“Wulf and Eadwacer” & W.H. Auden’s “The Secret Agent”

Wulf and Eadwacer” by Unknown
trans. from the Old English by Richard Hamer

It is as though my people had been given
A present. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Wulf is on one isle, I am on another.
Fast is that island set among the fens.
Murderous are the people who inhabit
That island. They will wish to capture him
If he comes with a troop. We are apart.
Grieved have I for my Wulf with distant longings.
Then was it rainy weather, and I sad,
When the bold warrior laid his arms about me.
I took delight in that and also pain.
O Wulf, my Wulf, my longing for your coming
Has made me ill, the rareness of your visits,
My grieving spirit, not the lack of food.
Eadwacer, do you hear me? For a wolf
Shall carry to the woods our wretched whelp.
Men very easily may put asunder
That which was never joined, our song together.

—–

The Secret Agent” by W.H. Auden

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.

(1928)

4 thoughts on ““Wulf and Eadwacer” & W.H. Auden’s “The Secret Agent”

  1. admin Post author

    The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in 2006, analyzing the connections between the two poems (see the concluding lines of both) – and how each poem deals with isolation and community.

    —–

    But Auden seems not to directly address this idea of composition in his poem – he ends on the note of separation. However, it is important to keep in mind that he ends on a line that is not his own. It is a line that is centuries old, that expresses an idea or an emotion to which he felt compelled to respond. It is perhaps not as a strong a response as Cohen wants to make it, his “two lovers calling to one another across the centuries” (320), but it is a response, and a tacit complication. What does it mean when one poem responds to another poem’s pervading sense of isolation? In some ways the act of response could be a resistance to the isolation – be it isolation from others, isolation from country, or the internalization of thoughts. “Wulf and Eadwacer” acknowledges this to a certain degree in its final line – songs, compositions, they are an external or communal act. When writing “The Secret Agent” Auden acknowledges community by including a line from the Anglo-Saxon poem. Thus, the two authors may be allowing the poems themselves to be a response to the despair each portrays.

    Neither Auden nor the composer of “Wulf and Eadwacer” meant to provide an easy answer, and much is left up to conflicting interpretations. But “The Secret Agent” is clearly a reaction to the Anglo-Saxon poem. The last line is not simply a literary allusion for the sake of making an allusion, nor is it a “key” that shows the poem to be solely about a frustrated love. “The Secret Agent” is an emotional response to isolation and despair – and it addresses this response throughout the poem, not just in the final line.

    —–

    Cohen, Nan. “Auden’s Conspiracy; ‘The Secret Agent’ and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer.’” Interlitteria 3 (1998): 307-321

  2. admin Post author

    And for those who are interested, here’s the transcription of the Old English text (note that the title “Wulf and Eadwacer” is one given to it by scholars as the original text is untitled). Also worth noting is that the meaning of the poem has always been under debate, it is notoriously opaque.

    —–

    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.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulf_and_Eadwacer

  3. Nick

    Are there any Old English experts out there who can explain why ‘ungelic’ of line 3 becomes ‘ungelice’ in line 8? Seems ironic given that this is Old English for ‘difference’ – an integral concept to the poem’s many meanings.

    Interesting couple of poems.

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