Memoryscape and Landscape: Negotiating Past and Present in The Wanderer

Antara Ghatak

Lecturer, Department of English, Shri Shikhshayatan College, Kolkata.

 Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


The exiled wanderer of the Anglo-Saxon elegy, The Wanderer is fraught with a tension between his glorious past and desolate present. Place and memory being inextricably linked to each other, the loss of the familiar environment leads to a resurgence of memories for the wanderer. Focusing on personal reminiscences and the hope of salvation, the paper explores the relationship between the memoryscape and landscape in the elegy and in the mind of the wanderer.

 As David Lowenthal has observed, ‘the locus of memory lies more readily in place than in time’ (Lowenthal 180), the loss of place leads to a search for memory. Places do not simply exist as physical manifestations; they are constructs and functions of discourse dynamically re-arranging values and psychological moral systems in terms of an immediate geo-cultural frame. A place with its social, cultural, political contexts becomes a part of the identity of those who interact with it. But what happens when an individual whose identity is bound with a place leave it voluntarily or under duress? When an individual enters into an ambit where there has been a change in society, religion and way of life, he attempts to grasp the past. Maurice Halbwachs’ spatial frameworks[i], and the idea the relationship between the “mental spaces” and the “material milieu that surrounds us”(Connerton 37) establish the fact that place and memory are inextricably linked with each other and form a dominant theme in the study of memory and exile. Memoryscape is a mnemonic terrain, a ‘medium for’ and ‘outcome of’ the ‘mnemonic practices’ (Tilley 23) gets intertwined with the landscape a geographical location, the inhabited physical terrain. In this limited scope of the paper I attempt to explore how memory and place become the resourceful sites in the struggle and the negotiation of the wanderer in the Anglo-Saxon elegy, The Wanderer.

The loss of land of the solitary man in the Anglo Saxon elegiac poem The Wanderer, results in resurgence of memories of the bygone days. The anonymous poem found in the Exeter Book along with the other elegies The Seafarer, Wife’s Lament, The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Husband’s Message and a few others, The Wanderer evokes the life of an exile and his reminiscences. The wanderer is an exile situated in an unknown terrain, which is desolate, bleak and bereft of hope.

“The loner holds out for grace

—the Maker’s mercy—though full of care

he steers a course, forced to row

the freezing, fierce sea with bare hands,

take the exile’s way; fate dictates.” (W 1-5)

Homeless and isolated, he broods over his lot as an exile,

“Often at first lick of light

I lament my sole way—no one left

to open my self up to wholly,

heart and soul. Sure, I know

it’s the noble custom for an earl

to bind fast what’s in his breast,

hoard inmost thoughts, think what he will.” (W 8-14)

The ‘distant past’ (W 89) of the ‘toasting hall’ (W 27) and the ‘lavish liege’ (W 35), the memoryscape lies in sharp contrast with the landscape where he wanders the ‘winter-weary’, ‘icy caves’ (W 24). The past and the present, the memoryscape of the past and the landscape of the present are antithetical to each other at the onset of the poem.

The elegy not only evokes the life of an exile amid harsh conditions but also a man denied a place in his present status, in search of stability.

“I wander winter-weary the icy waves,

longing for lost halls, a helping hand

far or near. Maybe I’ll find

one who’d host me in the toasting hall,

who’d comfort me, friendless,

gladly entertain me.”(W 24-29)

 The lordless man laments for the loss of his kinsmen. It is only in his memory that he reconstructs the joys of the past and attempts to negotiate his present.

“Any who attempt it

know what cruel company sorrow can be

for a soul without a single mate;

exile’s path holds him, not finished gold;

a frozen heart, not the world’s wonders;

he recalls retainers, reaping treasure,

how in youth his lavish liege

feted and feasted him. All is history.”(W 29-36)

 It is interesting to note that loss of a lord also suggests a loss of place. The lack of lord is the lack of place and role in society for a person in the Anglo-Saxon world. The wanderer laments that “His mates swim in waves of memory” (W 45) and this creates the tension between the memoryscape, the past and the landscape, his present position. Frederick Barlett argued that memory was not simply the record of facts from the past but remembering was an ‘effort after meaning’[ii]. Memory helps us make sense of what has happened to us and remembrance provides a window how the individual makes sense of himself, his world and the past and present.

“He who lack a loved lord’s

counsel knows this story:

whenever sorrow and sleep combine

the wretched recluse often dreams

that he is with his loyal lord.

He clasps and kisses him, lays

his hands and head on those knees, loves

the liberal ruler as in whilom days.”(W 37-44)

It is through remembering the past the wanderer/exile once again becomes a member of the social world.

Individual memories become woven into the fabric of cultural truth. In the Anglo-Saxon period the primary bond of society was the relationship of the man to the lord and lord to the man. The heroic joys, the brave warriors and the vital relationship between the retainer and the lord as enumerated by the exiled wanderer form the touchstone of the Anglo-Saxon life, as in the famous ubi sunt passage given below:-

Where is the horse gone? The young bucks? The kind king?

Where is the banquet assembly gone? The merrymaking?

O the glittering glass. O the uniformed man.

O the general’s glory. How that time has passed.

Night shrouds all as if nothing ever was.” (W 92-96)

Memories individual and cultural become valuable and necessary to understand the subjective yet collective sentiments of the Anglo-Saxon society. Moreover, the recent studies in the field of memory studies propose that past can be used as a resource in making experience and social life meaningful. The memories of the past become a site for renewal in the present as the wanderer approaches towards a pragmatic acceptance of the present crisis embodied through the landscape, of loss and pain. In a tone of reminiscence The Wanderer explores the ubi sunt theme and aims at reconciliation of the past and the present.

“Hurricanes attack the rocky coast.

Snowstorms sheet the earth.

Winter’s tumult (dark comes then,

nightshadows deepen) drives hailstorms

out of the north to try us sorely.

This earthly realm is fraught.

Fate changes everything under the sun.

Here wealth is brief, friendship brief,

man brief, kinship brief.”(W 101-109)

The wanderer harps on the transitory nature of all earthly things and encapsulates the Old English notion about life. The memory of the exiled wanderer not only leads him to contrast between his present deprivation, his loneliness and the past happy life in the lord’s hall but also directs him towards attaining the necessary wisdom. This wisdom is central both to the Anglo-Saxon order of universe and his personal philosophy of life. The  memory of the of glorious past and the wise man’s reflections on the conditions of the world and how he must respond to these conditions form the two part structure of the poem and also the two part structure of the mind of the exiled wanderer.

            The memoryscape strewn with the glorious events of the heroic past give meaning to the immediate landscape that involves degeneration of societal bonds. It is in retrospect of his earlier success and happiness that he approaches towards a spiritual understanding of life. The narrator of the poem indicates the wanderer had attained wisdom at the end, “So spoke the wise man from his heart, musing apart.” (W 111). Memory thus sits at the nexus of objective comprehension and subjective meaning-making. It is through remembrance that the internal self of the wanderer has connected with the external environment and negotiated the past and the present.

Seamus Heaney in a prose poem, ‘The Wanderer’, published in Stations (1975) recreates in the similar vein as the title suggests the Anglo-Saxon theme of exile and evokes the memoryscape and the landscape, only in search of a resolution. Heaney’s ‘The Wanderer’ recalls the general atmosphere of the Old English elegy where he recalls his fond memories of the past (his departure from school, his schoolmaster’s praise and the gift of money) which lies in contrast with present exile and loneliness (Northern Ireland conflict and his own exile). The mnemonic and the geographical terrain form the binding and the bonding trope for the exiles of different places and different times. Place being one of the most evocative and primary artifices of memory, has a strong emotional resonance on the individual. For an exile, memory becomes a tool to order his past and establish a connection between origins and his immediate positioning, the past and the present. Memoryscape and the landscape for the exiled become the contrapuntal point.


[i]  Maurice Halbwachs notes in The Collective Memory, our memory is framed by the spatial reference frame: places, sites, buildings and streets give us bearing and enable us to anchor our memories.

[ii] Historically, research on memory focused on the issue of accuracy, defined as a match between researcher-provided stimuli and participant –provided responses. But as early as 1932, Barlett argued that memory was not simply about an accurate record of the past; remembering was an “effort after meaning”.

Works Cited

Baugh, A. C., Ed. Literary History of England. Vol-I. Great Britain: Routledge, 1967. Print.

Barlett, F.C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1932. Print.

Connerton, P. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.

Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapdige., Eds The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Great Britain: Athenaeum Press Ltd, 1991.

Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Trans. Francis J. Ditter, Jr, and Vida Yazdi Ditter. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. Stations. United Kingdom: Ulsterman Publications, 1975. Print.

Lowenthal, D. “European Landscape Transformations: The Rural Residue”.Understanding Ordinary Landscapes. Eds Groth. P and T. W Bressi. New Haven: Yale University Press, Print.

Rossington, Michael., and Anne Whitehead, Eds. Theories of Memory A Reader. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Print.

Tilley, C.Y. A Phenomenolgy of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments. Oxford: Berg, 1994. Print.

“The Wanderer”( Trans.).The Word Exchange. Anglo Saxon Poems in Translation. Eds. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. New York: Norton Publications, 1993.  Print. Cited as W.

Antara Ghatak is presently pursuing Ph.D in Calcutta University. Her interest lies in New Literatures and Memory Studies. She is a Lecturer in the Department of English in Shri Shikhshayatan College, Kolkata.





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