Melancholy in Old English Poetry

Mahbuba Sarker Shama

Lecturer, Department of English, Uttara University, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


Melancholy remains one of the striking features of old English Poetry. Separation from husband and wife or loneliness in the sea-voyages provides an elegiac mood in most of the old poems. Suffering, distress, isolation and frustration are features of the speakers of Old English poems. This paper analyzes the poem ‘Deor’s Lament’ which describes the suffering of Deor as he loses his place as a minstrel in a king’s court; the decay of a city in ‘The Ruin’; The solitary sea man’s melancholy ‘The Seafarer’ and the landlubber’s sadness in ‘The Wanderer’. Also, the lament of the separated husband and wife in ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘The Husband’s Message’ is the focus of this paper.

 The Old English period begins from the fifth century when the Anglo-Saxons conquered England and it lasted up to 1066 when the last Anglo-Saxon King Harold II was defeated by the Duke of Normandy, William II, in the Battle of Hastings. Some poems of Old English are the heroic poem ‘Beowulf’, ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’. Most of these poems are religious in nature as they focus on death and they also believe in fate. Nasib Kumari 1 mentions that there are four major Old English poetic manuscripts:

  • The Junius manuscript, also known as the man hunt, is an illustrated collection of poems on biblical narratives.
  • The Exeter Book, is an anthology, located in the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated there in the 11th century.
  • The Vercelli Book, contains both poetry and prose; it is not known how it came to be in Vercelli.
  • The Beowulf Manuscript (British Library Cotton Vitellius A. xv), sometimes called the Nowell Codex, contains prose and poetry, typically dealing with monstrous themes, including Beowulf. (483)

According to Kumari:

Most Old English poets are anonymous, and only four names are known with any certainty: Caedmon, Bede, Alfred the Great, and Cynewulf. Caedmon is considered the first Old English poet whose work still survives. According to the account in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, he lived at the Abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the 7th century. Only his first poem, comprising nine lines — Cædmon’s ‘Hymn’ — remains, albeit in Northumbrian, West-Saxon and Latin versions that appear in 19 surviving manuscripts. Bede is often thought to be the composer of a five-line poem entitled ‘Bede’s Death Song’, on account of its appearance in a letter on his death by Cuthbert. This poem exists in a Northumbrian and later version. Alfred is said to be the author of some of the metrical prefaces to the Old English translations of Gregory’s Pastoral Care and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (485).

Related to the heroic poems, there are many elegiac poems where melancholy remains a salient theme. Melancholy is one of the prominent features of Old English Poetry. We can see sorrow and suffering in ‘Deor’s Lament’ and the decay of a city in ‘The Ruin’; The solitary man’s loneliness and struggle in ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ and the fleeting of time as the husband and wife lament their separation in ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘The Husband’s Message’.

‘Deor’s Lament’ is a poem of forty-two lines found in the late 10th century collection the Exeter Book where Deor is in a depressed state of mind because he has lost his position in his lord’s court. A rival singer has supplanted his position .This means that his recognition as well as his identity has been replaced in the very place where he has once been considered a great minstrel. He has suffered a lot and sorrow and longing are his companions. He has to endure his exile in the cold winter. This poem deals with melancholy in a positive way as here Deor is hopeful that his misfortune will soon fade away just like the withering away of the calamity of many individuals of the past. He provides various examples of man from history and he compares their misfortunes with his misery.

One of the pivotal characters with whom he begins his poem is Weland who has to endure exile in ‘‘wintry cold place’’ (Gordon 2 71). Suffering from hardship has made him yearn for his companions. The refrain “That passed away, so may this” (Gordon 71) shows the positive outlook of Deor. Secondly, Nithhad who troubled Weland could not break the spirit and courage of Weland. So, we can say that Deor is hopeful that just like the troubles of Weland, his sufferings will also end with the passage of time. Beadohild, the daughter of Nithhad is raped by Weland. She bore a child called Widia. She is physically ravaged and this psychological scar devoured her. If that incident can be endured by her, then Deor opines that he can also tolerate his present pain.

The process of consolation in the part of Deor continues. He now gives the example of the Geat who loved Maethhild and passed sleepless nights. Theodric had thirty years rule. The “savage King” (Gordon72) Eormanric ruled the Goths. It is notable that like Deor all the other personae are also melancholic. Weland and Beadohild are alone during their times of distress. Deor has once been a minstrel but he has now lost his prestige to Heorrenda, another rival poet. For many years he had “good office, a gracious Lord” (Gordon72) but now he does not have any identity. Still, he feels that this incident will pass away just like the troubles of all the other characters that he mentions in this poem.

‘The Ruin’ is an elegy of Old English Literature which focuses on the ruined city. The castles have decayed. The destroyed city has its roof fallen, ruined towers and broken roofs which are “cut away, fallen, undermined by age” (Gordon 84). Ironically, the debris once served Kingdom after Kingdom. Its lofty wall has fallen just like the woodwork of the roof though in the past it had bright castle-dwellings and bath-houses. The devastated place was once the meeting ground for gold adorned proud men who drank wine. The bright castle of the bright kingdom with hot baths and stone courts is now no longer a beautiful castle. The place is in melancholy. It is standing alone with no inhabitants.

Raimondo Murgia 3 thinks that time is the main character in this poem (183). This critic feels that the poem is connected with many other texts and it is true. Klinck points out that it does not have elegiac or melancholy in it (qtd in Murgia 181-182). On the other hand, I personally think that it is full of melancholy as it symbolizes the physical death of a place.

‘The Wanderer’   

This old English poem is preserved only in an anthology known as the Exeter Book, a manuscript dating from the late 10th century. It counts 115 lines of alliterative verse (Wikipedia). This is a monologue. The title Wanderer indicates someone who is roaming across the ‘‘icy sea’’ (Gordon 73) during his exile. His mind is full of hardships of cruel deadly combats and of dear Kinsmen. This ‘‘solitary man’’ (Gordon 73) does not have a fixed home and he is alone. He remembers the past days when he has served his lord, feasted together and received precious gifts from the lord. His friends were kind to him during feasts also. ‘‘The joy has all perished’’ (Gordon 73) as he has lost his lord and all his friends in the battlefield. Nature is his company now. The dark waves and the bathing of sea birds are now the part and parcel of his life. Still the memory of Kinsmen crosses his mind. Being worried about his passionate feelings, he begins to think about the qualities of wise man that are not over-passionate, over hasty of speech or rash in war. A man full of knowledge must not be over-glad or over-fearful. Time passes away. He believes that everything is full of hardship in the kingdom of earth and human beings will find peace only in the abode of God in Heaven. Here at the end we can notice a psychological or spiritual progress of the Wanderer who feels that ‘‘security stands’’ (75) in God’s paradise. He understands that comfort lies with the ‘‘Father in Heaven’’ (Gordon 75)

  ‘The Seafarer’

Alone and melancholic voyage on the sea is the theme of this poem. Here the speaker who is an old sailor remembers how he was afflicted with cold feet in an ice-cold sea.  Cut off from his kinsmen, he is lonely because of his exile. He has seen the storms beat upon the ‘‘rocky cliffs’’ (Gordon 76). He compares the city life (where people suffer less) with the life of sea which is full of danger. The cuckoo exhorts with sad voice as it personifies his sad frame of mind. The cuckoo is the embodiment of his turbulence. He detects that all human beings will one day die and therefore the joys of the Lord holds more inspiration to him than the ‘‘dead fleeting life on earth’’ (Gordon 77). All individuals must act brave so that they could be exalted after death by the angels ever and ever. The speaker mentions that many earthly pompous civilizations have fallen and no matter how much gold you have in this world, you cannot take them with you after you die. Gold cannot save a man from the wrath of God. We must trust in God and live a humble life. Trustworthy to men and purity of heart should be the chief traits of human beings. Hence, transience of human life remains the pivotal element of this poem where the persona is in a melancholic mood. Belief in God and afterlife is what he espouses. The advice of this seafarer is that we must fear god. A fool is the one who does not fear his Lord. He thinks that a humble balanced living where one person is even handed with his friends and foe should be the characteristic of human beings.

He feels that fate and God are mightier than any man’s thought. Thanking God who is the Prince of glory, the speaker ends the poem with a religious tone saying ‘‘Amen’’ (Gordon 78). The melancholy of the solitary seafarer ends with the theme of his religious belief in God.

‘The Wife’s Lament’

The mental trauma of a woman who has parted from her husband is the pivotal part of this poem. The man’s kinsmen or their enemies have separated her from her husband and she curses all these people. Her husband has left her alone and she journeys to find him. This poem is a song which she writes out of her woe. Her exile life is full of unhappiness as she is in melancholy.

Sung-Il Lee4 argues that the ostensibly female voice in the poem is a metaphor of a young retainer’s lament over being an outcast, rather than literally the lament of a woman in dejection (157). However, I differ from this because I consider it to be a record of a woman sorrowing over her rift with her beloved husband.

‘The Husband’s Message’

It tells the story of a man who has to leave his wife because of a feud. He is in melancholy. He professes his love for her and implores her to reunite with him. The wife is also alone as her husband has to leave her for a sea voyage. They passed a lovely time in their castles with friends before. Although he has a home, treasures as well as horses in the distant place, he misses her. I also detect political concern just like Sung-Il Lee as the reason for which the lord is not writing to the lady directly. Lee writes:

What a strange way of asking one’s wife to come to him — by resorting to the help of an intermediary, who writes down his message for her perusal? Why doesn’t the lord personally write to his wife? Why does he need an intermediary? Even if we assume that the speaker has been assigned the mission of sending a message from his lord to his wife, assuring her of a warm welcome, we cannot but suspect the presence of a political concern that keeps the lord from writing to her directly. (155-6)


To cap it all, it can be seen that melancholy is one of the indispensable features of Old Literature poetry. Frustrated unhappy lonely solitary people are mostly the spokesman of these poems which are elegiac in tone. Overall, this melancholy stands out in the poems of Old English.


  1. She is a student of J.K. Memorial College of education.
  2. Gordon is a translator who is also the Professor Emeritus of English Literature, University of Alberta.
  3. Raimondo Murgia is a graduate student of Tallinn University
  4. Sung-Il Lee is Professor Emeritus of Yonsei University

Works Cited

‘‘Deor.’’ Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Aug. 2016. Web. 9  Aug. 2016.

Geeti,  Jebun Ara, et al.  A Study Guide to History of English Literature. Dhaka: Set Publication, 2015. Print.

Gordon, R. K. ANGLO-SAXON POETRY. Great Britain: EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY, 1962. Print.

Kumari, Nasib. ‘‘Old English Literature: A Brief Summary.’’ International Journal of English, Language  Literature and Humanities. 2. 2 (2014): 482-492 Web. 8 Aug. 2016.

Lee, Sung-Il. ‘‘The Old English “Husband’s Message”: Is It an ‘Elegy’? Is the One Sending the Message A ‘Husband’? Is the Addressee His ‘Wife’?’’    DBPIA-NURIMEDIA 20. 2 (2012): 153-164. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.

Murgia, Raimondo. ‘‘A Christological Reading of The Ruin.’’ Trames 14.2 (2010): 180-202. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.

‘‘The Wanderer.’’  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Aug 2016. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.

My name is Mahbuba Sarker Shama. I am working as an English Lecturer at the Department of English, Uttara University Dhaka Bangladesh. I have finished my Masters in English Literature from North South University, Dhaka Bangladesh in April 2016 and I started my teaching position as the English faculty in May 2016. I teach Old English Poetry at my University and from there I got inspiration to write this paper. I also write for online journal and my writing has already been published in Juvenile Voice magazine and Prothom Alo newspaper. I tried my best to explore melancholy of Old English Literature in this paper. Thank you for all your support.

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