3. Composition as Commentary: Text

The two works presented in this exposition are based on a strange, fragmentary, and enigmatic Old English poem, generally known as Wulf and Eadwacer. The text is preserved in a tenth-century codex which has acquired the name the Exeter Book.1 The opacity of Wulf and Eadwacer is borne out by a quantity of scholarship offering varying interpretations, leading at least one scholar to propose that it is ‘generally acknowledged as the most perplexing poem in the [Old English] language’.2 In the manuscript, the poem does not have a title, and is presented without notes or explanation. It is as though the text begins partway through a (now lost) narrative, or is based on a tale that was ‘familiar to the poet’s audience but unknown to us’.3 Even the manuscript of the Exeter Book is fragmentary. Crossley-Holland has drawn attention to the ways in which the stained, fire damaged manuscript is missing at least seven folios.4 As far as we know, whatever text was preserved in these folios has not survived in any other manuscripts.

The folio on which Wulf and Eadwacer is written is followed by a collection of riddles, many of which seem ambiguous and have numerous possible interpretations. Like Wulf and Eadwacer, most of the riddles are written in the first person. In light of the context in which it is preserved, it has been proposed that Wulf and Eadwacer might be better interpreted as a riddle.5 However, it has also been argued that the ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer enhances, rather than limits, its merit as a work of literature.6 To use Eco’s terminology, the poem’s resistance to dogmatic interpretation gives it a high degree of dynamism and ‘openness’, since the recipient of the text must discover and choose from ‘a continuous generation of internal relations’ in order to perceive the work in its totality.7

We can only be certain about a few salient points in the text. Word-endings show that the text is spoken by a woman; it is, in fact, one of the earliest texts in a female voice in English. She is held captive on an island in the marshes. She describes complex emotions: sadness, loneliness, longing, fleeting joy, and hate. The text follows many of the conventions of Old English poetry. Most lines are divided into two half-lines, separated by a caesura. Each half-line contains two stressed syllables and any number of unstressed syllables. Unusually for Old English poems of this period, there is a refrain