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Across the Pond: A Bridge Between the Old English Elegy The Wanderer and Early 20th Century American Poetry

Updated on October 6, 2017
Victor Dorn profile image

V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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The Old English poem The Wanderer can seem a foreign relic of a half-forgotten age. As a piece with no established author and indeed no obvious, original title, it, like much Old English literature, is an enigmatic glimpse into an extinguished world, written in a language that has long been considered dead. And yet, while the world of The Wanderer may no longer exist like it once did, the poem is not an isolated or simply historic work of English art, but rather fits into a much larger poetic matrix of English language elegies and love poems that has expanded outward by both centuries and miles. Echoes of The Wanderer can be observed in the works of early 20th century American poets like Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and T.S. Eliot. Robert Frost’s “Reluctance;” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” and “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied;” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock;” are examples of American poems in a post-Anglo-Saxon world that share remarkable similarities with one of the most treasured poems of the Anglo-Saxon age. The Wanderer and these American poems, despite being written in what are essentially different languages and during vastly different periods of time, are intimately connected; they share particular images and ideas and help establish a more nuanced picture of the network of the trans-Atlantic, trans-century, poetry of the English speaking world.

Robert Frost’s 1913 poem “Reluctance,” like The Wanderer, has a narrator who has travelled alone for a long time:

Out through fields and the woods

And over the walls I have wended;

I have climbed the hills of view

And looked at the world, and descended;

I have come by the highway home

And lo, it is ended.

(Frost 1-6)

At first this stanza may seem somewhat in contrast to The Wanderer; this speaker’s journey has recently ended and he has returned home. And yet, it soon becomes clear that, like in The Wanderer, the world has been irrevocably altered:

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,

No loner blown hither and thither;

The last lone aster is gone;

The flowers of the witch hazel wither;

The heart is still aching to seek,

But the feet question, ‘Whither?’

(Frost 13-18)

In this scene, it is clear that winter is approaching, much like the indications given in The Wanderer when the weather is described as “hreosan hrim ond snaw hagle gemenged” – falling frost and snow mingled with hail – (Ed. Marsden 48). Also, this stanza echoes The Wanderer’s sense of aimless, endless journeying, as even after the speaker has returned, he “aches” to find more. What he seeks is not apparent, but it could be that he is a wanderer in his own right, searching for kin and a place to call home. Frost’s speaker does not know “whither” he must go, just as The Wanderer does not:

…ic hean þonan

wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind,

sohte seledreorig sinces bryttan,

hwær ic feor oþþe neah findan meahte

þone þe in meoduhealle mine wisse

oþþe mec freondleasne frefran wolde,

wenian mid wynnum.

I went from there winter-sad over binding waves, saught, sad for the want of a hall, a giver of treasure where I far or near might find him there in the meadhall he who knew my of people or would comfort friendless me, entice me with pleasures (Ed. Marsden 23-29).

Also, the word “whither” in Frost’s poem, and the corresponding question of “where” in The Wanderer, is significant. The Wanderer in many ways revolves around the question “where” – where is the wanderer going? Where are his companions? Where was his world gone? And it at some points even conforms to the standards of an ubi sunt elegy:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom

maþþumgyfa?

Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?

… Hu seo þrag gewat

genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

Where did the horse go? Where has the kinsman gone? Where did the treasure-giver go? Where have the banquet places gone? Where are the hall- pleasures? How the time went, grew dark under the cover of night, as though it had never been (Ed. Marsden 92-93, 95-96).

Robert Frost’s “Reluctance” contains much of the same the same themes and questions as The Wanderer. These two poems share the sense of something immense ending, a sad nostalgia for a decaying world, and the question of what it all means and where one should go from there.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems, like Frost’s “Reluctance,” are distinctly familiar when read alongside The Wanderer. Both “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” and “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied” share the Old English poem’s broad senses of sorrow, nostalgia, and loss, but they are also connected on a much more specific level. Both of the St. Vincent Millay poems lament the loss of a romantic lover/lovers, and yet bare striking resemblance to The Wanderer. In “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” the speaker comments on how her memories are fading:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning

(St. Vincent Millay 1-3)

Here the speaker is commenting on the fallibility of the human mind. The identities of her lovers have disappeared, and she is left only with remembrances of the physical aspects of their embraces. She does not know “what lips” she has kissed, or which specific “arms have lain/ [u]nder [her] head,” only that those lips and arms once touched her and now are lost. The nostalgic physicality of this moment is paralleled in The Wanderer, when the speaker reminisces about putting his head in the lap of his lord:

þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten

clyppe ond cysse ond on cneo lecge

honda ond heafod…


It seems to him in his mind that he embraces and kisses his lord and on (his lord’s) knee lays (his) hand and head (Ed. Marsden 41-43).

In both these cases, the speakers’ memories are dominated by the anatomies of their respective lost loves. Of course these scenes are not identical; St. Vincent Millay’s speaker cannot recall the identities of the people to whom the remembered bodies belonged, while The Wanderer’s speaker makes it clear the “cneo” he so fondly remembers touching was indeed that of his lord. And yet, despite this, these two cases are distinctly comparable; in both poems memory is closely linked with the corporeal, and anatomy becomes its own marker of memory. The speakers demonstrate the love they had for their lost ones through the remembered intimacy of physical connection, whether that connection be romantic or sexual as per St. Vincent Millay, or more platonic and loyal as per The Wanderer.

The speaker in “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” does not remain in this disembodied state of forgetfulness for long. After her initial declaration of “not knowing” to whom the various lips and arms she has embraced belong, she says that

…the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry

(St. Vincent Millay 3-8)

These eerie, voiceless apparitions are much like the ghosts of the speaker’s friends in The Wanderer:

…Sorg bið geniwad

þonne maga gemynd mod geondhweorfeð.

Greteð gliwstafum georne geondsceawað

Secga geseldan. Swimmað oft on weg.

Fleotendra ferð no þær fela bringeð

cuðra cwidegiedda. Cearo bið geniwad

þam þe sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe

ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan.


Sorrow is renewed when memory of kin pervades the mind. (He) greats them joyfully, eagerly regards (the) companions of men. (They) often swim away. The floating ones/swimmers do not bring many familiar words there. Care is renewed in him who must very often send a weary spirit over waves that bind.

(Ed. Marsden 50-57)

The visitors in both poems appear before the speakers, and yet cannot speak. In fact, it is not even clear if these are human ghosts at all or rather the speakers’ marred interpretation of the natural world around them. In “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” the speaker claims the “ghosts” “tap” on her window when it rains, a sound no doubt similar, if not identical, to the tap of heavy raindrops against glass. The same confusion arises in The Wanderer; earlier in the poem the speaker refers to “brimfuglas” – seabirds - and, when the ghostly swimmers appear, they are perhaps not human but rather a memory imposed on a misinterpreted animal’s form. Ruth Wehlau in her article “‘Seeds of Sorrow’: Landscapes of Despair in The Wanderer, Beowulf’s Story of Hrethel, and Sonatorrek” remarks upon the importance of language, or lack of language, “[i]n The Wanderer [where a] loss of significance is presented chiefly through the decay of a fundamental symbol of order… through the inability of language to function as a means of exchange” (Wehlau 6). It is also important to note the similarity in these two speakers’ responses to the perceived visitations; they both, after the event, reiterate the pain they feel (“and in my heart there stirs a quiet pain,” “[c]earo bið geniwad”).

Like “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII),” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied” provides some strong points of comparison with The Wanderer. Once again, St. Vincent Millay’s speaker laments the loss of her love, this time a single love. While in “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” the speaker mourned the loss of many loves, the fact that this poem focuses on a single, specific person brings it more in line with The Wanderer’s speaker’s lament for his irreplaceable lord. “I miss him,” St. Vincent Millay’s speaker says,

…in the weeping of the rain;

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.

(St. Vincent Millay 2-7)

An immediate similarity here to The Wanderer is the use of weather and water imagery. Precipitation is often a poetic tool of pathetic fallacy representing someone’s grief; the ocean, too, can function in such a way, a symbol of turbulent emotion, distance, and exile. This speaker uses words like “rain,” “tide,” and “snow,” while the speaker in The Wanderer evokes images of “hrīm,” “snāw,” “hagle,” – frost, snow, hail - and “hrīmcealde sæ” – ice-cold sea - (Ed. Marsden 48, 4). Both poems position loss and loneliness alongside the misery of cold, wet weather.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems are exemplary in illustrating a connection between the Anglo-Saxon work The Wanderer and 20th century American poetry. These two poems contain the same Old English elements of loneliness and loss, and even use some of the same words and devices as The Wanderer, helping further strengthen the web of inter-continental, cross-century English poetic connection.

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T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is yet another example of 20th century American poetry that has distinct parallels with the Old English work The Wanderer. In fact, the very beginning of Eliot’s poem begins with an invitation to wander: “[l]et us go then, you and I,/ [w]hen the evening is spread out against the sky” (Eliot 1-2). It is unclear whom the speaker is addressing, but as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that he is very much alone, and is perhaps speaking to someone who is not really there, someone he would like to wander with, but who has not accepted the invitation.

In a broader sense, T.S. Eliot’s poem echoes some of the major themes present in The Wanderer – those of self-imposed silence, isolation, and the loss of a better, more familiar world. Towards the beginning of The Wanderer, the speaker says:

Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce

mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan

þe ic him modsefan minne durre

sweotule asecgan.

Often I have had to lament my sorrow alone before dawn. There is not anyone now living to whom I would dare plainly express my heart/feelings

(Ed. Marsden 7-11).

The speaker here comments on his isolation, his lack of companionship, and his inability to “durre” speak to anyone. “Durre,” or “dare,” comes up as well in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, as the speaker asks himself:

“Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”…

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

(Eliot 38, 45-48)

This speaker, like that of The Wanderer, does not dare “disturb the universe” by asking questions, speaking his mind, and making his innermost feelings known. The speaker in The Wanderer proposes a reason as to why:

….Ic to soþe wat

þæt biþ in eorle indryhten þeaw,

þæt he his ferðlocan fæste binde,

healde his hordcofan, hycge swa he wille.

I know to be truth that it is in a man an excellent custom that he bind his heart fast,


keep close his treasure-chamber/heart and think as he will (Ed. Marsden 11-14).

It is an idea of honour, or noble “custom” that keeps The Wanderer’s speaker from confiding in others he may come across, and this explanation is very much applicable to Eliot’s speaker as well:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all –

They eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin…

And how should I presume?...

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker

And have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

(Eliot 55-59, 61, 84-86)

This passage demonstrates an inability to speak due to fear of humiliation. The image of being “pinned and wriggling on the wall” indicates a feeling of exposure, uncertainty, and being fatally trapped by the “eyes” of others. This speaker, in attempt to escape and also grasp at some of the grace The Wanderer tells of, ends up remaining silent, agonizing over how he “should presume” and ultimately doing nothing as he sees his “greatness flicker”.

There are other similarities, too, between these two poems. Earlier, The Wanderer’s “brimfuglas” were compared to the “ghosts” in the “rain” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII).” The “brimfuglas” have their equal in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” too. Here, instead of ghosts or seabirds, there are mermaids:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black

(Eliot 124-128)

In “Metaphors of Memory in T.S. Eliot’s Poetry” Prajna Pani argues that the “mermaids Prufrock hears singing are part of the closing sea imagery and represent all the sensual and instinctive longings that he desired in his life” (Pani). These visions, while audible, to not address or communicate directly with Prufrock, the same way that the “brimfuglas” and later the “[f]leotendra ferð no þær fela bringeð cuðra cwidegiedda” (Ed. Marsden 55-57). Prufrock’s social isolation, his silence, and uncertainty about the future, all put him in a very similar position to the wanderer.

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This paper by no means provides a perfect or extensive examination of the connections between Anglo-Saxon literature and 20h century American poetry. It does not even attempt to suggest that these American poems, and others like them, are exactly like the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon world. It does, however, take a few significant examples of relevant literature and explores their parallels. The primary purpose is to indicate that the Old English poem The Wanderer is by not merely a historical text, irrelevant to recent literature’s sensibilities, but that it is rather a necessary cog in a thriving and expansive network. Robert Frost’s poem “Reluctance;” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” and “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied;” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock;” are merely a few telling examples illustrating the interconnected nature of a global poetry pattern within the English speaking world. These 20th century poems concern themselves with the same themes (nostalgia, lost love, silence, sorrow, questions or where) as the Old English poem The Wanderer and invoke many of the same images. The Wanderer will never be an isolated relic because has already established itself as an important, consistently relevant part of the matrix of English poetics as its reverberates across oceans and centuries and connects with poetry like that of Frost, St. Vincent Millay, and Eliot.

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