- 'Seeds of Sorrow': Landscapes of Despair in The Wanderer, Beowulf's Story of Hrethel, and Sonatorrek
- Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Inc.)
- Volume 15, Number 2, January 1998
- pp. 1-17
- View Citation
- Additional Information
'Seeds of Sorrow': Landscapes of Despair in The Wanderer, Beowulf's Story of Hrethel, and Sonatorrek Ruth Wehlau —Sorg bid swarost byrden. It is well known that elegies often rely on images of ruined building abandoned and overgrown halls, and dismal landscapes as a means of portraying loss. The landscapes of elegy, once worked on by memory and imagination, allow for the paradoxical co-existence in the mind of two oppositions, what was then and what is now. The familiar landscapes of elegy are thus loci for the h u m a n experience of time's arrow.2 In Old English elegy, the elegiac landscape often functions not only as an exterior symbol of the passing of time but as a representation of the interior landscape. In Wulf and Eadwacer the grieving woman's tears are hardly to be distinguished from the rain. This is Eric Stanley's point on poetic imagery in The Wanderer; for the 1 'Sorrow is the heaviest burden,' Solomon and Saturn 313. Quotation Solomon and Saturn are taken from The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. Elliot van Kirk Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942). 2 O n time in certain Old English elegies, see Janet Bately, 'Time and the Passing of Time in "The Wanderer" and Related O E Texts,' Essays and Studies 37 (1984), 1-15. P A R E R G O N ns 15.2 (January 1998) 2 Ruth Wehlau Anglo-Saxon poet it is not the flower that gives rise to the thought, but 'the thought that gives the flower' (427).3 In certain cases these landscapes serve as images of a place which is no-place, thus representing an empty interior world that recalls Freud's classic distinction between grief and melancholia: 'In grief the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself [which becomes empty]' (127).4 In these instances w e encounter a grouping of image and theme that signifies not only grief, but despair, or depression. The concept of despair was well k n o w n to the Anglo-Saxons, w h o followed the church fathers in regarding it as a cardinal sin. Following Cassian, Anglo-Saxon commentators classified desperatio under the sin of tristitia,5 which was referred to as unrotnesse (Tack of cheer') in the vernacular, and was usually viewed as being caused by a loss of some kind, either of goods of friends (although Bald's Leechbook does make mention of a sorrow without cause, 'unrotnessa butan pearfe').6 Like earlier Latin commentators, Anglo-Saxon writers distinguished between the tristitia that m o v e d the sinner to penance and the excessive grief that led a m a n to blame God, literally 'to chide against 3 Eric Gerald Stanley, 'Old English Poetic Diction and the Interpretati The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Penitent's Prayer,' Anglia 73 (1955), 466. 4 Sigmund Freud, 'Mourning and Melancholia,' trans. Joan Riviere, A General Selection from "The Works' of Sigmund Freud, ed. John Rickman (1937; Garden City, N e w Jersey: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), 124-140. The use of landscape to represent a loss of place can be compared to the use of objects to represent absence in the lament of the last survivor, as discussed by Janet Thormann in "The Poetics of Absence: "The Lament of the Sole Survivor" in Beowulf De Gustibus. Essays for Alain Renoir, ed. John Miles Foley (New York: Garland, 1992), pp. 542-550. 5 O n the notion of tristitia as depression, see Stanley W . Jackson, Melancholi and Depression from Hippocratic Times to Modern Times (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 65-77. Despair is also associated with sloth. See Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth: Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), pp. 34-35. 6 Sorrow without cause is one of the diseases caused by evil humours proceeding from the 'maw.' Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Earl England, ed. Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Rolls Series 35, vol. 2ttr>r>A™ 1865), pp. 174. ILondon, Seeds ofSorrow: Landscapes ofDespair 3 God,' something which only increased the sin.7 The chiding...