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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, followed by three prose translations, including a literal, word-by-word translation

Wulf and Eadwacer

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The curs pursue him like crippled game.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, surrounded by fens.
Here bloodthirsty men prowl, howling for sacrifice.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained and I sobbed, disconsolate,
huge, battle-strong arms grabbed and controlled me.
It felt good, to a point, but the end was loathsome.
Wulf, oh, my Wulf! My desire for you
has made me sick; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, deprived of real meat.
Do 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.

Translator's Note: "Wulf and Eadwacer" is one of the truly great poems in the English language: a bittersweet saga of love and perhaps rape and betrayal. This ancient poem has been characterized as an elegy, a wild lament, a lover's lament, a passion play, a riddle, and as a song or early ballad with a refrain. However, most modern scholars choose to place it, along with The Wife's Lament, within the genre of the frauenlied, or woman's song. It may be the first extant poem authored by a woman in the fledgling English language, although the poet and his/her sex remain unknown. But it seems likely that the poet was a woman because we don't usually think of ancient warriors and scops pretending to be women. "Wulf and Eadwacer" is perhaps the first Old English poem to contain sexual intrigue not adulterated by Christian monks. It might also be called the first English feminist text, as the speaker seems to be challenging and mocking the man who has raped and impregnated her. And 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 reader interpretation. For instance, the "wolf" that has borne the whelp to the woods might be Wulf, the heartsick speaker, Eadwacer, Eadwacer's jealous wife, or some other member of the clan. We do not know what happened to the child in the woods, but we have the impression of a dark catastrophe: perhaps human sacrifice (an idea I explore in the translation immediately below). "Wulf and Eadwacer" is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, a hallmark of the great ballads to come. The poem appeared in the Exeter Book, between "Deor" 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 other translations of this wonderfully powerful, haunting poem that speaks to us from the dawn of time and English poetry.—Michael R. Burch

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

translation by Michael R. Burch

To my people he's a bloodgift, owed to the gods.
They will offer him up, if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

Wulf's on one island, I on another.
His island's a fortress, surrounded by fens.
Cruel, bloodthirsty men roam this island.
They will offer him up, if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like wide-ranging hounds.
Whenever it rained and I sobbed, disconsolate,
huge, battle-strong arms grabbed and enclosed 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.

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 her Wulf was designated to be a sacrifice, but escaped to another island. And perhaps their clan turned the tables on Eadwacer, the Heaven-Watcher, by choosing his child 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, not wanting 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.
To my people he's like 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, if he approaches their pack.

Ungelīc     is ūs.                                                                   
Otherwise is us.
We are unalike/otherwise/different.
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 fortress, surrounded 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.]
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 to 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 followed Wulf like a wide-ranging hound.
My thoughts pursued Wulf like a wide-ranging hound.

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.
for me there was pleasure, but its end was painful.

Wulf, mīn Wulf! wēna mē  īne
Wulf, my  Wulf! hopes me pine
Wulf, my Wulf! My hopes of 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 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 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 or offering
ungelic means "otherwise" or "different" or "unalike"
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," "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 "dog-like" or "dogged"
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 his master's 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."

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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