On the Same Page

The Wanderer and The Seafarer swim up to us through history as though from the bottom of a swampy East Anglian fen. Their original textual home is The Exeter Book, a tenth century work typifying a time before movable type, that contains many different pieces of literature bound into a “sort of single-volume ‘library.’”[1] These community books containing stories of the culture were placed between birch wood covers and kept in cathedrals. I imagine their heft and splintery texture, parchment pages crackling loudly as they are turned, pocked by enlarged illuminated capitals to signal the start of another tale. From The Exeter Book’s poems themselves we can see some of what life was like for Anglo-Saxon people in the years before William the Conqueror brought their culture to a close.  

A lot of frost. A lot of time on frigid sea journeys, solitary and subject to waves and to thoughts of death and existence. In the anglo-saxons.net translation of The Wanderer just as the sorrow seems too much to bear, the poet says:
Indeed I cannot think
why my spirit
does not darken
when I ponder on the whole
life of men
throughout the world,
How they suddenly left the floor (hall)
the proud thanes (58a-62a)
One way to read this is to imagine that the poet, far from seeing his work as simply part of a collection of thoughts put down for his contemporaries, visualized a missal into the future. Knowing his mortality, but seeing his words as part of a world book somehow lifts him above “the binding of the waves” (57a.)
It’s hard to conceptualize in our age of infinite access to words that something like The Exeter Book once held such value. One source, one communal collection of cultural products to speak for our values as a group is pretty alien to us now. In Bayard’s terms the Anglo Saxons living near Exeter might have had very similar inner books, having all shared the same master narratives in one way or another by hearing if not by reading. Were they all on the same page, so to speak? What would the poet who wrote The Wanderer think of its continuing life in our fragmented world, of all the translations and reworkings of his language, of his mind? His poem has several different places on the shelves of our collective library. Imagine the fights that must sometimes break out about where and if in those stacks when academics are roaming them. The board-bound book has been broken open and the leaves taken out and plundered.
This theme of the authority of the book and how that authority gets challenged seems to be coming up a lot for me lately—so does that mean it’s a focus for research? Maybe. We’ve heard how this can change. I have for a while been drawn to ideas attached to the process of imitation and its power to challenge hegemony in the composition or literature classroom. Dr. Mentz’ link to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article “Uncreative Writing” talks about the act of constructing literature, a more post-modern approach to creativity that challenges our Romantic notion of the individual genius. As text has multiplied infinitely in our world so has our access to material for our own work. Some of my favorite creative endeavors have always been what results in the awesomeness of the whole that can be magically conjured from disparate parts, from cut and paste collage as a child to making a found poem from bits and pieces of newspaper headlines. Nicholson Baker’s recent book Human Smoke (2008) relied solely on texts from the years surrounding the second world war: news stories, ads, brochures—any text printed—to paint a word picture of the culture at a certain place in time. Behind the pastiche his own thesis is at work, selecting and placing his found texts, to show his beliefs about the forces in society at that moment in history that might have created the context that gave rise to the subsequent inhumanities of WWII, and exactly how he feels about America’s entry into the war. The Chronicle article suggests that we recognize a new paradigm for creative genius: a “programmer…brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.”
This all brings me (by the long route) to my own interest in textual authority. As a teacher of writing I am excited by ideas like this approach to creativity that The Chronicle is spotlighting.
Mary Minock, in an article published in the Journal of Advanced Composition, proposes by way of David Bartholomae, the benefits of a pedagogy of imitation whereby student writers are given explicit freedom to appropriate and imitate the styles and language of published writers. Minock quotes Bartholomae: “A fundamental social and psychological reality about discourse—oral or written—is that human beings continually appropriate each other’s language to establish group membership, to grow, and to define themselves in new ways.” Minock points out that academics have used “pastiche,” “simulacrum,” “intertextuality,” etc. “to interpret our cultural and textual condition” (Minock 2.)

Why don’t we extend this same privilege to students? We can upend for them that sense that they have that texts are somehow apart and untouchable, grave authorities that possess knowledge and represent ways of knowing, in fact, that the uninitiated may never participate in. We are no longer a monolithic Anglo-Saxon band of folks who recognize in the wood-bound book in the cathedral our selves. The seafarer and the wanderer, the poets of their community who looked out over the “whale-road” with restless questioning spirits I think would be glad to know how graduate students and teachers of their work tear at it like marauders, drawing and quartering language in their quest for it to give up its secrets. To design new ways for undergraduates to feel the same power is a noble task.

[1] http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/exeter_book_and_wanderer.htm
Work cited:
Minock, Mary, “Toward a Post-Modern Pedagogy of Imitation,” JAC, 15.3, Fall, 1995.
About Steve Mentz 1265 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and the blue humanities at St. John's in New York City.


  1. Edward Said’s commentary on exile sheds interesting light on “The Seafarer”: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” However, Said has also said that exile has the potential to become “a potent, even enriching” experience.” Although the speaker is made wretched and sorrowful by initially focusing on the juxtaposition of land and sea, his eventual focus on the uncertainty of life merges sea and land, allowing him to find spiritual transcendence. Diction of winter and entrapment conveys the seafarer’s feeling of despair and isolation on the sea (“Fettered by cold / were my feet, / bound by frost / in cold clasps” [8B-10A]) and heat is attributed to emotional yearnings for land and friendly kinsmen (“where then cares seethed / hot about my heart” [10B-11A]). The shift in the wintry metaphor from solely sea to both sea and land mirrors the speaker’s recognition that he need not focus on land versus sea, for sea and land are the same: “The shadows of night darkened, / it snowed from the north, / frost bound the ground, / hail fell on the earth, / coldest of grains” (31A-33A). With this shift, the speaker also shifts the heat of his longing for land to the heat of his joy for the Lord, transcending both sea and land (“Indeed hotter for me are / the joys of the Lord / than this dead life / fleeting on the land” [64B-66A]) for he does “not believe / that the riches of the world / will stand forever [and] always and invariably, / one of three things / will turn to uncertainty / before his fated hour” (66b-69b). Looking to God and merging both land and sea into a realm of earthly uncertainty and sin, the speaker redefines home (“Let us ponder / where we have our homes’ [117A-B]) and, in doing so, finds a new source for hope, spiritual enrichment, and transcendence. We could look back to both Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus to explore Said’s words on exile, but I think it also might be interesting to think about how moments of metaphorical exile can prove enriching in our lives too.

  2. Following Melissa, it might be productive to contrast a populated exile like Antony’s — lots of people in Egypt! — with a solitary exile in nature like that of the Wanderer and the Seafarer. Does a fantasy about social / multicultural integration operate in post-colonial studies in a way that’s comparable to the theological vision of transcendence in the medieval poems? If so, and I suppose I think so, how might these help us understand a still-theological basis for utopian visions in the supposedly secular present?

  3. I was struck by the beauty of the language in both the Wanderer and the Seafarer in terms of how the authors used nature to express the violence and the loneliness which confronted them. The rhythm also helps the reader feel the author’s pain for example: storms beat, falling frost, nightshadows deepen, rough hailstorm – (all in) malice again men (100a-104a). The despair is evident as the word ‘fleeting’ is used over and over again (108a) and as the reader I want to shout out – there is hope; hold on! but these words would most likely be lost in the howling winds and would echo upon ears deafened by the constant thunderous thrashing of the waves. The use of nature allows the reader to feel, smell, taste, and touch all that the authors have to say. We experience their disappointments, their loneliness, as well as their joy of coming into Christianity along with them. In the Seafarer the comparison of Lord and lord is interesting as the author contemplates life without a lord versus the afterlife with the Lord. He understands how blessed his life is despite the harshness and trials he must endure and yet there is a glimmer of hope as he concludes almost in prayer: Let us ponder where we have our homes and then think how we should get thither–and then we should all strive that we might go there to the eternal blessedness that is a belonging life in the love of the Lord, joy in the heavens. Let there be thanks to God that he adored us, the Father of Glory, the Eternal Lord, for all time (116a-124a). Amen. Powerful, beautifully written, moving…This literary interlude is one that I truly enjoyed.

  4. Following Melissa and Dr. Mentz, I think the theme of social integration prevalent in post-colonial studies can be compared to both Antony’s excursions in Egypt and the ‘theological vision of transcendence’ in the two Anglo-Saxon poems we read this week. All three have one thing in common, and that is going to an area outside of their homeland. This change of atmosphere is mostly an ethnic change, with the Roman Mark Antony trying to find something more fulfilling (love) in the foreign land of Egypt, or the voyager traveling to other countries in the hopes of riches and property, meeting new ethnic groups along the way, being forced to communicate with them. In both situations, change is actively pursued because there is not enough contentment in the current stations of life. The same applies to ‘The Wanderer’ and the ‘Seafarer’, where our storytellers are going through the phases of life, but realizing that this is not enough. Spirituality is the next satisfactory step where gold and silver on the earthly world loses its shine and the most appealing reward is now the light of heaven. All three groups create visions of the unknown for themselves and actively seek forbidden knowledge, without truly knowing what their destination will be like.

  5. To respond to Dr. Mentz’ questions, I am reminded of discussions based on Cornel West’s idea of “prophetic activity” (Gilyard 21) that some of us in Dr. Kynard’s Theory of Composition class will remember. West writes that God is on the side of the oppressed, and he draws on Judeo-Christian traditions to build a deep project of activism in the secular world. He is particularly outspoken about “the callous indifference of the plutocratic elites of the American empire about the sufferings of our own poor and oppressed peoples… (and) the effects of our imperialism on the poor and oppressed peoples around the world” (22.) But, there are questions in post-colonial studies about the flattening of differences sometimes implied by linking awareness of hegemony with a transcendent framework–“multicultualism” being one, and theology being another. When the Seafarer poet says: “Let us ponder/where we have our homes/and then think/how we should get thither” (117a-118b) he is operating in a unified world of Christianity where “home” and “Home” meet in a way that erases earthly life and looks forward to a “belonging life /in the love of the Lord” (121a-b.) I have learned through these exposures to post-colonial theory and the prophetic activism of Cornel West to at least question my own comfort with the notion of transcendence, despite how much I love and learn from Dr. West’s passion for the poor.
    –Gilyard, Keith, Composition and Cornel West, Notes toward a Deep Democracy

  6. Laura: I like your idea of “graduate students and teachers of their work tear at it like marauders, drawing and quartering language in their quest for it to give up its secrets.” I think that’s vital to teach our students that books are capable of being engaged with and fleshed out, particularly the ones that seem most monolithic.

    The quote that stuck out to me in The Wanderer was the constant emphasis on being “wretched”: “I hid my lord/in the darkness of the earth,/and I, wretched from there…” The poem continues, “Then sorrow and sleep/both together/often tie up/the wretched solitary one.” This certainly harkened my awareness to Frantz Fanon’s seminal work, “The Wretched of the Earth.” In Fanonian terms, there is no transcendence in being an exile just a constant state of oppression and dislocation.

    “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” remind me of the character of the Vietnamese cook, Binh in Monique Truong’s “Book of Salt.” Binh is literally an exile since he cannot return to Vietnam and he finds himself in France unable to assimilate. He too has heavy wounds of the heart and longs for something, not exactly a spiritual deity rather a sense of belonging. The exile can never belong because he/she always exists in an interstitial, atemporal space between two worlds like Antony, like Binh. Unfortunately there is no “consolation from the father in the heavens.”Transcendence is not possible only abeyance at sea.

  7. In regards to Laura’s comments about prophetic activity, it seems the seafarer is using his contemplations as an example for others, possibly the reader, to find a way through submitting to Christ. He also broods on the vanity and foolish ambitions of men. Much like the book Ecclesiastes in the Bible…the seafarer advocates letting go of worldly concerns and focusing on a life with God.

    “Indeed hotter for me are
    the joys of the Lord
    than this dead life fleeting on the land. I do not believe that the riches of the world
    will stand forever.”

  8. Regarding the Ecclesiastical qualities of the poem, I wish to explicate further. “The Seafarer” seems to take on a more cautionary and disciplinary form as a parent cautioning a child, relating from experiences past and present to imbue wisdom and sound thinking to the reader. He explains “how I often endured / days of struggle, / troublesome times, / how I have suffered / grim sorrow at heart / have known in the ship” (2b-5a). The ship seems to be a metaphor for the life of a warrior, or a kinsman. Perhaps it is the life as saints suffering as Christ suffered he refers to, or the great journey we all embark on from birth? He seems to relish the suffering of the journey he embarks on, creating the binary between the man who has taken the journey in the ship and those “who have the joys of life, / dwells in the city, / far from terrible journey, / proud and wanton with wine” (27b-29a). His pride is within the journey and the suffering, his taking “the gannet’s noise / and the voice of the curlew / instead of the laughter of men / the singing gull / instead of the drinking of mead” (20b-22b). The battle is against the pleasures of the temporal and the praises of the finite for greater reward of eternal life.

    “The Wanderer”, however, takes on a completely different tone exuding a woeful, dirgelike, singularity, a mournful sorrow that is only bitter as it is being shared with oneself and none other. The text almost takes on the form of last testament before death by the hand of one whose life had ended as the last of his kind, exiled and alone. If there is one element that bleeds form the pages it is the love of the writer for his lord and the company of his men. Often “he think in his mind / that he embraces and kisses / his lord, / and on his knees lays / his hands and his head, / Just as, at times gone by” (41a-44a). He has buried his lord, presumably the last of his clan or kinsmen, and wandered into exile reflecting on how the pomp of what once was has flown into the past with the changing of seasons. Now winter reigns hand in hand with death.
    He finally falls into reverie exclaiming “All is troublesome / int this earthly kingdom, / the turn of events changes / the world under the heavens. / Money fleeting, here friend is fleeting, / here man is fleeting, / here kinsman is fleeting, / all the foundations of this world / turn to waste” (106a- 110b) in true ecclesiastical, then silenct as the narration takes over. The passage ends on a slightly more objective note leaving the narrator to state “so spake the wise man” (111a). Are we to take these depressing and woeful exclamations of abandon as wisdom? The narrator seems to almost condemn him for his not being of greater courage and speaking so quickly as “a worrier must never speak / his grief of his breast too quickly” (112b-113a) and “good is he that keeps his faith” (112a). Yet this subject of the poem seems to have lost his faith and reason. However, the moral object of the poem stands and the moral rings out regardless.

    Out of both the poems, which one do you identify with most? Which contains the greater kernel of truth?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.