A Consideration of Rhetoric and Ideology in The Old English Wanderer and Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, Book I, Meter I

Article Posted in: Research Articles

The Expressive-Repressive Binary:

A Consideration of Rhetoric and Ideology in

The Old English Wanderer and

Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, Book I, Meter I

by – David Pecan, Professor (Tenured), Department of English, SUNY Nassau Community College, Bradley Hall, One Education Drive, Garden City, NY 11530

Published in December 2017, Volume. III, Issue. XXXV




Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae served as the model for the medieval consolatio genre and the thematic development of transience and the characterization of narrators who are debilitated physically and psychologically by the frustration of temporal desire and its accompanying subversion of selfhood.  The rhetorical development of character and consolatory patterns in the Old English Wanderer demonstrates both adherence and deviation from this genre.  Wanderer contains patterns of lamentation and consolation wherein its narrator laments and represses feelings of sorrow.  Wanderer moves beyond Boethius’ philosophical consolation towards negations of identity and emotive utterances.  This expressive rhetoric and the repressive tendencies in Wanderer prefigures pathological reactions to depressive emotion developed in Freud’s Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through (1914) and The Unconscious (1915), deconstructive tendencies of literary selfhood in Jacque Derrida’s Writing and Difference (1967), and the critique of the ideological binary of selfhood and desire suggested by Slavoj ŽiŽek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989).




Literary tradition and much previous scholarship hold that Boethius’ early sixth century De Consolatione Philosophiae served as the inspiration and structural prototype for the medieval consolatio genre, [1] vernacular narratives wherein a protagonist laments a tragic state of ill fortune and gradually comes to some understanding of how such sorrow can be remedied through religious devotion, philosophical transformation, or personal action, typically in conjunction with a therapeutic dialogue or the receipt of guidance from an oracular parent, spiritual guide, or allegorical authority figure.  While there is certainly a great deal of variance with which Boethius’ text served as a model for a wide variety of consolatory narratives, we may accept that Boethius’ Consolatione was “for centuries one of the most influential books ever written” (Lewis 75), that the multiplicity of poems of consolation produced during the European Middle Ages in some manner participated in a genre of writing concerned with transience, loss, and consolation, and that “the model behind this genre is Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy” (Peck xi).  In general, the intellectual produce of this genre includes the thematic and structural foundation for lyrics lamenting the transience of temporal pleasures, dialogues investigating abstract concepts of love, piety, or providence in the temporal world, and the poetic testaments of those disenfranchised, bereaved, and imprisoned narrators of medieval literature who sought to give voice to their betrayal and abandonment by the fickle goddess Fortune.

That Boethius himself appears to have had good reason for penning a text that seeks to generate consolation for individuals who are victims of ill fortune is clear to be seen from what little we know about his life,[2] but the following essay does not concern itself with the relationship between intellectual biography and literary creation—although a pattern of autobiographical inspiration seems to have replicated itself in some of Boethius’ translators and emulators.[3]  However, our concern in the argument presented below is the degree to which Boethius’ text functioned as a template for successive attempts at the critique of transience and consolation of afflicted individuals, and the rhetorical and thematic manifestations of Boethius’ influence in successive generations.  More specifically, the following essay suggests that one of the key influential elements of Boethius’ text was the rhetorical dynamics of his opening lament and its application of concrete depictions of physical and emotional suffering in relation to social frameworks for emotive expression.  This rhetorical method of characterization is both manifested and altered in the curious departure found in the Old English Wanderer, particularly in that poem’s imagery and diction, and the Wanderer-Poet’s apparent need to both express and repress the emotional qualities of his narrator’s sorrow through modalities of selfhood while simultaneously embracing a rhetoric of subjective experience and subverting the very presence of self.  As a Boethian text, Wanderer replaces Boethius’ prisoner with a conflicted, subjective narrator whose emotional testament is subverted by an ideology of socially sanctioned repressive behavior and substitutes the realigning focus of religious values aimed at the disruption of subjective, emotional experience.

The social historian Will Durant (1950) once described the civilizing and normative effects of the religious ideation of the medieval church as an attempt to instill order “amid the wreckage of an old civilization and the passions of an adolescent society” (818), and as such, viewed the intellectual tendencies of the European Middle Ages as the great adolescence of the western mind.  Indeed, in the undergraduate survey course, this notion is still very much in its ascendancy, with the medieval period characterized as an interim between the so-called Dark Ages and the “coming of age” embodied in the Renaissance—or Renaissances–Northumbrian, Carolingian, Twelfth Century, or Florentine, as the case may be.  This notion of an adolescent society is evocative, but also inaccurate and reductionist, relegating nearly a millennium of human intellectual history to a vast waiting room constructed in anticipation of a more palatable world view.  However, the spirit of the statement does suggest something meaningful about the so-called middle ground in European cultural history; a world view comprising an odd conglomeration of attitudes, simultaneously superstitious and rational, diagrammatic and perspectival, dogmatic and dissenting, symbolic and literal.  If it is indicative of a psychological stage, it is very likely that the Western World has not yet matured beyond it.  Twentieth century literary  and social criticism has offered general studies attempting to clarify the shifting mind set of the Middle Ages,[4] but scholarly studies of the medieval world view as a paradigmatic attitude or as symptomatic of a diagnosable psychological state are nonetheless few and far between—and rightfully so.  A cultural ethos cannot be reduced to a particular psychological state, even when patterns of collective mental behavior accumulate to suggest the zeitgeist of a particular epoch; consistency of pattern is simply not enough, as Paolo Cherchi has noted in his Tradition and Topoi in Medieval Literature (1976),

We have grown skeptical about the great syntheses that explain everything but really do not explain enough of anything; we are constantly warned against the delusion of all diachronic investigations which aspire to an explanation of the genesis of a phenomenon; we are always keen to consider the event rather than the duration.  And if we look specifically at a literary work, the problems are even more conspicuous since one of the assumptions in judging a work of art is its unrepeatable originality that no tradition can explain. (282)

There is, to be sure, no shortage of skepticism in the archaeology of ideas, especially in response to those subjective projections of culture and ideology which attempt to inject meaning into the patterned produce of the early mind—and rightfully so.  Yet the patterns persist–though questions still remain as to whether these patterns are the product of coincidences in artistic expression in general, attempts to address the limitations of recurring themes in human experience, the result of encoded methods of structuring thought and communicating ideas, or conscious participation in a particular genre of narrative.  That Boethius is consciously working within a pre-existing tradition of consolatory literature is clear, [5] and that he is also altering and augmenting that tradition to suit his own intellectual and artistic purposes is also evident,[6] and therefore we must ask whether his composition was shaped more by the consolatory effect of his work or the rhetorical pieces he used to structure his narrative.  In much the same spirit of inquiry suggested by Hans Robert Jauss (1970), our understanding of Boethius’ role as participant in genre, reactive creator, and influencer of later writing, hinges upon the consideration of actual choices he made in the composition of his text,[7] in order to thereby comprehend the ways in which he may shape the works of later writers, as well as to determine the degree to which such patterns of influence are actually more dependent on general intellectual environment and coincidental parallels masquerading as literary genre.  Of greatest importance is the possibility that rhetorical strategies, cultural ethos, and individual psychology may serve as formative elements of composition and motivators for conscious participation in a literary genre.

The idea of genre, of a systematic view of the categorization of art, is certainly part of the surface experience of much of the literature produced in early Europe, and especially during the Middle Ages, where the artist-intellectual “was an organiser, a codefier, a builder of systems” (Lewis 10).  As such, the notion of source and convention were ever present in the medieval writer’s “ingrained belief in authority and tradition” (Moorman 35), and yet the medieval appropriation of tradition and source does manifest every shade of variance in regard to versions of a type.  In reality, the dominance and authority of genre, tradition, and convention served the medieval writer as an open gate through which one entered into a realm that validated both the authority and the originality of a text, and while a “work enters into literature and takes on its own literary function through this dominant” (Tynyanov 753), medieval authors utilized sources, “even though that authority might be wholly fictional” (Moorman 35-6), as part of a process which allowed the author to “exploit the logic of exegetical supplementation to recontextualize their sources” (Copeland 95) and, thereby, to supplement the possibilities and expectations of literary patterns themselves.    Therefore, while no work of art can be reduced to its supposed sources, context, or authorial intention, a consideration of such aspects of a given work can shed light on what makes the work unique and unrepeatable, as well as the product of its parent culture.

Our key to such a consideration is to clarify the influence of Classical rhetoric on possible choices Boethius may have made in the composition of his De Consolatione Philosophiae, and especially the rhetorical dynamics of the lamentation with which he opens his text.  While previous scholarship argues the degree to which Boethius’ text occupies or resists generic classification,[8] it is clear that Boethius shows similarities to themes and structures manifested in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern thought on the subject and representation of loss and bereavement,[9] and here we may note general examples as widely ranging as the Hebrew II Esdras, anonymous Egyptian lamentation poetry, the tragic dialogue between Achilles and his river-goddess Mother Thetis in Book I Homer’s Iliad, and much of the first person lamentation produced by St. Augustine in his Confessions.   Boethius’ own opening meter for Book I of his Consolatione reflects some of the features of these traditional laments and elegiac poetic modes,[10] and may even draw inspiration and structural directives from traditional and classical funerary oration and the pathos found in some types of Classical formal address.  Within the discipline of Classical rhetoric, Boethius’ lament in Book I, Meter I, may be classified as a branch of the argumentum ad populum aimed at appealing to the emotions of one’s audience (Horner 213), typically by representing the “feelings” of the orator (D’Angelo 204), and which Aristotle termed as pathos and categorized among the three rhetorical proofs of ethos, pathos, and logos (Crowley and Hawhee 8).  In Book III, chapter 7 of his Rhetorica, Aristotle stresses the role of balance and appropriateness in the application of pathos, noting that “you will employ the language of…humiliation for a tale of pity” (129), which aptly describes the tone of Boethius’ opening lament.  While George Kennedy (1999) argues persuasively that Boethius was not familiar with Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric (Kennedy 202-03), we argue that section 14 of Aristotle’s Poetica replicates many of the ideas on pathos discussed in his Rhetorica, and the Poetica’s ideas on the application of pathos (58-60) may be a source from which Boethius might have extrapolated the rhetorical exploitation of emotion through a first person speaker.  Additionally, as the work of Ernst Curtius (1953) has exhaustive illustrated, the presence of pathos in Latin narrative and dramatic poetry, as well as the influence had upon on European literature by oratorical examples found in the works of Cicero (Curtius 64-8), indicate a broader possible area of effect from which Boethius could have developed his inspiration for his opening lament.  Finally, while it is clear that Boethius’ influences could have been Greek, Roman, Biblical, or a combination thereof, we cannot ignore the possibility that his rhetoric may also have been influenced by traditional “songs” and genre of song, or performative or declarative literatures as yet unrecorded by history.


While the accessibility of Boethius’ approach and ideas are surely important to its influence over the centuries, its power as a narrative can be found in the interplay of the concrete details of his method of characterization and the intellectual structure and evocative power embodied in his use of imagery and dialogue.  In writing his Consolatione, as V. E. Watts notes,

Boethius was attempting something other than a formal philosophical treatise.  In the confines of prison he was no longer concerned with the minute details and technicalities of argument, but with the consolation to be gained from a broad and general philosophical meditation (Watts 8).

Chief of all Boethius’ general approaches to his subject and methods for engaging his reader, the emotive quality of the Prisoner’s lament is what made Boethius’ intellectual project so powerful and affective.  While the pattern of inquiry in Boethius’ text is structured and rigorous, it is at its heart a personal and profound psychological monologue of an individual who has fallen from a position of prosperity and importance to social exile and confinement, physical deterioration, mental debility, and emotional depression.  To use a modern compositional term, Boethius’ opening lament is the “hook” which draws his reader into the text, and as such, its emotive and empathetic nature should be viewed as a key organizing principle of the entire text.  The organizing principle for the characterization of Boethius’ protagonist may be found in his opening verses, Book 1, meter 1, where we are introduced to his first person narrator–we will call him the Prisoner–alone in his cell and bemoaning his sorry fate:

Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi,

Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos.

Ecce mihi lacerae dictant scribenda Camenae

Et ueris elegi fletibus ora rigant.

Has saltem nullus potuit peruincere terror,

Ne nostrum comites prosequerentur iter.

Gloria felicis olim uiridisque iuuentae,

Solantur maesti nunc mea fata senis.

Uenit enim properata malis inopina senectus

Et dolor aetatem iussit inesse suam.

Intempestiui funduntur uertice cani

Et tremit effeto corpore laxa cutis.

Mors hominum felix, quae se nec dulcibus annis

Inserit et maestis saepe uocata uenit.

Eheu, quam surda miseros auertitur aure

Et flentes oculos claudere saeua negat!

Dum leuibus male fida bonis fortuna faueret

Paene caput tristis merserat hora meum;

Nunc quia fallacem mutauit nubila uultum

Protrahit ingratas impia uita moras.

Quid me felicem totiens iactastis, amici?

Qui cecidit, stabili non erat ille gradu. (Book 1, Meter 1, Lines 1-22)

[“I used to compose lyrics with lovely images,

And now, tearfully, I am compelled to scribble sorrowful verses.

The tattered muses now dictate elegies to me,

And my face runs wet with tears.

There is nothing so frightening that it would prevent

My sad companions from joining me in these pathetic moments.

Once there was a time when I was young and happy;

Now these bitter muses are my only company

During the daily sorrows of my old age.

My loss of youth came as a wicked surprise

And entered my life with sorrow and evil.

My hair grows gray more and more every day;

My sagging skin covers my weak and crippled body.

To live in such sorrow makes the thought of death

A welcome thing, but, sadly, Death ignores my pleas—

Deaf ears to my cries—and does not close my crying eyes.

As a fool, I put all my trust in Lady Fortune and the empty gifts

She promised, and now my mind is overturned—

Bright days have suddenly changed to dark clouds

And my life spins on torturously.

My former friends, why did you think me fortunate?

Anyone who tumbles from grace was never secure to begin with! “][11]

            The lamentation quoted above, with which Boethius’ Prisoner begins the narrative of his philosophical rebirth under the instruction of his old nurse, Lady Philosophy, reads like a road map to the entire complaint of his Consolatione, as well as a guide to its chief literary devices used to represent transience—most striking of all being the application of concrete imagery to depict the narrator’s physical, emotional, and psychological debility.  These physical details enable the text to physicalize its experiential landscape, thus providing the means to represent negative emotions and critique the inconstancy of temporal, worldly success.  The groundwork of the text’s extensive physical detail and carefully constructed  personifications, developed in the example above through reference to a face wet with tears, deaf ears, and Fortune’s shifting appearance evoked by changing clouds, permit Boethius to engage in the didactic analysis of transience in a manner which is immediate and purposeful to his readers.  These images in the opening lamentation, along with many others, make clear to the reader that they have entered a textual landscape of abstractions now made physical, and as such, it forces them to directly experience a realm of profound suffering.  The Prisoner’s lament creates a vivid portrait of an individual abandoned by both Fortune and friends, broken and wasted physically and emotionally.  He is spiritually debilitated to the point that he wishes for nothing more but death to end his suffering,

Mors hominum felix, quae se nec dulcibus annis

Inserit et maestis saepe uocata uenit.

Eheu, quam surda miseros auertitur aure

Et flentes oculos claudere saeua negat!” (Book 1, Meter 1, Lines 13-16)

[“To live in such sorrow makes the thought of death

A welcome thing, but, sadly, it ignores my pleas—

Deaf ears to my cries—and does not shut my crying eyes!”]

The Prisoner’s physical ailments are vivid.  He is surprised by the suddenness of his hair turning gray, the decay of his body, and loss of his strength; in each case his physical debility is caused by his sorrow, and his sorrow is the direct result of his shifting fortunes and ill luck:

Nunc quia fallacem mutauit nubila uultum

Protrahit ingratas impia uita moras.

Quid me felicem totiens iactastis, amici?

Qui cecidit, stabili non erat ille gradu.” (Book 1, Meter 1, Lines 19-22)

[“Bright days have suddenly changed to dark clouds

And my life spins on torturously.

My former friends, why did you think me fortunate?

All who topple from grace were never secure to begin with!”]

This final portion of the opening lament makes clear the relationship between the Prisoner’s loss, his debilitated state, and the general pattern of transience which shapes the downfall of all human beings who foolishly put their trust in the fickle ways of Lady Fortune.  From the standpoint of characterization, we can reduce the opening lament to a simple pattern of physical imagery depicting a debilitated body and advanced age, the unceasing emotions of sorrow, surprise, and their accompanying death wish, and the overarching blame placed on Fortune—specifically as embodied in fleeting worldly success, wealth, health, and youth.   The Prisoner’s participation in Philosophy’s curative dialogue serves as an opportunity for his mental deterioration to be vividly portrayed.  Through the use of the medical metaphor and the theme of exile, Boethius creates a narrative of emotional force, concrete detail, and philosophical clarity.  At all times he uses these themes to develop the idea that temporal appearances, clouded perceptions, and a distrust of the intuitive “inward light” leave the individual physically broken, mentally confused, and alone in an internal wilderness of his own creation.


Boethius development of the theme of transience has been frequently cited as a general inspiration to several Old English poems which deal with the theme of transience in relation to the patterns of loss associated with heroic endeavors and temporal, worldly fortunes —such as Seafarer, Wife’s Lament, Vainglory, The Ruin, The Fates of Men, The Wanderer, and The epic Beowulf itself—but Boethius’ opening to his Consolatione specifically appears to have inspired the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet who composed the lament of transience and loss in Old English known as Wanderer.  If we accept a date of composition for Wanderer as sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries,[12] and allow rough dates of composition from the ninth to mid tenth centuries for both the prose and metered versions of the Old English Alfredian Consolatione, then it is a matter of argument as to whether the Wanderer-Poet was influenced through direct contact with a copy of Boethius’ Latin text or was in some way connected with the intellectual environment which produced the Old English translations and adaptations of Boethius attributed to King Alfred.  Either way–and although obviously removed from Boethius’ Consolatione by linguistic, historical, and cultural differences–previous scholarship has noted that the Old English Wanderer demonstrates some generic connection to Boethius’ narrative.  While Stanley B. Greenfield (1989) famously referred to The Wanderer as a “negative de Consolatione” (141), indicating that the intellectual goals of the Old English poem are aimed at stating the nature of transience but not engaging in a Boethian solution to the problem, F. N. M. Diekstra (1971) noted  specific and broad-ranging analogues, proposing parallels for Wanderer with Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, as well as additional influence from classical and early and medieval Christian writings, and the work of Cicero, Ambrose, Augustine, Isidore, and Alcuin (75).  Additionally, the argument for a connection between the two texts is accepted by Clark and Wassermen (1979), Paul de Lacy (1998), and lastly Ewa Kurek (2011), who sees “The concept of wisdom brought from suffering [in Wanderer] resembles the one given by…Boethius’ in De consolation philosophiae” (68).  However, Paul Langeslag (2008) quite rightly reminds us that the “opinion is widespread that both The Wanderer and Deor fit the description “Boethian consolation,” although it is not always explicated whether the Boethian resemblance in this genre is accidental or the result of formative influence” (206).  While our present purposes consider the structure and imagery of Wanderer within the generic context of Boethius’ work, it is important to never lose sight of the degree to which transience was a central thematic fixture of much Old English literature, drawn very likely from that culture’s continental Germanic and various Scandinavian roots, and the fatalistically bleak cultural world view that has been constructed as a stereotype for Anglo-Saxon culture. What should be clear upon comparing Wanderer with De Consolatione Philosophiae is that Wanderer represents the structural and thematic dynamics of Boethius’ opening lament, while also emulating Boethius’ characterization of his Prisoner Narrator and use of decay, hopelessness, and confinement.

From a structural standpoint, our interpretation of Wanderer relies on some concessions about the way the poem “works,” how its narrative is framed, and its sense of voice and audience.  We must take as a given the idea that lines 1-7 of the poem function as an introduction to what is essentially a sequence of reported speech, in the form of a monologue, which is then concluded by a Christian, moralizing statement from the “reporter,” which comprises lines 111-115.  Between these two sections, lines 37-48 of the poem function as an internal descriptive narrative example, delivered by the “monologist,” and designed to illustrate the sorrow of a prototypical exiled Anglo-Saxon retainer.  As such, this sequence quarantines and displaces the central emotional experience of the text within the reported speech of the monologist, freeing the reporter—and thereby the reader or audience–from any direct experience in the centrality of the text.  In support of this dynamic, the qualification created by the Prologue and Epilogue are important to the ideas of repression and the religious reflex which shape our reception of the text’s primary theme and mode of communication.  Ultimately, the Prologue’s use of the reported speech of the Monologist, and the Monologist’s use of an internal narrative example, indicate a process of expression that is actually excision, in that the collective discourse of the poem uses layers of voice and narrative to create distance between the tragic state of loss and the first person “I” of the poem; this is displacement and, in a very real sense, the excision—the cutting out—of the conscious emotional reaction to loss.

            On the surface, the content of the central monologue of The Wanderer develops two distinct but related thematic issues; one, the emotionally and psychologically painful depression resulting from the loss, bereavement, and/or disenfranchisement of the Monologist and the subject of the internal narrative example developed in lines 37-48, and the second issue being the tension created by the necessity of an emotive confession of loss and sorrow which must be repressed in response to a social context which characterizes as unseemly such emotional expression against expectations of stoic fortitude on the part of afflicted males.  The poem’s speaker creates a context for his utterances wherein those utterances are inappropriate—because real men don’t whine and process their emotions aloud—and unnecessary—because Christianity’s promise of an otherworldly reward makes temporal struggle both inevitable as part of the struggle towards grace and meaningless within the providential nature of revelatory history.   The Monologist both expresses and represses such feelings, while simultaneously acknowledging the inappropriateness of his revelations of sorrow and insecurity.

            Like many Old English elegies, The Wanderer “contrasts the sorrow of the present with past happiness, dwelling upon the transience of life’s pleasures and the fallaciousness of its security” (Grose and McKenna 93).  Specifically, Wanderer develops the theme of transience as it “tells the story of an exile” (Crosslet-Holland 106), and like Boethius use of the confined protagonist in the prison, employs the concrete imagery of a solitary and lonely man, wandering on an icy sea:

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,

wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre:
“Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan.”[13]

(Lines 1-9)

[Often, the Wanderer, the tired exile,

Though aware of God’s mercy and love,

Struggles sadly on the freezing waves,

Alone and helpless, a refugee from his Fate!

The Wanderer, deep in his own misery,

Friendless, and torn by ill Fortune

Chants aloud:

“Time and again, at the rising of the sun,

At the breaking of the day,

I sing of my misfortunes.”]

            The narrator describes the Wanderer as “wandan wraeclastas,” literally “travel[s] exile-pathways,” and in lines 20b as “eðle bidӕled,” “deprived of home.”  It is easy to simply identify the character’s exile as the sort typical to outlaws in Anglo-Saxon society, “the greatest misfortune [being a warrior’s]…separation from the comitatus” (Ogilvy and Baker 100), or Anglo-Saxon war band, though the grounds for comparison is clearly a possibility.[14]  The exiled character depicted in Wanderer is an individual whose experience of isolation is a form of spiritual and psychological exile, of emotional and physical loss, which occurs only after the comforts of the temporal world have vanished.

            Because of The Wanderer’s relative brevity, the density of its poetic structure, as well as its compounded imagery, the relationship between the theme of transience and its method of characterization are therefore concentrated and centralized within its monologue portion.  The choices of diction are indicative of this; the poet’s use of terms, such as “wintercearig” (line 24), the Wanderer’s “[mental state of] wintery desolation,” links the character’s mental state to the setting of the icy sea on which he travels; both the man and the boat are enveloped by their environment and permeated by it.  Unlike the Old English The Seafarer, contained in the Exeter Book and often paired with Wanderer in discussions of the theme of transience, whose use of imagery of voyages across water as a symbol of a “pilgrimage where all human ties are forsaken for the love of God” (Wrenn 148), Wanderer’s depiction of movement through a cold, dark, ocean serves as the formative principle for the Monologist’s experience of suffering and loneliness throughout the majority of the poem.  Indeed, the comparison to the Prisoner in Boethius’ Consolatione provides more intrinsic parallels than does Wanderer’s fellow Anglo-Saxon elegy Seafarer.  Like Boethius’ narrator, whose experience of a wholly spiritual form of exile is followed by a realization of emotional and physical loss only after his previous worldly comforts have vanished, Wanderer’s Monologist encounters exile as something intrinsically linked to the very nature of worldly riches, though albeit precipitated by the loss of those riches.  Following his downfall, he finds himself “warað hine wrӕclast, nales wunden gold” (line 32) [obsessed with the ways of the exile, not (with) twisted gold (ornaments)].  Furthermore, the degradation and decay that characterize his present state are transformed through memory into lamentable portraits of things whose loss are marked by their absence:

Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,

frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
“Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!

Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.”

(Lines 88-96)

[“One who meditates on these crumbling ruins

And thinks deeply about the deepening darkness of this life,

Must dwell on old songs of warfare and warriors slaughtered,

And feel sorrow and depression deep in his heart:

‘Where is the soldier?

Where is the war steed?

Where is the gift sharing?

Where is the shared feast?’

The bright cup of mead, the armor-clad thane,

The glittering Prince—these are all vanished,

In the darkness of the past, as if they had never been.”]

Through the pattern of decay, description, acknowledgement of absence, and reference to memory, the Wanderer-Poet depicts both the cause and degree of the Monologist’s deteriorated and transformed persona.  Like Boethius’ “sagging skin [which] covers [his]…weak and crippled body” (line 13), the Wanderer’s identification with “the fallen physical world is intricately worked out in the body of the poem” (Lee 136), and more importantly, with the transience of Earthly pleasure reflected in the physical decay of the Monologist’s own physical body.  This is compounded by the Monologist’s relationship to the poem’s setting—icy, barren surroundings and a crumbling and empty world—reflecting through reference a portrait in negative of the man he once was.  The dissolution of transient comfort leaves only the desire for things no gone as the sole accompaniment to the Monologist who wanders in exile.

            Although we have made clear the relationship between the Wanderer’s Monologist and the setting of the barren sea as integral to the poem’s theme, the concept of the Boethian prison also haunts the Old English text.  In the ponderous statements occupying lines 9 through 26, the repression of sorrow is characterized by terms such as “fer locan” and “binde” (line 13), “healed” (line 14), and “feterum” (line 21), designating the restrictive “spirit-locker,” the need to “bind” and “hold [or guard],” and the desire to “[bind with] fetters [or chains].”   As Earl notes, the narrator of the Wanderer is a “lonely exile [who] portrays himself and the world in bondage” just as the “winter storm binds the earth in snow, and… the Wanderer is bound by sleep and sorrow together” (70).  In light of the role which memory plays in The Wanderer, it becomes clear that the repression of sorrow is more than an effort for the warrior to maintain a stoic attitude and manly decorum, as is implied in the poem’s final section, where the narrator returns to give larger meaning to the Monologist’s statements.  The suppression of sorrow enables the Narrator-Monologist—the two now blending at the text’s conclusion—to paradoxically cling to the stuff of memory.  But these memories, like the losses they memorialize, are reduced to little more than dreams, and the unfulfilled fantasies of a man in exile.  The text reminds us: ““Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,/her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,/eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!” (lines 108-10) [Here wealth fades, here friends fade, here man fades, here maids fade, and all this earth becomes an empty wilderness].  The splintered self—the “I” of the poem—embodied in the various interdependent layers of speech, inhabits a temporal plain which is also fragmented; the “her” [here] is not now, but a past which, in the very moment it is evoked, fades away.

Obviously, the Old English Wanderer, especially when set against the background of what we have established regarding Boethius’ Consolatione,   follows a narrative pattern which allows for expression and lamentation, “Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce/mine ceare cwiþan” [Time and again, at the rising of the sun,/At the breaking of the day,/I sing of my misfortunes] (lines 8-9).  However, the departure from Boethius’ model is in the Old English poem’s need to censure what it defines as inappropriate expressiveness, and this is done through ideological references to socially sanctioned repressive paradigms, primarily the inappropriateness of the speaker’s attempts to communicate his sorrows to his peers—if he had any peers remaining.  This condition is not just a product of his exiled and bereaved state, but because of the prohibition made clear in the opening of the monologue and in the poem’s final moralizing conclusion, at lines 9b through 14 and lines 112 through 115 respectively:

Nis nu cwicra nan 

þe ic him modsefan      minne durre
sweotule asecgan.      Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle      indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan      fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan,      hycge swa he wille.

(lines 9b-14)

[There is no living man

To whom I can unveil my heart, no surviving comrade.

I have learned that a true man may think what he wants,

But he must not speak [of his feelings]

And he must keep his thoughts to himself.]

And again,

Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ,      ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan,      nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman.      Wel bið þam þe him are seceð, 

frofre to fæder on heofonum,      þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð. 

(Lines 112-115)

[He must guard his truth,

And never reveal his heart too hastily, [not show] his sorrow,

But should seek satisfaction and happiness

In the mercy from our Heaven Father,

Our Sturdy Sanctuary.]

Finally, the prohibition against the communication of sorrow dovetails with the poem’s concluding religious proviso, suggesting that the transient nature of the temporal world is only remedied by the other worldly values of faith.  While finding solace in “frofre to fæder on heofonum,/þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð” suggests overt similarities to Boethius’ solution to the effects of transience, and we cannot lose sight of the degree to which the expressive quality of the narrator’s lamentation is shut down and repressed by this prohibition.

The Wanderer-Poet negates the very substance of the poem’s emotional connection created through the poem’s meditation on the nature of loss.  Isolating the Wanderer’s lament within a second tier narrative voice, quashing emotive expression through reference to its contradiction of manly behavior (“a true man may think what he wants,/But he must not speak [of his feelings]/And he must keep his thoughts to himself,” and that a man must “never reveal his heart too hastily, [not show] his sorrow”), and subverting the substance of the narrator’s loss with deference to the promise of satisfaction to the faithful in the next world, ultimately devalues the entirety of the poem’s lament and emotional content via the substitution of faith and a critique of secular value.

            It is easy for this last statement to deflate the narrative presence at the heart of the Wanderer, coming as it does after a protracted didactic attempt to analyze the nature of that sorrow, and negate the sensory faculties and excise the self at the center of all that suffering.  These confusing and seemingly counterproductive negations of the operative experience of these texts find analogues in modern critiques of self and the value of socially sanctioned narratives of suffering in Sigmund Freud’s Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through (1914) and The Unconscious (1915), as well as Jacque Derrida’s Writing and Difference (1967), and Slavoj ŽiŽek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989).

For Freud, the gradual unfolding of his theory of the unconscious mind required that he periodically wrestle with the question of degree in the primacy of mental and physical states of being (1915; 118), and most importantly of ideas of latency present in what is experienced as the make-up of the ego (Freud 1915; 119).  However, what Freud theorizes as the dynamic experience of selfhood—the conscious perception of experience– is itself a mode of accepted representation, a modeled process given tangible voice by individual observation of what appears to be a realm of experience beyond the immediacy of self and yet at the same time centered within the subjective mind and body.  Freud sees that our experience of the subjective “I” is extrapolated to give shape and substance to the assumed consciousness of the other (Freud 1915; 118-19), and in the primitive mind to project consciousness even onto totemic devices, but it is the unseen side of this construction which is important.  The process of validating the other is a playing out of wish fulfillment scenarios of selfhood—just as one may say “I read to remind myself I am not alone” is a thinly veiled attempt to say “Oh, I read that text and that text is me.”  The extrapolation of consciousness moves in both directions—creating the assumption of the other and the fiction of the self, with subjective physical sensation as the building block for both (Freud 1915; 121).  The utterer of the text and the audience of the text are each manufactured by the physicality of the utterance, as the gradual development of patterns of utterance give both an assumed legitimacy.  I feel this thing, and then some force outside of my experience gives me patterns of language to express it.  But those patterns are not “it” just as those patterns are not “I.”  The voices of Boethius and the Wanderer-Poet are products of rhetorical topoi and generic mimesis; these utterances are patterns masquerading as expression.   For Derrida, especially in relation to his thoughts on the use of force to maintain language’s social ability support sanctioned signification, the problem is not unique to the post-modern world–even in his discussion of the fall of the zeitgeist of Structuralism, Force and Signification:

the fact that universal thought, in all its domains, by all its pathways and despite all differences, should be receiving a formidable impulse from an anxiety about language—which can only be an anxiety of language, within language itself—is a strangely concerted development; and it is the nature of this development not to be able to display itself in its entirety as a spectacle for the historian, if, by chance, he were to attempt to recognize in it the sign of an epoch, the fashion of a season, or the symptom of a crisis. Whatever the poverty of our knowledge in this respect, it is certain that the question of the sign is itself more or less, or in any event something other, than a sign of the times.  (1-3)      

And yet, what we may determine to be an eternal and recurring vacuum at the heart of attempts to signify meaning—either as subjective, patterned experience, or the objective contextualization necessary for communal catharsis—does not appear to curtail individual participation in this pantomime of selfhood and aggrandized pain.  Boethius and the Wanderer-Poet are fed in some way by this learned, borrowed, stolen game.  As much as the process is an indicator of emptiness, this lie is embraced as the fundamental ideological tenet of selfhood, and as such, becomes the truth.   With one eye closed, the absorption of the self by ideology becomes a rapturous, monstrous home-coming, as Zizek notes: “the power of the spirit is precisely to progress from the ‘green’ immediacy of life to its ‘grey’ conceptual structure, and to reproduce in this reduced medium the essential determinations to which our immediate experience blinds us” (x).  This final notion, like slipping into slumber in the warm bath in which one has just opened his wrists, is the return of the effigy self from its painful hiatus in the bogus realm of faction, and into the warm embrace of oblivion.  At last, the lie has come to an end.

Thus, the project embodied in Boethius’ narrative, and the mimetic dance of his medieval children, is ultimately a shell game of modification through substitution—the replacement of Classical philosophical discourse with the centralized authority of Christian religious devotion, cultural paradigms,  and psychological censure—where expressive utterances are ultimately repressed and excised through dominant, socially formative pressure, and repetitive topoi of narrative layering coupled with prohibitive imagery.  The preceding explication of these texts within the context of such ideas of domination, pressure, and prohibition permits us to reiterate with even greater and immediate clarity the willful, self-imposed outrages committed against subjective experience in the cause of literature informed by social propaganda and psychological determinism.  In each case, the core experience related is occupied by what is ultimately a manufactured effigy, painstakingly described, whose pantomimed physical and psychological suffering is fetishized through emotive language, figurative analogues, metaphor, and then negated through a “talking cure” which sublimates feeling with religious fantasy, socially reactionary behavioral sanctions, or farcical philosophical posturing.  For The Wanderer, the narrator’s utterances are transformed into paradox and farce—Feel my pain, the afflicted says, but we know it will all be made well in heaven, so it is not pain, but birth pangs.  Feel my pain, but we know I shouldn’t be telling you this—and I am nonetheless telling you anyway.  Feel my pain, but let’s pretend that my intellectualized hallucinations permit me to rise above what these monsters do to my body and mind.  We will both agree to use my utterance to defer indefinitely my secret truth: I am not a child of God; I am not a stoic hero; I am a dead man walking in a wilderness of pain.


[1] For general studies of the topic, see Minnis, A. J. Ed. The Medieval Boethius: Studies in the Vernacular Translations of De Consolatione Philosophiae. (1987), Papahagi, Adrian. Boethiana Mediaevalia: A Collection of Studies on the Early Medieval Fortune of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (2010), while Robertson, D. W. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (1962), Miller, Robert P. Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds (1977), Swanton, Michael. English Poetry Before Chaucer (2002), and the introductory material in Russell A. Peck’s edition of Confessio Amantis (1980), which focuses on Boethius’ influence and development of the genre within medieval English literature especially.  While the consolatio genre is quite broad and includes a wide variety of permutations of this narrative pattern, we may generally identify a number of well-known examples in the Old English tradition, including the Wanderer, Seafarer, and Wife’s Lament, and within the Middle English tradition such poems and frame-tales as Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and (with greater subtlety and nuance) Parliament of Birds, The Gawain-Poet’s Pearl, Langland’s Piers Plowman, and a long list of shorter poems, such as the fifteenth-century Kings Quair and “Somer Sineday.”  For a fuller treatment of the relationship between these and other texts and Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, see Micheal H. Means book The Consolatio Genre in Medieval English Literature (1972), especially the distinctions he makes between “pure,” “fragmented,” “decayed,” and “divergent” forms of the consolatio genre throughout his study. 

[2] Born around 480 CE into an imperial Rome occupied by the armies who had sacked and usurped the authority of the empire, Boethius would eventually occupy the precarious role of a Roman bureaucrat within a Barbarian power structure so vast as to warrant an imperial history all its own.  With the passing of power from the conquering Visigoths in 408 CE to the Vandals in 455 CE to the charismatic Germanic mercenary, Odoacer, who crowned himself Patrician, the throne was eventually occupied by Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 493 CE.  Theodoric’s management style tended towards trying to keep as much Roman political and civic infrastructure intact as possible.  Procopius tells us, in his Secret History, that “when Theodoric had overrun Italy, he let the armed guard in the palace at Rome remain where it was, so that some trace of the ancient state might remain there” (Williamson 172).  Theodoric’s sense of expediency also left Rome’s “administrative machinery and intellectual activity…in great part untouched” (Knowles 51).  It was only natural that a talented Roman intellectual such as Boethius would be drawn into Theodoric’s orbit.  Boethius’ became Consul in 510 CE and then Master of Offices in 522 CE.  One year later he was in prison for allegedly engaging in treasonous correspondences with the Catholic court at Constantinople, and after living in prison and writing De Consolatione Philosophiae, he was tortured, strangled, and then bludgeoned to death.

[3] Just as Boethius’ experiences appear to have inspired his composition of De Consolatione Philosophiae, his chief English translators—King Alfred, Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth I–each had their experiences of exile, outlawed wandering, and imprisonment,  as did many of the authors deeply influenced by Boethius’ themes, such as Langland,  the author of Piers Plowman, and the imprisoned King James of Scotland, who penned the Kings Quair.

[4] Such as Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924), E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1959), C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rebelais and his World (1965), Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1965), and especially Georges Duby’s A History of Private Life (1988).

[5] See Joel C. Relihan’s The Prisoner’s Philosophy: Life and Death in Boethius’s Consolation (U of Notre Dame P, 2007), especially chapter four (47-58), which fixes Boethius’ work within the pre-existing Classical consolatio genre and discusses the degrees to which he deviates from it.

[6] As V. E. Watts notes, in the introductory matter to his translation of Boethius’ Consolation (Penguin 1969), Boethius’ grand intellectual project is really a pastiche of various pre-existing literary forms:

In form the Consolation belongs to the ancient genre of the consolation, a branch of the diatribe which in pagan Greece and Rome was especially the province of philosophy….But the Consolation is a skilled fusion of…Platonic dialogue [,]….the sacred dialogue, in which the author describes how some divine spirit…appears and reveals to him some portion of hidden wisdom[,]….and Menippean Satire—a form of composition, Greek in origin and later latinized, in which sections of prose alternate with verse (19-20).

More recently, Antonio Donato (2012), has produced an exhaustive review of the tradition of scholarship concerning the relationship of Boethius’ work to genre, noting that some scholars view the deviations of form as so extreme that “the Consolatio is not a consolation in spite of its title and overt goal” (1).  See Donato, Antonio. Boethius’s “Consolation of Philosophy” and the Greco-Roman Consolatory Tradition. Traditio, vol 67 (2012). 1-42.

[7] As Jauss states in his Literary History as a Challenge to Literary History (1967), “A renewal of literary history demands the removal of the prejudices of historical objectivism and the grounding of the traditional aesthetics of production and representation in an aesthetics of reception and influence. The historicity of literature rests not on an organization of “literary facts” that is established post festum, but rather on the preceding experience of the literary work by its readers” (9).

[8] See previous note on V. E.  Watts (19-20) and the work of Donato (2012) above.

[9] For general examples consult readings in Budge’s Egyptian Language, specifically the inscription for Pepi I, The Funeral Stele of Panhesi, and an inscription for Anebni.  Also consider related examples in Budge’s edition of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the general tone of texts in Coogan’s Stories From Ancient Canaan, and even Gilgamesh’s lament over the slain Enkidu in Sandars’ translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh.  For examples from the Hebrew tradition, the choice of the Book of Job will be obvious to most readers as an example of Early Hebrew lament literature, but consider also portions of Exodus and Leviticus, as well as the “prophetic” Lamentations.  In addition, the curious reader will find much of interest in Halper’s Post-Biblical Herbrew Literature.

[10] See Giffone, Benjamin. “The Timeless, Unifying Rhetoric,” OTE 25/3 (2012): 534-558, Lee, Nancy C. Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation. Minneapolis, MN:Fortress Press, 2010, Charney, David. “Maintaining Innocence Before a Divine Hearer: Deliberative Rhetoric in Psalm 22, Psalm 17, and Psalm 7.” Biblical Interpretation. 21 (2013) 33-63, Newlands, Carole. “Impersonating Hypsipyle: Statius’ Thebaid and Medieval Lament.” Dictynna: Revue de Poétique Latine, 10, (2013). 1-20, and Alexiou, Margaret. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. 2nd ed., Ed. Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

[11] The Latin text of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae reproduced here is based upon G. Weinberger’s edition (Vienna, 1935, volume 67) featured in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, and made available through James O’Donnell’s electronic version of the text hosted at Georgetown University.  Any editorial alterations to Book 1, Meter 1, have been suggested by the Loeb Classical Library edition [Volume 74] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973).  The Modern English translation of the Latin text is my own.

[12] See R. F. Leslie’s “Introduction” to his 1966 edition of The Wanderer, pages 46-48, (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1966.

[13] All quotations from the Old English text of The Wanderer are drawn from the Krapp and Dobbie edition of The Exeter Book contained in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. III (1936), pages 134-37.  My Modern English translations are included in brackets throughout the text of this essay where appropriate.

[14] Likewise, the exile is not to be read as the mythic form of exclusion normalized in the heroic treatment of the Cain and Abel episode in Anglo-Saxon Genesis A (lines 1020-21), or a mode of characterization typical to the monstrous exile, such as Beowulf’s Grendel, who is described as a “mӕre mearcstapa” (line 103), an entity who “steps outside of the marks [of a community],” outside the lines of demarcation of human, civil society.




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