The Elegies of the Exeter Book

Welcome to an (slightly) updated Remembered Lore!  It was time for a refresh.  I have revised the About page and made a couple adjustments to the sidebar.  More minor tweaks will be coming.  The Wordstapas will get a new page as well in a couple weeks in preparation for the Fall semester—I’ll let you know when registration opens for that.

For now, before I begin to write more frequently about the Matter of Britain, here is a final essay to crown an unofficial series on Anglo-Saxon literature and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The following is an edited essay originally submitted to Oxford University Department for Continuing Education for Ancestral Voices, Michaelmas 2021.  Edits and notes were made at the suggestion of Dr. Nicolay Yakovlev.


Echoes of Culture:  The Elegies of the Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Old English poetry.  It is believed to have been written down some time between A.D. 950 and A.D. 970.  The first record of its existence is in a list of donations made to Exeter Cathedral between 1069 and 1072 by Bishop Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter Cathedral.  Bishop Leofric described the book as i. mycel englisc boc be gewilcum þingum on leoðwisan gewaht, “A large English book with everything written out in the manner of poetry” (Conner,  The mycel englisc boc has remained in the library of Exeter Cathedral to this day.  Within its leaves lies a treasure hoard of Old English verse, including all the Old English elegies.1  The elegies in the Exeter Book include Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, and some others.  These are poems of lament and somber contemplation on the impermanence of life, happiness, and fellowship.  They include heart-wrenching expressions of loneliness at the loss of a liege-lord and the companionship of the mead-hall, and personal urging toward endurance and honour.

A warrior’s relationship with his lord was of immense importance to the Anglo-Saxons.  A warrior swore loyalty to his lord and fought at his side in battle.  In return, his lord offered him protection, gold, and a place in society.  Each was expected to hold to his side of the agreement.  To lose one’s lord, either through death or exile, was to lose the security that came with it.  The speaker of the poem Deor, a bard, finds himself deprived of his livelihood when he is replaced by Heorrenda, “a man skilled in song.”  He attempts to console himself by recalling the trials of various legendary heroes, but ends his song with a bitter recollection of his lord’s disloyalty:

That for a time I was the Heodenings’ poet,
dear to my lord—my name was “Deor”.
For many years I had a profitable position,
a loyal lord until now that Heorrenda,
the man skilled in song, has received the estate
which the warrior’s guardian had given to me.
  (Pollington, ll. 36-41)

Deor was “dear to his lord” and relied on him for home, provision, and protection.  But Deor was abandoned after a better poet, Heorrenda, appeared.  Without protection from his lord, Deor faces insecurity and must wander in search of a new lord to serve. 

The speaker of The Wanderer, possibly an exile, also laments the loss of his lord, although there is a sense that this is a result of his own deeds, rather than the appearance of a better man, as in Deor.  Contrary to Deor, the wanderer remembers his lord kindly and recalls the consolation of being in his service:

When sorrow and sleep at once together
a wretched lone-dweller often bind,
it seems in his mind that he his man-lord
clasps and kisses, and on one knee lays
hands and head, as when sometimes before
in yore-days he received gifts from the gift-throne.
  (Glenn, ll. 40-45)

Yet those days are passed.  The wanderer has no lord to serve and these lines grieve the absence of his liege-lord and dear friend.  It is interesting to note that the Old English word geardagum, “yore-days” used here is the same one used in the first line of Beowulf when speaking of the Spear-Danes: Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by” (Heaney, l. 1).  The wanderer laments his lord as though he were a character of the old stories, lost forever.  The Anglo-Saxons placed high value on the close relationship of loyalty between a warrior and his lord and those who were shorn of it (either because of their own doing or by circumstances beyond their control) felt the pain of bereavement sorely.

Not only did the Anglo-Saxons value the relationship between a warrior and his lord, they also valued the companionship of fellow men.  The community enjoyed in the warmth and plenty of the mead-hall is not taken for granted in any Old English elegy.  But such fellowship is brief.  Both The Wanderer and The Seafarer ponder the transience of life in a mortal world.  All men die.  Old age takes some, disease others, the sword still more.  In a warrior culture, the latter was common.  The speaker of The Wanderer mourns,

Here goldhoard passes, here friendship passes,
here mankind passes, here kinsman passes:
all does this earth-frame turn worthless!
(Glenn, ll. 109-111)

And The Seafarer says,

Old age fares over him; bright face grows pale;
gray-haired, he grieves, knows former friends,
sons of the athelings, given to earth.
  (Glenn, ll. 91-93)

Both speakers are struck painfully by the death of friends and fellow warriors due to the impermanence of mortal life.  From these passages we learn how dearly the Anglo-Saxons held their companions, whether it was the company of their lord, or their fellow warriors.

Besides bearing lines of sorrow, the Old English elegies also contain spurring gnomic passages.  A gnome is a statement of moral advice or wisdom.  Gnomic passages are common in Old English poetry, occurring numerous times in Beowulf.  They are invaluable when studying the society of the Anglo-Saxons, for they offer insight into their ideals.  Scholars can only gain so much from what is abstractly alluded to in poetry, and these gnomes give us helpful hints when it comes to forming a picture of their culture.2  Two such passages are found in The Wanderer and The Wife’s Lament.  The passage in The Wanderer runs thus,

The wise man is patient
not too hot-hearted nor to quick tongued
nor a warrior too weak, nor too foolhardy,
neither frightened nor fain, nor yet too wealth-greedy,
nor ever of boasts too eager, before he knows enough.
  (Glenn, ll. 66.-70)

In this passage, the poet considers the ideal Anglo-Saxon warrior to be patient, strong, but not rash, measured in all his words, and generous with his goods.  Likewise, the speaker of The Wife’s Lament gives us a gnomic passage on the character of the ideal woman.  She says,

A young woman is always under delegation to be serious-minded
and bold-hearted in purpose; likewise she must be
cheerful in her behavior, even when she is sorrowful,
in a tumult of grief.  She should be dependent on herself
all her life for joy.
  (Amatangelo, ll. 43-47a)

The ideal Anglo-Saxon woman was expected to remain steadfast amidst trials and cheerful despite her griefs.  From these passages, we gain a brief picture of the characteristics looked for in noble and virtuous Anglo-Saxon men and women.  Despite their many sorrows, the Anglo-Saxons were a resilient and enduring people with sure hearts in the face of trials—a virtue also expressed in their heroic poetry.

These elegies provide us with remarkable insight into the minds and hearts of the Anglo-Saxons.  Without them, our knowledge of their culture would be limited to what we can deduce from their heroic and religious poetry.  The elegies reveal the joys and sorrows of this long-lost people.  If this precious volume, so carefully preserved by Exeter Cathedral, had been lost, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons would be as obscure to us as the fleeting memories of the “friendless man” in The Wanderer.


1This is not to say that there are no elegiac passages present in other Old English poems, such as Beowulf.

2The genre was popular among the Anglo-Saxons and there are entire Old English consisting solely of gnomes.

Works Cited:

Amatangelo, Ellen.  The Wife’s Lament.

Conner, Patrick W.  “Exeter Book.”  The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature.  Oxford University Press.  Oxford Reference.

Glenn, Jonathan.  The Seafarer.

–.  The Wanderer.

Heaney, Seamus.  Beowulf.  Faber and Faber Limited, 1999

Pollington, Stephen.  Deor.

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