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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, third prize

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Jane Tozer

Wulf my Wulf (after Wulf and Eadwacer)

if he flew at them fighting in full array
they'd make slow sport of him

We come of another kind

each on an island
Wulf of far skerries      I on this fenland fastness
guarded by blood-greedy brawlers
they'd make slow sport of him

We come of another kind

Wulf      I watched you leave
stalking solitary as a heron in the shallows
and away      always away
Wulf      you would not let me see
the salt on your face      that was not sea-foam

the thatch dripped endlessly       I stood there spinning
still waiting for you      in weeping weather
when that fist-faced girl-taker
bore down and bedded me
a brief release       then lifelong loathing
this fear       these fevered fantasies

Wulf my Wulf        I am thin with love-longing
starved of something that is not food
they sing       love seldom seen is soon forgot
it is not so with us

We come of another kind

think on, Eadwacer, Wealth-warder!
you can't see Wulf
as he comes stalking       solitary as a heron in the shallows

hear me, Eadwacer, Wife-miser!
Wulf goes running with our whelp to the forest
you will soon hear us howling

cunning hands may quickly loosen
knots never tied
                                 our unspun yarn together

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Jane Tozer

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

Wulf and Eadwacer (from the Exeter Book)

Leodum is minum      swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege,      ic on oþerre.

Fæst is þæt eglond,      fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe      weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan,      gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.

Wulfes ic mines widlastum wenum dogode;

þonne hit wæs renig weder      ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa      bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon,      wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf,      wena me þine
seoce gedydon,      þine seldcymas,

murnende mod,      nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?      Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð      þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.


Translation commentary

As a student I loved Middle English, but declined the Anglo-Saxon option. The so-called Dark Ages just didn't speak to me. Later, when reading 84 Charing Cross Road, I laughed along with Helene Hanff's witty friend, 'The only essay subject you can find enough early Anglo-Saxon words for is How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.' How wrong I was. Once found, Wulf and Eadwacer will haunt you forever, enigmatic and irresistible. My discovery took a long time. Many have translated Wulf, yet the exercise is never a cliché. After more than a thousand years, every new version has something fresh.

In 2010 I joined Paul Batchelor's online translation course for the Poetry School. Our assignments were five great poems from Italian, German, French, Russian, Old English. I know only one of those languages. The challenge was thrilling. It freed me from the absolute, and I began dreaming with the nameless poet.

My version is simple. She pines for her canny lover, then weds a much older man. Long ago, broken-hearted, I watched my young lover turn away in tears. To lose one's true love is eternal longing. She waits, works, twisting yarn on a drop-spindle. Maybe it's better than loneliness or servitude. She taunts Eadwacer. Is the hwelp his child, or Wulf's?

There are just two Old English poems in the feminine voice. Anglo-Saxon women were freer than we think, but were still subordinate. How many composed and recited poems? Would a man create a love-lament for a mead feast? There are many theories about poet and story. A riddle; a mother laments her lost son; a caged she-wolf howls for her pack…

I've imagined landscape, added detail, improvised kennings, pumped up anguish and rage. Perhaps this allows the lovers a chance of escape. So I hope.

Jane Tozer