Wyrd bið ful aræd! (Fate remains wholly inexorable)
The above quote is taken from the Old English poem The Wanderer, and in four words it manages to encapsulate the theme of transience, as found in Old English texts. Fate, as Greg Delanty’s translation of the poem puts it, “dictates”. The idea that fate is an unavoidable force, that it is indiscriminate and arbitrary, is a motif that occurs regularly in Old English poetry. This motif provides a clear insight into the transitory world of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Wanderer concerns a lonely “anhaga”, or solitary being, who while travelling as an exile begins to contemplate the past. He remembers his time as a retainer and his glorious victories in battle before he starts deliberating on his present position as an exile. He explains that fate has turned against him, casting him away from the happiness he once knew. In doing so he becomes the “snottor on mode,” (the wise man) who has the ability to clearly judge the devastating effects of fate. He is, in essence, the physical representation of transience.
Not only does the poet embody the transient world, he also has a keen respect and appreciation for it. He remembers things as they were, and longs for their return. The poet declares: “Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?,” (Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure) which reiterates his sense of loss. He comes to realise the transient nature of life.
The Wanderer is a complex poem that explores the theme of transience. However, the poem only offers a metaphysical representation of transience. For a more concrete view on the Anglo-Saxon depiction of the transient world, The Ruin places its concerns on the physical decay of the poet’s surroundings.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
Burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
(Wondrous is this stone wall, smashed by fate:
The buildings have crumbled, the works of giants decays.)
Again fate is aligned with the transitory nature of the world. The Ruin is, as Fred C. Robinson points out “something of a ruin itself.” Damage to the Exeter Book has rendered the first 12 lines of the poem obsolete. Nevertheless, the poem manages to powerfully evoke the theme of transience through the striking imagery put forward by the poet.
The poet of The Ruin, like that of The Wanderer, reflects heavily on the past, as the sight of the crumbled ruin instigates a nostalgic response in him. He visualises what the ruin would have looked like before it succumbed to the power of fate. He thinks about everyday life; where tradesmen once worked, busily crafting their wares, where soldiers and retainers stood “brightly adorned,” and where hundreds of generations must have grown old and died. All this existed until fate, “the mighty one,” destroyed everything.
The Ruin emits a clearer depiction of the theme of transience than the previous poem. Not only is the poem more descriptive, it also avoids the narratorial ambiguity of The Wanderer. The latter poem can either be read as “a single dramatic monologue spoken by a solitary person, or a narrated poem consisting of a monologue,” according to Elaine Treharne. The former is a third person narrative, consisting for the most part of descriptions and images. Therefore, The Ruin allows for a more concise portrayal of the theme of transience.
Together, both poems are physical and metaphoric remnants of a time that has long past, and in this manner, they exude a great appreciation of the transient world.
The Wanderer: Delahunty, Greg. The Word Exchange. Ed. Greg Delahunty and Michael Matto. New York: Norton Publishing, 2011. Print.
The Ruin: Treharne, Elaine. Old and Middle English: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Print.
Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Print.