Sunday, December 26, 2004

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

I need a palatte-cleansing slurp of medieval scholarship after chewing out David Brooks.

An odd quote has been rattling around in my head, as I read about plans for the upcoming Iraqi elections: "It is easy to tear apart what was never joined -- our song together!" Something from a rant by a Kurdish opposition leader? Or maybe a rejected draft of a Kerry concession speech? In fact, this eloquent tidbit comes from a 1000 year-old Anglo-Saxon lyric known as "Wulf and Eadwacer", one of the shortest and saddest poems to survive the wreck of the Norman invasion. It's your basic girl-falls-for-wrong-boy-lovers-
separated-by-forced-marriage-boy-kidnaps-couple's-son-girl-
laments-fate's-savage-contradictions kind of story. Aeschylus couldn't have crafted a more intense tragic monologue. A modern Arab reader would probably grasp the predicament immediately. Makes you wonder (OK, makes me wonder) why certain quarters of the U.S. government, on the other hand, can't admit that reality isn't always what you want it to be.

Here's my free rendering of the full poem:

My people behave like Christmas came early --
Will they take him if he comes to rescue me?
Our ways are parted...

Wulf is on an island, I'm on another.
Closely guarded is that island, ringed by swamps,
Full of cruel warriors.
Will they take him if he comes to rescue me?
Our ways are parted...

With hope I endured Wulf's exile,
When the rain poured down, as did my tears.
Then my battle-fierce husband took me in his arms.
Pleasure it gave me, but pain as well.

Wulf, my Wulf -- it was hopes of you
That made me heartsick,
Your absence that made me mourn,
Not hunger for food.

Do you hear, my lord Eadwacer?
Wulf has stolen to the wood with our wretched infant.
It is easy to tear apart what was never was joined:
our song together.

I'm not up on current Wulf and Eadwacer scholarship, but it wouldn't surprise me if Christian-minded critics had interpreted the poem as an allegory of the Church's exile from Christ. Reading it as an object lesson for U.S. foreign policy doesn't seem that much more far-fetched.

[Note: Here's a somewhat more literal translation, with notes on the Old English text. The drama of the closing line is hard to capture in modern English: þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs, uncer giedd geador. to-slitan = wound, rend, tear asunder, destroy.]

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