation of one of the oldest English poems and perhaps the first one written by a woman. 

Wulf and Eadwacer
anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 960 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My clan’s curs pursue him like crippled game.
They’ll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf’s on one island; we’re on another.
His island’s a fortress fastened by fens.
Here, bloodthirsty curs howl for carnage.
They’ll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained—how I wept!
the boldest cur grasped me in his paws.
Good feelings for him, but for me, loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Originally published by Measure

Keywords/Tags: Wulf, Eadwacer, Anglo-Saxon, Old English, translation, wolf, pack, island

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is one of the truly great poems of English antiquity. It has been classified as an elegy, a lament, a lover's lament, an early ballad or villanelle, a riddle, a charm, and as a frauenlieder or "woman's song." An ancient Anglo-Saxon work written in the West Saxon dialect, the poem dates back to a time when the English language still resembled German (the Angles, from whom England derives its name, were a Germanic tribe, as were the Saxons and Jutes). Around 75% of the poem's words have Germanic origins. Old English poetry is also called Anglo-Saxon poetry because it has linguistic roots that go back to the Angles and Saxons. And yet, while the poem was composed in Old English, it still "feels" quite modern. How is that so? For one thing, it's a dramatic monologue―quite possibly the first dramatic monologue in the English language, centuries before the works of poets and playwrights like Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. It's also one of the first English poems with a refrain, along with "Deor's Lament." Furthermore, the speaker of "Wulf and Eadwacer" is a woman, at a time when we don't find other Englishwomen writing poetry or speaking so bitterly and defiantly (the "Wife's Lament" is the other dazzling exception to this general rule). Thus "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the first feminist text in the English language. Is the speaker female? I think so. Henk Aertsen has argued that the feminine endings of reotugu and seoce are female. But grammar aside, it seems obvious that a woman is speaking. And technically the poem looks like free verse―nearly a thousand years before Walt Whitman and five hundred years before the King James Bible―because it "breaks the rules" of the poetry of its day. In my opinion, "Wulf and Eadwacer" is a groundbreaking poem because it has a female perspective, a feminist attitude, and a free verse approach in which traditional rules of versification are bent or broken. What matters, as with the great Romantic and Modernist poets to come many centuries later, is that the speaker gets her point across. And she does, in spades.

Author of original: 
An unknown Anglo-Saxon scop, and perhaps the first woman to compose an English poem.
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