M.L. Martin translates An Anonymous pre-10th c. Anglo-Saxon Feminist


My people offer themselves as a gift.
They will devour him
who moves toward the army.
We are different.
Wulf is one island, I am the other.
The island is secure & surrounded by fen.
Bloodthirsty, the men on that island.
They will devour
if he comes toward this band of men.

We are different.
I think of Wulf’s long departures—
when it was dark skies & I sat sobbing—
when the battle-bold arms embraced me—
that which brought me joy also brought misery.

Wulf, my Wulf! The thought of you
between seldom comings has made me sick.
An anxious mind never goes hungry.
Listen now, Ead: the cowardly cub of “us”
lured this wolf from its woods:
A thing easily falls to threads
that never was entwined—
the tale of us together.


the thought of you
never goes

we are
the cowardly cub

the woods will devour
what never was tied

I think of Ead—
the bloodthirsty island

the misery
that joy brings

Wulf! the dark skies
embraced me

wulf, draft

the forest
is moving

I am
the island

by blood

the men

long skies
when the battle

joy / pain

Wulf, the cub
never was


my ruler
as if one offers herself

We are different—
I, heavily-guarded

the other

when the arms
embrace me
I think of wandering

those seldom
visits of joy

Listen now, : o
ur wretched c ub

Your fearful heart
drives a wolf from the woods

E., —

I am surrounded
bloodthirsty, sobbing—

when the battle
that whi ch
brought me joy.

The mind
goes hungry

the cub
was whi ch

The wolf returns

mīn giedd
my song

the battle
that brought me

the battle of lāð
and seldom comings
has ended

mīn renig weder
is over

The wolf
has returned


Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīc is ūs.
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Fæst is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum, wēnum hogode,
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 mōd, nales metelīste.
Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer? Uncerne eargne hwelp
bireð wulf tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.

Translator’s Note:

We know the Old English poem “Wulf ond Eadwacer” due only to its survival in the Exeter Codex, the largest existing anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which dates back to the 10th century. Since no original manuscript for the poem exists, the date of its composition, its provenance, and the identity of its composer are all unknown.

Even within the poem itself, ambiguities abound: the identity of the speaker is unknown, while the relationship of the speaker to both Eadwacer and Wulf, the poem’s setting, and its narrative content are all subject to conflicting interpretations. Most scholars think that the poem describes a love triangle in which the unnamed speaker (who is represented as “&” in my translation) is separated from her lover, Wulf, by threat of violence from Eadwacer, who is commonly viewed as either her husband and/or captor. It is also ambiguous if the ‘cub’ to which the speaker refers is her and Wulf’s lovechild or her and Eadwacer’s legitimate son. However, the poem has also been interpreted as a riddle, a ballad, a wen charm, an elegy, and a beast fable. As Peter S. Baker notes in “The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer,” half of the poem’s nineteen lines “pose lexical, syntactical, or interpretive problems.”[1]

But the challenge of interpreting the poem is only part of what makes “Wulf ond Eadwacer” an anomaly. The poem is also formally radical, both for its departures from Anglo-Saxon prosody, and for its inclusion of elements like repetition, and refrain, which were uncommon in Old English poetry. For this, and other reasons, some scholars even believe that this compellingly mysterious lyric poem might itself be a translation from the Old Norse.

As the act of translation cannot be divorced from interpretation, the mysteries of “Wulf ond Eadwacer” would seem to begird the translator, to restrict the strategies and outcomes available to her. Indeed, it seems sensible to decide what a thing is and what kind of effect it should have on the reader before translating it. But the reader should not have to pay for the translator’s convenience, and perhaps the least faithful translation of this enigmatic, polyvalent anomaly of an Old English poem that might have been born Scandinavian in the first place would be to present it in the absence of its complexity, to pin the poem down to a definitive interpretation, to lock it into a linear narrative that it never loved.

The poems at hand are part of a translation that aims to release the poem back into its radical complexity—to restore the lacunae, the indeterminacy, and the strangeness that make the Anglo Saxon version so haunting. Code-switching between the original Anglo-Saxon and Modern English, Wulf & Eadwacer embraces this proto-feminist, disjunctive voice so that its enigmatic plurality can fully be explored for the first time.

[1] Baker, Peter S. “The ambiguity of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No. 5, Texts and Studies, 1981. “Eight Anglo-Saxon Studies.” University of North Carolina Press.

M.L. Martin is a prize-winning poet and translator whose experimental translations of Old English can be found in Waxwing and The Literary Review. Her poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Fiddlehead, The Massachusetts Review, PRISM international, and many other Canadian and American literary journals. She is the recipient of the Theresa A. Wilhoit Fellowship, the Bread Loaf Translators’ Fellowship, and the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. She currently lives in Tulsa, where she is a 2018 Literary Arts Fellow with Tulsa Artist Fellowship.