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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, third prize

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Jane Draycott

‘Song for Wulf’
from The Exeter Book

To my people he’d be like a gift       easy prey
if he dared to come armed,       the man they’d love to destroy.
       So we live in our separate worlds

Wulf on one island       I on another,
this fastness encircled       by marsh and fen,
this island of bloody-thirsty       battle-hard men
who’d love to destroy him       if ever he dared to come armed.
       So we live, in our separate worlds.

In my thoughts I follow       his far-trailing footsteps
while rain continues to fall       and I sit here keening
wound fast in the circling       warrior arms of another,
each thought       bringing equal measures
       of pleasure and pain.

Wulf, my own Wulf       I am weak
from thinking of you       and your over-long absence,
the grief in my heart       far greater
       than any hunger for food.

Remember Eadwacer, warrior:       it’s easy
to sever those ties       never truly united.
Remember that Wulf       has carried our unhappy wolf-cub
away with him       into the woods – the song
       he and I made together.

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Jane Draycott

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Song for Wulf
from The Exeter Book

Lēodum is mīnum       swylce him mon lác gife
willað hȳ hine āþecgan       gif hē on þrēat cymeð
       ungelīc is ūs.
wulf is on iege       ic on ōþerre
fæst is þæt eglond       fenne biworpen
sindon wælrēowe       weras þǣr on īge
willað hȳ hine āþecgan       gif hē on þrēat cymeð
       ungelice is ūs
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum       wēnum dogode
þonne hit wæs rēnig weder       ond ic rēotugu sæt.
þonne mec se beaducāfa       bōgum bilegde
wæs mē wyn tō þon       wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
wulf mīn wulf       wēna mē þīne
sēoce gedydon       þīne seldcymas
murnende mód       nales metelīste
gehȳrest þū eadwacer       uncerne earne hwelp
       bireð wulf to wuda
þæt mon ēaþe toslīteð       þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs
       uncer giedd geador.


Translation commentary

Described by Donald Fry as ‘the most perplexing poem in the language’, the dramatic intensity of the piece best known as Wulf and Eadwacer, together with the mystery regarding its full meaning, give it something of the quality of a conversation half-heard at night under an open window – enough to feel the full heat of the moment without ever knowing the whole story or even who the speakers are. What no one doubts is the power of the female speaker’s heartfelt cry in her lament for Wulf, trapped twice as she seems to be within the confines of her island and in the arms of a new warrior-lover.

The original manuscript contains more than the usual scattering of unsolved Anglo-Saxon mysteries. Decades of scholarly detective work offer the translator a complex permutational web to consider in relation to almost every line. Standing back a little, I’ve tried to gain a sense of how individual words work not only in syntactical relation to their neighbours but across the whole piece. In an attempt to articulate the poem’s key moments of development, I have inserted stanza breaks and additional indentation, and have in several places played with re-sequencing phrases and ideas. The translation also pushes out a little from the original’s taut metrics towards a more contemporary kind of lyricism, as a way partly of creating more interpretive elbow-room.

The poem contains all the most captivating aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature – the electric mix of brutal and elegiac language, the sense of a world where love and conflict co-exist in equal intensity. What touched me most was what lies buried perhaps in that final image: the woman separated irremediably from her lover, sustained by the thought of her child, made out of love, like the song the poet has left to us.

Jane Draycott