8 Exeter Book Elegies

“Old Ocean’s Gray and Melancholy Waste” by William Trost Richards. Wikimedia Commons.


by Jesus Muniz


The Exeter Book is the largest existing book of Old English Writings dating from the 10th century; of the four Old English manuscript collections, the Exeter Book is notable for its diversity: from Old English poems (both secular and religious) to riddles with double entendres as well as Saint’s Lives and hymns. It is believed that it originally contained 131 pages, where the first eight pages have been replaced with others; the original pages are believed to be lost (“Exeter Book”).

The “Exeter Book” is called such because it is stored, to this day, at the Exeter Cathedral. It was first donated to the parish by its first bishop, Leofric, at the end of the tenth century and “…is thought to have been written by a single scribe in a monastic scriptorium in the south-west of England”(Oliver). The book contains poems that deal with mostly religious themes, religious allegories and topics of everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England.



The poems grouped together below—commonly called the “Exeter Book Elegies”–are a series of first-person secular poems on the subjects of longing and loss. The poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer”, “Deor”, “Wulf and Eadwacer”, “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Ruin” have been grouped together by scholars; the original order is unknown.

“The Wanderer”, is about a former warrior whose lord has passed away and while in search of a new lord, he starts to recall the hard times, old friends, and the old way life used to be. He realizes that times are different and that it is fate that has led him to the position he is currently in.

A similar sentiment can be found in “The Seafarer”, where a man who is lonely at sea, although he knows that life is better lived on actual land, prefers the sound of waves rather than the voices in the halls. He reflects by stating that everything is made by God and one should not fear what God has created, “Foolish is he who dreads not the Lord, his death comes unexpectedly. Blessed is he who lives humbly, his reward comes in heaven.” He states that in the afterlife, happiness is determined by God himself.

“The Ruin” is an incomplete poem that starts by describing a deserted city where the poet reflects on the great structures that stood there before their creators were conquered, and their walls crumbled by time. He describes how much effort was put into building the city for it al to be gone in a blink of an eye.

“Deor,” is a lamentation poem which contains different characters sharing their time in exile. They share how they have struggled yet they have been able to overcome those times. They have been able to overcome these struggles because they know that no matter what, God will change things.

“The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” are similar due to them being narrated in a woman’s voice and describing lost love. In “The Wife’s Lament” she says that she has been separated from her lord and her beloved in unclear circumstances involving violence and intrigue, forcibly living in a cave. She tells us how her loved one is living near the sea yet far away from her, also suffering great personal hardship of losing what he has lost. She ends the poem by stating that grief is always present for those who are separated from a loved one. “Wulf and Eadwacer,” similarly, focuses on sorrow and separation. In this poem, a woman is crying out for her loved one Wulf, who has been separated from her leaving her on an island away from him, she weeps about his infrequent visits and how her heart aches for him. Towards the end of the poem, she says Eadwacer’s name, who has no history or background in the poem making it appear to be her second lover or even a captor. With minimum information about Eadwacer, this poem remains the most obscure and difficult to decipher in the collection.



Exile was one of the most tragic fates that Anglo-Saxon men or women could imagine, due to the relationship between vassals and their lords during this period. Wyrd or personal destiny/fate was a key concept for the Anglo-Saxons which is also evident in all of these poems.



The book was written in an “alternative method” (“Wanderer”), where instead of rhymes, the repetition of each beginning letter was used throughout many verses to create a rhythm that was common in Old English poetry. Kennings were also used throughout many of these poems. One example would be in “The Wanderer” he expressed himself as an ​“earth-stepper” meaning that he was “a traveler”(“Kenning”).

Works Cited

“Exeter Book.” Wikipedia, 03 April 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exeter_Book. Accessed 02 May 2020.

“Kenning Examples and Definition” Literary Devices, 31 Oct. 2015, www.literarydevices.com/kenning/ Accessed 02 May 2020.

“Wanderer (Old English poem).” Wikipedia, 19 Apr. 2020,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wanderer_(Old_English_poem) Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the collective themes of all of these poems?
  2. Which is the most significant and why?
  3. How do these poems compare to other works of Old English (​ Beowulf​, for example)?
  4. How are the themes of isolation, sorrow, and nostalgia expressed here?
  5. Of all of Old English literature, these poems are some of the most accessible to modern audiences. Why is this?

Further Resources

  • A YouTube video on the history of the Exeter Cathedral
  • A performance of “Wulf and Eadwacer” in Old English
  • The British Library’s webpage on the elegies of the Exeter Book

Reading: Elegies from the Exeter Book 


The Wanderer

Many a lonely man at last comes to honor
Merits God’s mercy, though much he endured
On wintry seas, with woe in his heart,
Dragging his oar through drenching-cold brine,
Homeless and houseless and hunted by Wyrd.

These are the songs of a way-faring wanderer,
This is his song of the sorrow of life,
Slaughter of foremen, felling of kinsmen:

Often alone in the dark before dawning,
All to myself my sorrow I tell.
Friend have I non to whom I may open
My heart’s deep secret, my hidden spring of woe.
Well do i know ’tis the way of the high-born,
Fast in his heart to fetter his feelings,
Lock his unhappiness in the hold of his mind.
Spirit that sorrows withstands not destiny,
Heart that complains plucks no help.
A haughty hero will hide his suffering,
Manfully master misery’s pang.
Thus stricken with sorrow, stripped of my heritage,
Far from kinsmen and country and friends,

Grimly I grappled my grief to my bosom,
Since long time ago, my giver of bounty
Was laid in the earth, and left me to roam
Watery wastes, with winter in my heart.
Forsaken I sought a shielder and protector;
Far and near I found none to greet the wanderer,
No master to make him welcome in his wine-hall;
None to cheer the cheerless, or the friendless to befriend.

He who has lost all his loved companions
Knows how bitter a bedfellow is sorrow.
Loneliness his lot, not lordly gold,
Heart-chilling frost, not harvest of plenty.
Oft he remembers the mirth of the mead-hall,
Yearns for the days of his youth, when his dear lord
Filled him with abundance. Faded are those joys!
He shall know them no more; no more shall he listen
To the voice of his lord, his leader and counsellor.
Sometimes sleep and sorrow together
Gently enfold the joyless wanderer:
Bright are his dreams, he embraces his lord again,
Kisses his liege, and lays on his knee
Head and hands as in happy days,
When he thanked for a boon his bountiful giver.

Wakes with a start the homeless wanderer;
Nought he beholds but the heaving surges,
Seagulls dipping and spreading their wings,
Scurries of snow and the scudding hail.
Then his heart is all the heavier,
Sore after sweet dreams sorrow revives.
Fain “would he hold the forms of his kinsmen,
Longingly leans to them, lovingly greets them;
Slowly their faces swim into distance
No familiar greeting comes from the fleeting
Companies of kinsmen. Care ever shadows
The way of the traveller, whose track is on the waters,
Whose path is on the billows of the boundless deep.

Surely I see not how I should keep
My heart from sinking, heavy with sorrow,
When all life’s destiny deeply I ponder,
Men that are suddenly snatched in their prime,
High-souled heroes; so the whole of this earth
Day by day droops and sinks to decay. . .
How dread is the doom of the last desolation,
When all the wealth of the world shall be waste,
He that is wise may learn, if he looks
Abroad o’er this land, where lonely and ruinous,
Wind-swept walls, waste are standing;
Tottering towers, crusted with frost,
Crumbling wine-halls, bare to the sky.
Dead is their revelry, dust are the revellers!
Some they have fallen on far fields of battle,
Some have gone down in ships on the sea;
Some were the prey of the prowling gray-wolf,
Some by their loved ones were laid in the earth.
The Lord of the living hath levelled their mansions,
Silenced the sound of the singing and laughter.
Empty and bare are all their habitations,
Wondrous works of the giants of old.

He that considers this scene of desolation,
And this dark life deeply doth ponder,
Battle and blood-shed, burning and slaughter,
It brings to mind, and mournfully he asks:
Where is the warrior, where is the war-horse?
Where is the giver of bounty, where are the boon-companions,
The “dream and the gleam” that gladdened the hall?
Alas the bright ale-cup, alas the brave warrior!
Alas the pride of princes! Their prime is no more;
Sunk under night’s shadow, as though it never had been!
Where lusty warriors thronged, this lone wall towers,
Weird with dragon-shapes, wondrously carven;
Storm of ash-spears hath stricken the heroes,
Blood-thirsty weapons, Wyrd the supreme.
Wintry blasts now buffet these battlements;
Dreary snow-storms drift up the earth,

The terror of winter when wild and wan
Down from the north with the darkness drives
The ruinous scourge of the ruthless hail.

All this life is labor and sorrow,
Doom of destiny darkens o’er earth.
Wealth is fleeting, friends are fleeting,
Man is fleeting, maid is fleeting,
All this earth’s foundations utterly shall pass.


The Seafarer

Translator’s note: The poem translated below, has been interpreted as a dialogue between a weather-beaten old sailor and a youth eager to go to sea. The parts are not assigned in the original MS., and the only warrant for our dialogue form lies in the structure of the poem itself.

The Old Sailor:

True is the tale that I tell of my travels,
Sing of my sea-faring sorrows and woes;
Hunger and hardship’s heaviest burdens,
Tempest and terrible toil of the deep,
Daily I’ve borne on the deck of my boat.
Fearful the welter of waves that encompassed me,
Watching at night on the narrow bow,
As she drove by the rocks,
and drenched me with spray.
Fast to the deck my feet were frozen,
Gripped by the cold, while care’s hot surges
My heart o’erwhelmed, and hunger’s pangs
Sapped the strength of my sea-weary spirit.

Little he knows whose lot is happy,
Who lives at ease in the lap of the earth,
How, sick at heart, o’er icy seas,
Wretched I ranged the winter through,
Bare of joys, and banished from friends,
Hung with icicles, stung by hail-stones.
Nought I heard but the hollow boom
Of wintry waves, or the wild swan’s whoop.
For singing I had the solan’s scream;
For peals of laughter, the yelp of the seal;
The sea-mew’s cry, for the mirth of the mead-hall.
Shrill through the roar of the shrieking gale
Lashing along the sea- cliff’s edge,
Pierces the ice- plumed petrel’s defiance,
And the wet-winged eagle’s answering scream.

Little he dreams that drinks life’s pleasure,
By danger untouched in the shelter of towns
Insolent and wine-proud, how utterly weary
Oft I wintered on open seas. Night fell black,
from the north it snowed Harvest of hail.

The Youth:

Oh wildly my heart
Beats in my bosom and bids me to try
The tumble and surge of seas tumultuous,
Breeze and brine and the breakers’ roar.
Daily hourly drives me my spirit
Outward to sail, far countries to see.
Liveth no man so large in his soul,
So gracious in giving, so gay in his youth,
In deeds so daring, so dear to his lord,
But frets his soul for his sea-adventure,
Fain to try what fortune shall send.
Harping he heeds not, nor hoarding of treasure;
Nor woman can win him, nor joys of the world.
Nothing doth please but the plunging billows;
Ever he longs, who is lured by the sea.
Woods are abloom, the wide world awakens,
Gay are the mansions, the meadows most fair;
These are but warnings, that haste on his journey
Him whose heart is hungry to taste
The perils and pleasures of the pathless deep.

The Old Sailor:

Hearest the cuckoo mournfully calling?
The summer’s watchman sorrow forbodes.
What does the landsman that wantons in luxury,
What does he reck of the rough sea’s woe,
The cares of the exile, whose keel has explored
The uttermost parts of the Ocean-ways!

The Youth:

Sudden my soul starts from her prison-house,
Soareth afar o’er the sounding main;
Hovers on high, o’er the home of the whale;
Back to me darts the bird-sprite and beckons,
Winging her way o’er woodland and plain,
Hungry to roam, and bring me where glisten
Glorious tracts of glimmering foam.
This life on land is lingering death to me,
Give me the gladness of God’s great sea.



Weland, the strong man, had experience of persecution;
he suffered a lot. Sorrow and longing were his companions,
along with exile in the cold winter; he experience misfortunes
after Nithad laid constraints upon him,
supple bonds of sinew on a better man.
That went away, this also may.

In Beadohild’s mind her brothers’ death
was not as grieving as her own situation,
when she realized she was pregnant;
she couldn’t fathom the outcome.
That went away, this also may.

Many of us have heard
that the Geat’s love for Maethild
passed all bounds,
that his love robbed him of his sleep.
That went away, this also may.

For thirty years,
Theodric ruled the stronghold of the Maerings;
which has become common knowledge.
That went away, this also may.

We have learned of Eormanric’s ferocious disposition;
a cruel man,
he held dominion in the kingdom of the Goths.
Many men sat, full of sorrow, anticipating trouble
and constantly praying for the fall of his country.
That went away, this also may.

If a man sits in despair,
deprived of joy, with gloomy thoughts in his heart;
it seems to him that there is no end to his suffering.
Then he should remember that the wise Lord
follows different courses throughout the earth;
to many he grants glory, certainty, yet, misery to some.

I will say this about myself,
once I was a minstrel of the Heodeningas,
my Lord’s favorite.
My name was Deor.
For many years I had an excellent office and a gracious Lord,
until now Heorrenda, a skillful man, has inherited the land
once given to me by the protector of warriors.
That went away, this also may.


Wulf and Eadwacer

It is to my people as if someone gave them a gift.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.

Wulf is on one island I on another.
That island, surrounded by fens, is secure.
There on the island are bloodthirsty men.
They want to kill him, if he comes with a troop.
It is different for us.

I thought of my Wulf with far-wandering hopes,
Whenever it was rainy weather, and I sat tearfully,
Whenever the warrior bold in battle encompassed me with his arms.
To me it was pleasure in that, it was also painful.

Wulf, my Wulf, my hopes for you have caused
My sickness, your infrequent visits,
A mourning spirit, not at all a lack of food.

Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf is carrying
our wretched whelp to the forest,
that one easily sunders which was never united:
our song together.


The Wife’s Lament

I make this song of my deep sadness,
of my own lot.
I can say that since I grew up
I have not endured miseries new or old
more than now.
Ever I suffer the torment of my exile.

First my lord went hence from his people
over the tossing waves.
I had sorrow at dawn
as to where in the land my lord might be.
Then I set out, a friendless exile,
to seek helpers in my woeful hard straits.

The man’s kinsmen began to plot
in secret thought to part us,
so that we should live most wretchedly,
most widely sundered in the world,
and a yearning came upon me.

My lord bade me take up my dwelling here;
few dear loyal friends had I in this place;
and so my mind is sad,
since I found the man most mated to me unhappy,
sad in heart, cloaking his mind, plotting mischief with blithe manner.

Full often we two pledged one another
that naught but death should divide us;
that is changed now.
Our friendship now is as if it had not been.
I must needs endure the hate of my dear one far and near.

They bade me dwell in the forest grove
under the oak-tree in the earth-cave.
Old is this earth-hall; I am filled with yearning.
Dim are the valleys, high the hills, harsh strongholds o’ergrown with briers,
dwellings empty of joy.

Full often the departure of my lord
has seized cruelly upon me.
There are loving friends alive on the earth;
they have their bed; while alone at dawn
I pass through this earth-cave to beneath the oak-tree,
where I sit a long summer’s day.

There I can mourn my miseries, many hardships,
or I can never calm my care of mind,
nor all that longing which has come upon me in this life.
Ever may that youth be sad of mood,
grievous the thought of his heart;
may he likewise be forced to wear a blithe air
and also care in his breast,
the affliction of constant sorrows.

May all his joy in the world depend on himself only;
may he be banished very far in a distant land
where my friend sits under a rocky slope chilled by the storm,
my friend weary in mind,
girt round with water in a sad dwelling.
My friend suffers great grief;
too often he remembers a happier home.

Ill is it for him who must suffer
longing for his loved one.


The Ruin

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed.

Often this wall, lichen-grey and stained with red,
experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.
Still the masonry endures in winds cut down
persisted on__________________
fiercely sharpened________ _________
______________ she shone_________
_____________g skill ancient work_________
_____________g of crusts of mud turned away
spirit mo________yne put together keen-counselled
a quick design in rings, a most intelligent one bound
the wall with wire brace wondrously together.
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
The stone buildings stood, a stream threw up heat
in wide surge; the wall enclosed all
in its bright bosom, where the baths were,
hot in the heart. That was convenient.
Then they let pour_______________
hot streams over grey stone.
un___________ _____________
until the ringed sea (circular pool?) hot
_____________where the baths were.
Then is_______________________
__________re, that is a noble thing,
to the house__________ castle_______

Source Texts:

The Wanderer,” and “The Seafarer” author unknown, trans. by Henry S. Pancoast and John Duncan Spaeth in Early English Poems, 1911, licensed under no known copyright.


Deor,” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” author unknown, World Heritage Encyclopedia, is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.


The Wife’s Lament,” author unknown, LibreTexts, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.


The Ruin,” author unknown, Wikipedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0



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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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