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Wulf and Eadwacer : Modern English Translation
(an anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem noted for its ambiguity, circa 960-990 AD)


with two poetry translations by Michael R. Burch, three prose translations (including a literal, word-by-word translation, paraphrase and analysis), translator's notes, and a discussion of the mystery of the identity of the "second wolf"

Wulf and Eadwacer

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

To my people he's prey, a pariah.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.                                                           (We are unalike, otherwise, different, unwelcome, alien to each other?, a different species?; How unalike us!)

Wulf fled to a faraway island:
a fen-fastened fortress.
Here, slaughter-cruel curs bark for bloodgifts.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.

My heart hounded Wulf in his wanderings ...
but as soon as I wailed with the storm-winds,
big battle-strong arms embraced me:
good feelings for him, but for me loathsome!
Ungelīc is ūs.

Wulf, my Wulf! These violent love-longings
have rendered me useless; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, craving real meat!

Have you heard, Heaven-Watcher?
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods!
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Translator's Notes
by Michael R. Burch

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is one of the truly great "elder" poems of the English language: a bittersweet saga of love, separation, rape and betrayal. This ancient poem―over 1,000 years old!―has been characterized as an elegy, a wild lament, a lover's lament, a passion play, a riddle, and as an early ballad with a refrain. However, most scholars choose to place it, along with The Wife's Lament, within the genre of the frauenlied or frauenlieder, a woman's song. It may be the first extant poem authored by a woman in the then-fledgling English language, although the poet's name and sex remain unknown. But it seems likely that the poet was a woman because the poem is written from a female perspective and we don't usually think of ancient scops pretending to be women. "Wulf and Eadwacer" is one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, a hallmark of the ballads and villanelles to come. The poem appeared in the Exeter Book, between "Deor's Lament" and the riddles, meaning that it was written no later than around 990 AD. But the poem itself is probably older, perhaps much older. I hope readers enjoy my translations of this powerful, haunting poem that speaks to us from the dawn of time and English poetry. The remainder of these notes may be of interest to readers who would like to know more about the poem, it's history, and why I made the choices I made.

Is "Wulf and Eadwacer" the first free verse poem in the English language? I think it deserves nomination and consideration for at least three reasons. First, its refrain was an innovation. Second, the refrain broke the rules of traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry by containing only five syllables, rather than the required minimum of eight. Third, there are other irregularities of form and metrics. In the original text the poem begins with a two-line stanza followed by the refrain. Next, there is a four-line stanza followed by the refrain. Then there are four longer lines not followed by a refrain. Following are the three shorter, terser, emotion-charged lines that begin with the exclamation "Wulf, mīn Wulf!" ("Wolf, my Wolf!"). Again there is no refrain, which has been abandoned, and the first half-line has only three syllables, where Old English prosody required at least four syllables per half-line. The four closing lines either (1) alternate between longer and shorter lines as they appear in the original text, or (2) revert back to the traditional form and are thus longer than the lines that immediately precede them (in the latter case whoever hand-wrote the poem made a grouping error and there should be only three lines). Does the author of "Wulf and Eadwacer" qualify as a free verse poet? Yes, I think so because the poetno slave to convention"mixed things up" by innovating and either ignoring or relaxing the traditional rules.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" may also be notable for being one of the few pieces of early English writing that contains sexual intrigue not "adulterated" later by Christian monks, if you'll pardon the pun. But how can we know whether monks engaged in hack work on this particular poem? I find it a bit suspicious that the refrain does not appear where one would expect to find it: after the third stanza, which seems to describe a rape. Did a "sanitizer" delete something more shocking, and the missing refrain along with it? It seems possible to me. In any case, I added the third refrain line, which did not appear in the original text. I have seen modern copyists and editors make all sorts of mistakes, and I'm sure ancient scribes made mistakes as well, even when they weren't deliberately censoring writers. But if you prefer to stick as closely as possible to the original poem, just skip over the third refrain. However, it certainly seems to apply to the rapist.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" may also be considered the first English feminist text, as the speaker seems to be challenging and mocking the man who raped and impregnated her. (Before I go any further, please let me point out that the poem seems to be about a woman who is in love with one man, Wulf, who was driven away, with the result that she was raped by some other man or men and became pregnant. However, there are other interpretations of the poem. What I am providing here is my personal interpretation of the poem, which may or may not be correct.)

The poem's closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in the English language, or any language. The poem is also notable for its rich ambiguity, which leaves much open to the reader's interpretation. For instance, the "wolf" that has borne the whelp to the woods could be Wulf, the heartsick female speaker, Eadwacer, Eadwacer's jealous wife, some other member(s) of the clan, or even a canine wolf. We really don't know and can only make educated guesses or embrace the poem's ambiguity. We also do not know what happened to the child in the woods, but have the impression of a dark catastrophe: perhaps human sacrifice (an idea I explore in the word "bloodgift" above, and further in the translations below).

I chose not to translate "Ungelīc is ūs" because I couldn't find a comparable line in modern English that conveyed the alienness and power I perceived (or perhaps imagined) in the original Anglo-Saxon phrase. I believe it probably means something like "we are unalike," but no one really knows, not even the most expert linguists as far as I can tell. Considering when and how the phrase is used in the poem, I believe it could mean something much stronger, like: "we are alien to each other," or "we are like two different species," but that is speculation on my part. However, that's the feeling I get when I read the poem: the female speaker seems to view her clan as being like a pack of snarling, bloodthirsty dogs on the trail of prey ... and the prey is her beloved Wulf. Even worse, it seems that when she thinks about Wulf and begins to weep, one the clan's warriors takes advantage of the situation and rapes her. The most likely rapist is Eadwacer, but it could be some other warrior, or even a group of warriors. The name Eadwacer has been interpreted as "Heaven-watcher" and "property watcher." So it's possible that Eadwacer is either a warrior or a warrior-priest who has been appointed as a guardian (or owner) of the poem's female speaker.

I considered "bucks the pack" because that phrase conveys the sense of both returning to (or otherwise meeting) the pack, and also being at odds with it. Possible replacements for "bucks" include "meets", "rejoins," "approaches" and "returns to." Possible replacements for "deprived of real meat" include "unable to eat," "uncaring of meat" and "but not caring about food."


Who is the poem's "second wolf"? I believe the correct answer is that no one really knows. We can only speculate. One possibility is that the second wolf is Wulf himself. Perhaps he returned to abduct the child, or to kill it as a form of revenge for the rape of his wife or lover. Another possibility is that Eadwacer is the second wolf. If Wulf was nominated to be a sacrifice to the gods, but escaped, perhaps Eadwacer fathered the child on purpose, to replace the lost sacrifice. Or perhaps he was married and his wife refused to raise another woman's child in their house, so he acted according to her wishes. Or perhaps Eadwacer's wife was the second wolf, and she got rid of the child herself. Or perhaps the mother herself became the second wolf, getting rid of a child fathered by her rapist. Or perhaps some other member of the tribe was the second wolf, perhaps believing it was the will of the gods for the child to replace its father as a sacrifice. Or perhaps the second wolf, in a great and terrible irony, was a real wolf! If asked to offer my own opinion, I would first speculate that Eadwacer was probably not the second wolf, because the mother asks if he has heard the news. I would eliminate "the other woman" because no such woman is mentioned. Then, because it seems the intention of the act was to sever the relationship, I am inclined to suspect either Wulf or the mother. My guess―and it is only a guess and could certainly be wrong―is that the mother is the most likely second wolf because Wulf has been driven away to another island. If I'm correct, I would like to believe the mother took the baby to someone else, via a meeting in the woods, because she didn't want to raise the child herself, and because she wanted to show Eadwacer the consequences of raping her and fathering children on her. He would never see his children by her. But those were dark days, and it's possible that a mother could have chosen to dispose of her own child. However, there is obviously considerable uncertainty and speculation involved. I can only say that the poem seems to possibly be about human sacrifice. I cannot be sure that my interpretation of the final stanza―that the intention of the abduction was to sever the song―is correct. But it seems to me that the mother may be saying something like―excuse my French―"Did you hear, you fucking bloodthirsty priest? A she-wolf carried off our wretched whelp to the woods, to do what you intended to do to Wulf. Do you see how easily I can sever what never was one: our 'song' together?" Did the mother sacrifice Eadwacer's child in the woods, to his savage gods?

Here is a more literal translation of the poem, although "literal" does not mean that I know what every word in the original poem meant exactly. No modern reader does. If you'd like to see how I arrived at this version, you can see what I did with each line in the prose translations that follow.

Wulf and Eadwacer

literal translation by Michael R. Burch

To my people he's prey, a bloodgift.
They will offer him up, if he approaches their pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.

Wulf's on one island, I on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
Here bloodthirsty men roam this island.
They will offer him up, if he approaches their pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.

My wide-ranging thoughts dogged Wulf.
Whenever it rained and I wept, disconsolate,
battle-strong arms soon embraced me.
For me there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, my Wulf! My desire for you
has made me sick; your seldom-comings
have troubled my mind much more than missed meat.
Did you hear, Heaven-Watcher? The whelp we delivered
has been borne by a wolf to the woods.
One can easily sever what was never one:
our song together.

By "literal translation" I mean as literal as possible, not a word-for-word translation. In some cases (noted at the bottom of this page), the words of the original poem have multiple meanings, so it can require additional words to convey as much of the meaning as possible in modern English. In the version above, I take the approach that the female speaker says that she is ungelic (unlike) her people because she does not believe in sacrificing human beings to the gods. Perhaps Wulf had been designated to be a sacrifice, but escaped to another island. And perhaps the child was chosen to to be the next sacrifice. The lack of food was a common reason to offer sacrifices to the gods, so perhaps the speaker's comment about being hungry gives us an important clue. And the last two lines raise the question: did the speaker have anything to do with the way the tables were turned, perhaps because she didn't want to raise her rapist's baby?

Here is the original Anglo-Saxon poem, with each line followed by a word-for-word prose translation and two Modern English transliterations by Michael R. Burch:

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc   gife;
People   is mine    as-if     him one   like gift;
[To] my people, he is like a gift/bloodgift/sacrifice/offering/sacrificial gift/blood offering/game/sport/bloodsport.
To my people he's a bloodgift [owed to the gods].
To my people he's prey, a sacrificial gift.

willa h    hine āecgan gif hē on rēat cyme.
will     they him devour    if  he  on force comes.
They will devour/slaughter/destroy/serve/offer him if he comes to/approaches their force/troop/clan/pack.
They will offer him up [to the gods, as a meal, in return for food for the clan to eat], if he approaches their pack.

Ungelīc     is ūs.
Otherwise is us.
We are unalike/otherwise/different. / It is otherwise with us.
We are so different.

Wulf is on īege,    ic on ōerre.
Wulf is on island, I  on other.
Wulf is on one island, I on another.
Wulf's on one island, I on another.

Fst is t ēglond, fenne biworpen.
Fast is that island,   fen     surrounded.
That island is fast/a fortress, surrounded by fens.
His island's a secure fortress, surrounded and protected by fens.

Sindon     wlrēowe        weras aer  on īge;
They-are slaughter-cruel men   there on island;
There are slaughter-cruel/bloodthirsty men there on the island. [It is not completely clear which island is meant, but it sounds like the speaker's island.]
Cruel, bloodthirsty men roam this island.

willa h    hine āecgan gif hē on rēat cyme.
will     they him devour    if  he  on force comes.
They will devour/slaughter/destroy/serve/offer him if he comes onto their force/troop/clan/pack/stronghold/fortress.
They will offer him up, if he approaches their pack.

Ungelīc     is ūs.                                                                   
Otherwise is us.
We are unalike/otherwise/different.
We are so different.

Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum     wēnum dogode,
Wulf    in my     wide-journey hopes   dogged.
I dogged/hounded Wulf in my wide-ranging hopes/thoughts/dreams.
My thoughts dogged Wulf like wide-ranging hounds.

onne hit ws rēnig weder   ond ic rēotugu st,
when  it   was rainy weather and I  wailing  sat,
When it was rainy weather and I sat wailing/sobbing/disconsolate,
Whenever it rained and I sobbed, disconsolate,

onne mec se   beaducāfa     bōgum bilegde,
then    me   the battle-strong arms     enclosed,
then the battle-strong arms enclosed me,
huge, battle-strong arms soon enclosed me;

ws mē wyn tō on,  ws mē hwre   ēac  lā.
was  me joy   to that, was  me  however also pain.
for me there was pleasure/joy, but also pain/hatred/something loathsome.
for me there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.

Wulf, mīn Wulf! wēna mē īne
Wulf, my  Wulf! hopes me pine
Wulf, my Wulf! My hopes/desires/longings/pinings/lust for you
Wulf, my Wulf! My desire for you

sēoce gedydon, īne seldcymas,
sick    made,      thy  seldom-comings
have made me sick, your seldom-comings
has made me sick; your seldom-comings

murnende mōd, nales metelīste.
troubled   mind, not   meals-missed.
disturbed/troubled/occupied my mind, not the lack of food/meals/meat.
have troubled my mind, more than missed meat.

Gehrest ū,   Ēadwacer? Uncerne earne       hwelp
Hearest   you, Eadwacer? Our        wretched whelp
Hear, Eadwacer? Our wretched/vile/filthy/unwanted whelp / Hear, Property-/Heaven-Watcher? The whelp we earned/delivered/produced
Did you hear, Heaven-Watcher? The whelp we delivered

bire wulf tō wuda.
bears wolf to woods.
Wulf/a wolf now bears/has borne to the woods.
a wolf now bears to the woods.

t  mon ēae   tōslīte tte naefre gesomnad ws,  
That one  easily severs   that    never  united       was,
One easily severs what was never united:
One can easily sever what was never one:
  
uncer giedd geador.
our     song  together.
our song together.
our song together.

The poem is deliciously ambiguous; for instance:

lāc means not only "wild game" but "gift" and thus might suggest a sacrifice, offering or bloodgift 
ungelic means "otherwise" or "different" or "unalike"
fst means "fast" in the sense of secure or protected; the island is protected by fens and inaccessibility
āecgan means not only "to kill" but "to feed" or "devour," to "accept (a guest)" and perhaps "to mate" or "copulate"
rēat could mean "troop," "force," "threat," "crowd," "clan," "pack," "horde" or "hostile army"
dogode is a verb whose meaning is uncertain because it occurs nowhere else in the OE corpus; it may be related to "dog" or "hound" and mean something like "hounded," "dogged" or somehow acting dog-like
beaducāfa means "warrior" and is generally taken to be the same person as Eadwacer
bōgum bilegde means something like "wrapped in [his] arms" and seems suggestive of sexual intercourse, especially considering the whelp (child)
wēna mē īne means something like "my pinings for you" or "my expectations for/of you"
uncer giedd geador or "our giedd together" may invoke Matthew 19:6 ("What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.")
If the poet punned on giedd (song, story, tale) and the sound-alike word "god," suggesting that what God did not join together was doomed to remain separated, that would be truly remarkable.
Eadwacer may mean "property watcher" or "heaven watcher," thus suggesting a guard or priest. Perhaps the female speaker has become a slave and it is Eadwacer's job to watch the "property."

It has been ventured that the poem was written by Cynwulf, but there is no evidence of his authorship.

In Anglo-Saxon England, outlaws were called "wolf's heads," so the name Wulf suggests an outlaw, a desperado.

Wulf and Eadwacer

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

To my clan's curs, he's god-food, a bloodgift.
They'll rip him apart if he falls to the pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.                                                  (We are unalike, otherwise, different, alien to each other?, a different species?)

Wulf fled to a faraway island:
some fen-fastened fortress.
Here, bloodlustful men bark for manbones.
They'll rip him apart if he falls to the pack.
Ungelīc is ūs.

My heart followed Wulf's wide-wanderings!
But once as I wept, wracked with grief,
big battle-strong arms "consoled" me.
There was comfort at first, but the end was loathsome.
Ungelīc is ūs.

Wulf, my Wulf! These violent love-longings
have made me sick; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!

Did you hear, Heaven-Watcher? A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods!
One can easily sever what never was one: our song together.

Links

Please click here to see a Timeline of English Poetry with links to major poems and events.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Mikls Radnti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Rene Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

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