From the beasts of battle to enraged ghost women, Old English elegy has some of the most striking imagery and evocation in all of English literature.
This episode covers three of the Old English elegies located in the Exeter Book. While these three elegy are largely secular (compared to their meditative, religious elegy neighbors), keep in mind that each of these poems was written in the Christian age of England. These three poems are The Wanderer, the Seafarer, and the Wife’s Lament.
These poems are all found in the Exeter Book which was donated to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in 1072. We’ve talked about the Exeter book quite a lot on the podcast— it’s home to the Old English riddles we covered in our Halloween episode. The Exeter Book holds several more elegies and religious poems that we’ll definitely have to come back to, like the Ruin, the Whale, and the Widsith (traveller’s song).
We can’t be sure when any of these poems were originally penned, but we can date the manuscript itself to about 975. Like many texts we cover, these poems were likely penned or spoken before they existed in the manuscript.
So, what makes these poems elegies, and what is elegy anyway? The elegy comes from Greek and Roman roots, and is a very broad term, usually encompassing any sort of song. In Victorian poetry, and elegy is usually written as a memorial of the dead, but Old English elegy has different connotations. Elegy is notoriously difficult to define, but in Old English literature, it is best summarized as a mourning poem with themes of meditation and gravity. While elegy most often focuses first on a singular individual, it later encompasses the problems of a society, which we’ll see in the Wanderer particularly.
Old English elegy often has a variety of motifs that help it stand out in a manuscript. Here is a list of a few:
The beasts of battle: the eagle, the wolf, and the raven. While other animals may appear occasionally, these three animals often appear after battles to scavenge from the dead. Their appearance as a group is a hallmark of Old English poetry.
The “ubi sunt” formula: meaning “where are they?” in Latin, the “ubi sunt” formula refers to the narrator of the poem calling out for lost family and community, a major theme in Old English (and Old Norse) poetry.
Exile, ruin, and journey: these three terms work together to weave a powerful image of loss in Old English elegy. Contrasted with the willing “perigrinato” (pilgramage journey) of the Irish stories, the Old English elegies depict sailing alone on the sea as an alienating experience, particularly if done after a defeat in battle or loss of a lord.
The Frauenlief: the traditional “women’s song” originated in Germany, but it appears in Old English literature, particularly in “The Wife’s Lament.” This grieving, lonely song echoes the themes of exile, ruin, and journey seen above while also becoming their inverses.
There is so much more to explore in Old English literature, but we hope this has been a fun primer on the elements of Old English elegy!
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Goldsmith, Margaret E. “The Seafarer and the Birds.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 5, no. 19, 1954, pp. 225–35. Link.
Green, Martin. “Man, Time, and Apocalypse in ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’, and ‘Beowulf.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 74, no. 4, 1975, pp. 502–18. Link.
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