Passion vs. Responsibility in “Wulf and Eadwacer” by Julieta Lozano-Ramsay

Passion vs. Responsibility in “Wulf and Eadwacer” by Julieta Lozano-Ramsay

The balance of love and duty has its place in every culture, but it is especially interesting for peace-weaving women in the Anglo-Saxon period. Peaceweavers were woman who acted as a type of diplomat
by marrying into rival communities or clans to bring about peace. These relationships did not guarantee passion, but rather, some form of amity between communities. In the anonymous 10th century poem “Wulf and Eadwacer,” the poetic speaker depicts the contrast between the passion of her lover Wulf with the security of her new marriage to Eadwacer, as well as her lonely responsibilities as a peaceweaver, through the revealing forms of elegy, innuendo, repetition, diction, and natural imagery. The poetic speaker’s motherhood further obfuscates her inner conflict as the father’s identity is ambiguous.

Through innuendo and the personal nature of elegies, the speaker expresses their anguished and lustful longing for Wulf, which is notable because lust is seldom mentioned by male elegists. The speaker cries out for Wulf: “My wanting you / has made me sick—your seldom coming, / my mourning heart, not lack of meat” (13-15). True to the personal, raw, and tragic nature of elegies, the speaker expresses physical illness due to her desire to be with Wulf. Further, she mentions that her heart grieves the fact that he likely cannot come and be with her. Though she clarifies it is her heart that feels the greatest burden, the speaker interestingly refers to “lack of meat”. This line could simply be part of the wolf imagery, but it may also infer meat as a phallic symbol. Likewise, the line ‘your seldom coming’ describes Wulf’s absence while also being innuendo for orgasm. A sexual relationship between Wulf and the speaker would not be a surprise given the later mention of a cub. Accordingly, the speaker may simply be stating that she yearns for Wulf’s presence more than his body, but it can also be interpreted as the speaker now being satisfied in that area by Eadwacer. Moreover, elegies written by men tend to express loss, longing, and loneliness, yet rarely lust. The male desires tend to relate more to legacy, adventure, brotherhood/family/community, and returning to their people. Interestingly, this female speaker finds love and sex to be one of the greatest sacrifices, as if it is another form of exile.

The poetic speaker uses repetition and diction to contrast her feeling of security with Eadwacer against her desire to be with Wulf. The speaker repeats, “they will kill him if he comes to the troop. / It is
otherwise for us” (2-3) (7-8). This line establishes the threat on Wulf’s life conflicting with her desire to see him again, thus reinforcing a rather doomed romance. Later, she describes the comforting hug of Eadwacer: “it was sweet to me, yet I also despised it” (12). The dichotomy of “sweet” and “despised” blatantly demonstrates that she is caught between feelings. She appreciates that sense of protection, yet he soothes her as she misses another man. This paradox creates a sense of resentment of her situation. Subsequently, one can contrast how the speaker indirectly refers to her past lover, “Wulf, my Wulf!” (13), versus her husband in the next stanza, “Do you hear, Eadwacer?” (16). The exclamation point punctuating her cry establishes her passion for Wulf. The diction suggests desperation and the “my” indicates that she feels an intimate attachment to Wulf. As for the Eadwacer line, the diction suggests she is taunting him as she is bitterly referring to the “cub”. This cub either belongs to Wulf, in which case the speaker is saying to Eadwacer that their lives will always be separated, or it belongs to Eadwacer, in which case she is saying that she does not (or cannot) care for their child. Moreover, the name Eadwacer itself means ‘property guardian,’ which reinforces the stability her husband provides that her lover could not. The speaker is caught between two worlds: the duties and protection of her new life and the passion of her old one.

The poetic speaker uses natural imagery of isolation to demonstrate the loneliness associated with being a peaceweaver and mother. The speaker despairs at her situation: “as I sat weeping in the rainy weather”
(10). Rain is a common symbol for sadness as it mirrors her tears and gloomy state. Moreover, the speaker describes a possible bastard child: “A wolf bears away / our wretched cub to the woods” (16-17). The natural imagery of wolves/woods may be in reference to Wulf, whose name has animalistic connotations. The speaker’s child is referred to as a ‘cub’ rather than some human form of kin, which situates the child as belonging to the woods rather than with the speaker. This theriomorphic imagery may suggest that Wulf and the child are better off away from the society the speaker married into. Alternatively, it may suggest that an entangled life is impossible due to the symbolic or actual divergences in lifestyles. Likewise, ‘A wolf bears away’ may imply that the child was brought away to the woods by Wulf and is kept under his custody. The imagery of the woods and its inhabitants symbolizes
the physical and metaphorical distance between the speaker, her child, and possibly her lover. The woods are a separate world from that of the speaker, yet she connects herself to the cub with the word ‘our.’ Whether or not the speaker willingly gave up her child, she is removed from someone she recognizes as her own, thus conveying the theme of loneliness. Additionally, the word ‘wretched’ indicates that she resents motherhood, as she does her isolating role as a peaceweaver. The speaker
uses geographical distance to demonstrate her separation from Wulf: “Wulf is on an island, I on another. / Fast is that island, surrounded by fen. / The men on the island are murderous and cruel” (4-6). The
islands may well be literal islands that are surrounded by easily floodable areas. As a peaceweaver, she likely had to move away from her people to join another community or clan. However, these islands may also be  metaphors to visualize the vast divide between the speaker and her lover. Islands are famously symbols of isolation. ‘Fast’, in this case, suggests a steady and firm island, once again enforcing the security of Eadwacer. The idea of men on her current island being brutal demonstrates that her
role as peaceweaver probably holds great importance. Her diplomacy protects her and the people around her, thus it would be irresponsible and dangerous to step out of line to go see Wulf or her ‘cub.’ Ultimately, she must strike a balance between the weight of being a peaceweaver and the loneliness she endures because of it.

The poetic speaker is a peaceweaver and mother who uses innuendo, elegy, repetition, diction, and natural imagery to describe her emotional struggle between stability (Eadwacer) and passion (Wulf). She describes sexual desire for Wulf, which is a rather unique expression among elegists. However, she recognizes the safety she earns from a relationship with Eadwacer. She finds herself isolated and conflicted between her responsibilities as a peaceweaver, her connection to a discarded life with Wulf and her child, and her own wants. This paper could have further justified her status as a peaceweaver. However, ultimately, the elegy’s conflict rests upon the fact that life is filled with crossroads, and
for better or worse, one path gone down means loss of the other. In the situation of an Anglo-Saxon peaceweaver, it is a road that holds far too much responsibility to abandon. It is notable that a woman of this time expresses so vividly her raw emotions of loneliness and sorrow yet ultimately has made a sacrifice for her people.

Work Cited

“Wulf and Eadwacer.” Old English Poetry: An Anthology, edited and
translated by R.M. Liuzza, Broadview Press, 2014, pp. 30. E-book.

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