Spirit of Melancholy: A Critical Survey of Old English Elegies

Avinaba De

Netaji Nagar Day College, Kolkata, India

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


The article aims to showcase how the themes of physical hardship, contemplation of ruins, loss of loved ones, musings upon on the individuality of decay are expressed profoundly through the poems enveloped in the Exter Book.

Keywords: Melancholy, Old English elegies, Exter Book

 “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”

  1. B. Shelley: To A Skylark

“saddest thought” has been illustrated and fabricated chiefly in ancient English Literature from time immemorial. There is a group of Anglo-Saxon poems in which a mood of lyrical elegy predominates, and these stand somewhat apart from the heroic and religious poetry of the age. These Anglo Saxon lyrics and Elegies form a distinct class and are noted for their analysis of individual emotions. They recurrently surge to the level of a philosophic generalization about the debilitation of human life and the impermanence of mundane joviality and security. This article aims to showcase how the themes of longing , loneliness, pain and passage of are expressed profoundly through the poems enveloped in the Exter Book ( also known as the Codex Exoniensis).

The Wanderer, consisting of 115 lines, is short didactic poem that tells the hardships of a man who has lost his lord through plangent lament for the transience of life. The poem operates on a similar principle of contrast between a radiant, lost-past and a painful and despairing present. The Wanderer had once been happy in his loved lord’s “winsalo” (mead- hall) while in his serivce but now, long after his lord’s death and the passing of his earlier time, happiness and friendship, has become a wanderer journeying the paths of exile across the icy sea. His joys have all perished and he can only seek comfort from the fond recollections and dreams which ultimately increases his burden of sorrows:

“It seems to him in his mind that he embraces and kisses

                                        his lord and on his knee might lay

                                        hands and head, as before he sometimes

                                        enjoyed the gift-stool in days of old.”

Towards the end of the poem, there is a moving “Ubi sunt” passage (“ Where did horses, kinsmen, treasure-giver, banquet seats and hall joys go?”) which seems to be answers in a rhetorically paraellel catalogue, in which many of the same objects fill in the bank in the formula, “her bið ____ læne”:

“ Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,

                                     her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne”

                                                                (The Wanderer, 108-109)

“Here ( that is, in this world) are property, friends, men and kinsmen transitory.”

The poem shows a Christian influence in the idea that good is the man who never loses his faith to God.

The Seafarer is the second poem in discussion. It seems to be the monologue of an experienced sailor who has witnessed the perils of sea life but cannot deny its fascination. Unlike The Wanderer where the poet uses the external elements of cold , storms and darkness to render the internal misery more vivid, here also harsh screaming of the sea-birds, the howling of the wind and the storm emphasise the seafarer’s lack of companions:

“I heard nothing there except the resounding of the sea, the icy waves and sometimes the cry of the swan.”

In The Wanderer, there was an emphasis on the suffering to achieve wisdom, but this poem steps forward “If wisdom comes, through suffering then one should seek to suffer.” The seafarer cogitates upon the bereavement where man is insignificant in front of the fury of nature and death comes once to every man, he should seek more glory than wealth. An essence concerning the similar idea is majestically revealed by Lord Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

                                                “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll

          Ten thousand fleets sweep over under thee in vain;

                                                 Man marks the earth with ruin; his control

                Stop with the shore; upon the watery plain” (Canto IV)

The Wife’s Lament is another elegiac monologue and a brilliant exploration of the psychology of a woman who has been separated from her husband and forced to dwell in cave among her enemies. The poem begins with a note of melancholy:

“ I relate this very mournful riddle about myself,

about my new journey. I am able to relate,

those miseries that I endured since I grew up,

of new and old ones, never more than now.”  (Treharne 77)

In spite of the comparative obscurity of the situation, the central emotion comes through strongly, and the note of personal passion – the love and the longing for the absent husband, the curse on the enemy responsible for her plight – rings out with remarkable clarity. This is a typical Anglo-Saxon elegy in which we find that nature is used to reflect the personal variations of moods. There is a strong mood of pagan despair, no sense of Christian reconnaissance. The note of unredeemed despair does not explore the sensibility of any union like other poems as the poem ends:

“Wÿ bið þÿm þe sceal

                    of langoþe lÿofes ÿbÿdan”

  (Affliction is that which must be for he who longs and waits for his beloved)

The Husband’s Message is perhaps linked with The Wife’s Lament though there is no definite proof of this. The poem offers a contrast to this group of elegies because it s a happy poem where the habitual melancholy is missing. Here, the husband sends a secret message to his wife and reminds her of earlier vows, tells her that he has been driven from her by a feud, and bids her join him across the sea. Although falls in the category of elegy, there is a remarkable description of springs in the poem. The whole poem, also,not too implausibly,has been interpreted in a religious sense, perhaps as an address from Christ to the Church.

The Ruin is a melancholic reflection upon the ruins of what were once massive and showy buildings of a great city (perhaps Bath):

“Wrætlic is pes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;

     burgstede burston, bronsnað enta geweorc.”

( Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate. Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered )

 In order to capture the sense of loss, which holds together an admiring memory of the past with a saddened resignation of its disappearance, the poet uses a formula , common in Latin elegiac poetry known as the ‘Ubi sunt’ motif from phrase meaning “where are they now?” There is despair at the thought of fate and the spirit if nothingness pervades this poem. This is however very common in the lyrics in general because they mostly emphasize the meaninglessness of life. The poet’s closing vision, therefore affirms, against the encroaching darkness and in recognition of the permanence of loss, the brightness and power of human potentiality.

Deor’s Lament is a moving elegiac lyric of 42 lines in which Deor displays sorrow because his chief  Eormenric, the king of Ostrogoths,had started favouring a rival scop Heorrenda. In this calamity, Deor, by comparing his present state of mind to the legendary figures confirms a moral message. No matter how deep and grim a man’s sorrow is, it will surely pass one day. Deors Lament reaches a great heights of personal feelings which along with the expressive melancholy of the elegy give rise to a strong lyrical appeal. Like a true elegy of the Anglo-Saxon era it stresses on loss, exile, and limitation along with the belief in the fragility of earthly pleasures. This elegy is unique owing to its strophic form and the use of the hopeful refrain at the end of each stanza :

“That evil ended, so also may this.”

A similar invocation of optimism is poignantly found in Santiago’s dictum in Earnest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1952):

“A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.”

The last poem of this analysis, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, is considered, according to Bradley, as a dramatic monologue, existing only in a fragment of nineteen lines, and the speaker here is a female persona who narrates her misfortune. Wulf is the woman’s outlawed lover and Eadwacer her hated husband. Although the poem expresses intense romantic passion, the emphasis of loneliness makes it elegiac in tone:

                                              “Wulf, my wulf, my longings for thee

                                                Have made me sick, thy rare visits,

             It was my sorrowful heart, not want of food.”

Unlike the traditional English elegies such as Milton’s Lycidas (1637), Shelley’s Adonais, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849), the Old English poems referred to as elegies are not concerned with personal death. An uniquely persistent and deeply felt note of sorrow pervades this Old English elegies: exile, loss of loved ones, physical hardship, desolate landscapes, contemplation of ruins, meditation on the individuality of decay and transience of earthly things- are the predominant themes of this genre. These themes and the formulae associated with them, which cluster in the Exter Book lyrics, are also to be found leading an elegiac colouring to many passages in Old English poetry.

 Works Cited:

Heller, Erich. The Disinherited Mind. Edinburgh: Pelican, 1961. Print.

Klinck, Anne K. The Old English Elegues: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. N.p.: McGill- Queen’s UP, 1992. Print.

 Sisam, Kenneth. Studies in the History of Old English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962. Print.

Valenti, Patricia Dunlavy. Understanding The Old Man and the Sea, ABC-CLIO. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. Print.

Avinaba De has appeared in B.A. Part III English honours examination in 2016 from Netaji Nagar Day College affiliated to University of Calcutta. Email: fossils92@gmail.com

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