Thursday, July 24, 2008

Believing the Wanderer

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of my best friends, Emily, wrote to me a few months ago asking me to write an essay for a CD she wants to put together. It consists in "This I Believe" style essays from a number of people she's close to, and her rationale for putting it together is that eventually she'll lose all our voices -- to death, or to time, or to distance -- and she wants to preserve them now, what we believe, who we are (at least, this is my interpretation of what she told me). And so I found myself, at long last, returning to a theme of mine. My first attempt, written for my final University Writing class this year, is available at OENY. My current attempt can be found under the "read more" cut below.

I've written on the Wanderer many times before. An honors thesis, a Masters thesis, various translations. This is the first time I've tried to articulate the poem's meaning to me in a spoken format. Moreover, it is the first time I've tried to articulate my first meeting with this poem, and more importantly, what it means to me personally -- and so I wanted to share it, not just with Emily (whom I met in the same Old English in which I met the Wanderer), but with other medievalist interlocutors. I realized, while writing it, that I really can pinpoint the moment medieval studies changed my life. It was imperceptible at the time, but this figure became central to my world for years. I wonder if others have found texts that have touched them in an academic way -- generating a passion for the medieval, or another field -- but also touched them in a profoundly life-altering, personal way. And I wonder if some of you might share those here, in the comments (I'm very interactive this week!).

So, this I believe, the Old English Edition.

Even voices from the distant past can change your life. Here is a voice I first met in a poem—first in its original Old English, then in translation:
Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan.

Often, alone
I have spoken my cares in the hours before dawn.
No one now lives to whom I could tell
my heart’s secrets.

When I first encountered this character—this voice—from an eighth-century Old English poem, he was alone. He, the so-called “wanderer,” was bereft. He had fought loyally for his lord, but his lord had died, and now he was left in exile. In those times, a warrior depended on his lord for housing, legitimacy, and protection. His world had changed forever, and he could not change with it.

At nineteen I could understand that feeling. It was February, 2002: the year my life had—like his-- changed irreparably. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five months before had exposed the prejudices of my peers, as the world became an uncertain, violent place. My personal losses were no less life-altering: I had recently buried a friend who hadn’t yet turned 15, and was mourning a cousin who never saw his eleventh birthday. The Wanderer’s losses felt very familiar.

As a college sophomore, I enrolled in a class in Old English language and literature. It was there that I first met the Wanderer, and that meeting would change my life. Like friends who met their future life partners in college, I met the person—the voice— who would alter my life in a poem on that course syllabus. His words changed me, even though he spoke a language that hadn’t been spoken in a thousand years.

The Wanderer—exiled and alone—was traveling over the wintery waters, trying to find a place in which he could belong. He sleeps and dreams of his people, and, awakening to sea-birds, mistakes them for his companions. They swim away, leaving him to ponder his loneliness, and the empty ruins which remain from other civilizations that have been destroyed by time – the old work of giants, now empty.

The poem offers no homecoming for this exile. The tagged-on, four-line Christian ending brings the poem to a neat, Heavenly close, but it is not clear whose voice it is that speaks of Christian comfort. So when my literature professor asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in this Wanderer’s exile, in this place without certainty of a future, or hope for a better world, I immediately identified with the existential angst of his plight. How all life vanishes under night’s shade, as if it never were!

Time vanishes, with all the works of human beings. But the lesson I learned from the Wanderer wasn’t about loss. Rather, I learned that the words of others could cross time to touch the present day from a past so distant that its language had to be learned. If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most. Voices from the past can still speak to a present world, and with them bear an important lesson. To live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past touch us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

cross posted to OENY.


Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: I realize this is a very short [and NPR-style mini-essay] piece, but it is really really lovely, and thanks so much for sharing it here [I realize that I overuse the term "lovely," especially in relation to your blog writing, although I hope you'll permit it when I explain that your writing is often "lovable on account of it beauty," and also "attractive in its character," by which I mean, in its deep commitment to an ethical relation to the dead, to the past, etc.]. The idea that you express here, that by listening to, and therefore also touching, the voices of the past, we also touch the Other voices of our own time--beautifully put ["lovely"!] and, well, you know where I stand on that. How lucky the field of Old English studies is, how much more enriched, because of a certain student who took a certain class with a certain professor at Wake Forest and was enchanted by this poem.

i said...

Every time I read the Wanderer it is a recollection of the first time I read it. I was writing out my translation with a fountain pen, and my tears were dissolving the ink as I wrote. The page, when done, was a wet mess. As was I.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That was a beautiful post (I did not say "lovely").

On September 11, 2002, my colleagues and I decided to have a small commemoration of the events of a year ago (events felt deeply on our DC campus) with a reading of beloved poems. I chose ... "The Wanderer." I read part of it in Old English, then part in my own translation. I stopped short of the tacked-on ending, and offered simply that the poem was a minor miracle: it could think devastation, it could think the loss of every structure of meaning, and still somehow speak to us, in that room, across an almost inconceivable span of geography, time, and change.

I love that poem, and I am so glad that you believe as you do.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Mary Kate: I will add my own assessment of how pleasurable it was to read your post. That's my cumbersome way of saying it was "lovely." But more than that, I found it arresting. My own work of late has been much focused on questions of exile and dispossession with respect to Gower mostly, but fueled by personal experiences of loss, about which I hope to post in my own forthcoming blog. I've also been struck, mostly by the work I've read here, of my own need to study Old English and its literature -- which I have never done, but hope to rectify in the coming semester. Thank you!

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: I just ran across this bit on translation in Bersani and Dutoit's "Forms of Being," and I thought it was apropos to your post here [and to your thinking on translation in general]:

"Translation is a coupling in time. . . . As its etymology indicates, translation is a carrying over, the moving of a text from one linguistic 'place' to another. It is also, as has often been said, a betrayal: the relation between the translation and the original can never be an identity. More interesting however, and more difficult to determine, is the mode in which the original persists, or lasts into, the translation. The idea of betrayal, after all, includes a questionable assumption: there is, or there was, an original that could be betrayed, and that remains, somewhere, as past event. We are not arguing, absurdly, that Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and Holderin's poetry do not exist as texts that can be read in Italian or German. We do want to suggest that, *within the translation*, there is a relation that is neither a betrayal nor an identity nor, finally, a coming after or a coming before. And this relation . . . is a kind of temporality without priority . . . . Let's think of translation as the *opening* of the text to be translated, its removal from a supposed textual finality and its renewal as something still in the process of being made. In translations--but also in quotations, as well as in criticism--texts enter time, a time in which they can be diversely repeated without ever being wholly realized." [p. 64]

Karl Steel said...

It is also, as has often been said, a betrayal: the relation between the translation and the original can never be an identity.

I might add that the relation of the text to itself can never be an identity. I wonder if we can think that 'tacked on' Xian ending as a translation using EJ's timely, natch, ref from Bersani and Dutoit?