cura librorum

“The Wanderer” & “The Cloud”
March 10, 2010, 10:20
Filed under: Medieval | Tags: , ,

On comparing “The Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Wanderer” (trans. C.W. Kennedy)

I should have known that Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its pledges of truth, heart, loyalty, and honor would get to me… I’m such a sucker.

During our class last Friday, we were talking about the vernacular theological text “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and this, too, contains its own dark yearning – “& ȝif þou wilt stonde & not falle, seese neuer in þin entent, bot bete euermore on þis cloude of vnknowyng þat is bitwix þee and þi God wiþ a scharpe darte of longing loue…” (And if you would stand and not fall, to never cease in your entent, but to be evermore on this cloud of unknowing that is between you and your God, with a sharp dart of longing love….) and “actyue liif… is to þe souereynest wisdom of his Godheed lappid in þe derk wordes of his Manheed: eder beheeled sche wiþ al the loue of hir hert.” (active life is to be, by the sovereign wisdom of his Godhead, lapped in the dark words of his manhead, (Mary) beheld him with all the love in her heart.)

There is a sense that the moments of greatest longing are the moments of greatest darkness; when the “sharp dart of longing love” intersects with the sense of the “dark words” and the “cloud of unknowing.” Isn’t it true that in our greatest moments of need and longing, our understanding seems the most incapacitated? For the Cloud author, this is the essence of loving – falling more deeply into that incomprehensibility and longing, which in turn represents one’s constantly renewing relationship with God. God is, then, perfectly sought after because he is that which can perfectly fill.

Enter here “The Wanderer.” After being intrigued by Professor Gillespie’s brief exposition (a description, really!) of “Dream the Rood,” which we related time and eternity as a unitive force of past, present, future – the cross of Christ as a token object that bridges the three, I decided to check this Anglo-Saxon poetry out. I found a 1960 translation by former Princeton professor C.W. Kennedy at my public library – not the most scholarly of editions, but enough for my shallow knowledge:

Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left,
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
To keeping counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will! for, woe of heart
Withstandeth not Fate; a failing spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in their heart.
So have I also, often in wretchedness
Fettered my feelings, far from my kin,
Homeless and hapless, since days of old,
When the dark earth covered my dear lord’s face,
And I sailed away with sorrowful heart,
Over wintry seas, seeking a gold-lord
If far or near loved one to befriend me
With gift in the mead-hall and comfort for grief.

The pure loneliness; the sailing away in grief is very much a seeking – seeking for something that can satisfy that depth. The internal isolation mirrors the physical, external sailing away, and it needs to be mirrored or it cannot be borne. Again, as in the “Cloud,” the darkness is both a self-knowing and a yearning for another. “To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.”

Even though there was no such thing yet as irony (“you can’t trust people these days”) in the Anglo-Saxon world (it would have been utterly dangerous to the community), it speaks to some fundamental human condition about lack of knowledge or comprehension, and that “sharp longing of the heart.” We desire to know, yet when faced with the seas, and indeed the interminable sea of the unhappy self, there is a lingering sense of that desire unfulfilled.

(I look forward to learning how to read Old English…)