Poetry in isolation

21st May 2020

News, Student news

Addressing aspects of living in lockdown, a group of first year Wadham English students have composed creative responses to the Old English poems they are studying. 

Inspired by Wadham Fellow Bernard O’Donoghue’s reimagining of The Wanderer in a 20th century setting, several students have chosen to translate these Early Medieval poems into a present-day context, addressing climate crisis or life in lockdown.

English Tutor Hannah Bailey commented: “Some have worked to retain aspects of the original metre or alliteration while others have embraced radical transformations of form.  Two of the students’ compositions are multi-media: Grace Spencer has ventured into photo-editing to combine text and image in her response to The Wanderer, while Dot Foster composed an original song inspired by The Battle of Maldon!"
The poems that inspired the compositions are The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood (p285), Wulf and Eadwacer, and The Battle of Maldon. 

The Social-distancer (from ll. 37-57 of The Wanderer) by Helen Woods

Therefore you know, you who must long forgo
the gossip of girlfriends,
quarantined as you are, in the quiet 
of sleep and sorrow.
It seems to you in your mind that you embrace
and kiss your friends, kick them under the table,
just as in days before you delighted
in the riches of ramen noodles,
the library at first light.
The alarm sounds and you wake, sullen girl,
to the fallow fields of bedsheets,
teabags bathing in dark mugs, stains feathering the desk,
post-it notes like hail, loose paper like ice and snow.

And though you prune it carefully, your panic-bought heart,
the sorrow always sprouts again.
Whenever the pixelated faces of friends appear on screen,
you greet them joyfully, give them a once-over,
     before they fade away after forty minutes.

Radio 2 does not raise many
familiar voices here. The sorrow always sprouts again
for you, still sending
your weary soul around the same paths in the park. 

ll. 45 – 51 of ‘The Wanderer’ (in lockdown) by Grace Spencer

  • Poetry in Lockdown

The Wanderer – Creative Response by Fox White

He who contemplates at the foot of the depth of this wall-stead
Grows dark as though night covers him over.
The reach of his thought is parodied by shade.


One, a bird carried off, over the high, deep sea.
Not he. Who feels the distance between altitude and marine-void
And knows how different cold tastes in the sky and the sea.

The floor was abandoned, suddenly.
It is now doubly retrospective to remember
Brave young retainers. So this middle-earth
Fails and falls each day.

Yet still here, to decay, is this wine-hall
Although its walls
Are so proudly enwound by serpentine forms
They are easier to see than they are to translate or comprehend.

Knotted walls and the textures of the body,
Like thoughts woven by different hands, stand as
Walls stand beaten by the wind 
Covered with rhyme: snow-covered the dwellings.

The Dream of Deforestation by Isobel Falk

Listen as I tell of a terrifying sight
that I dreamed in darkness
while those who should speak remained in sleep.

I thought I saw before me a blazing tree
over a barren ground, bound up in its own light:
a blinding brightness. The flames of that beacon were like
a sheet of gilding. Embers showered like a hail of jewels
discarded over the earth. I watched birds die beautifully,
wings radiant with fire. Not for its own sake
did that tree burn, but we all beheld it. 
Glorious was the fire and I was stained with guilt,
fatally culpable. I saw the tree of fury
dress itself in death,
adorned with fumes and ash.
However I, through the inferno, could see
the tree’s former greenery that long ago
had sprouted from its sides. I was bitten with sorrow,
afraid of that beauty. Before me I saw
the tree dress and undress in death and life:
sometimes it was alive with birdsong, sometimes alight with burning.
However, I, lying unmoving for a long while, heard,
as I watched the wildfire, it speak these words.
It began, that brightest tinder:
‘It was long ago, but I still remember
when I was cut from the edge of the forest,
made homeless. Strange men dismembered me,
burnt my limbs to powder, ordered that I should be lifted
out of the ground. I saw the green earth tremble
as it was left naked. I could no longer stand;
I fainted to dust. The wind bore me to the edge of the world.’


Wulf and Eadwacer (after the Old English) by Calum Taylor

Listen as I tell of a terrifying sight
that I dreamed in darkness
At times, it feels like our household is lucky
though I know he’ll suffer if they come too close.
    It’s different with us.

You’re in one place, I’m in another
and it’s safe here, swamped by nothing.
Lawmen walk empty streets
ready to disperse anything, anyone—
    but like I said: it’s different with us.

In these slow, hope-ridden days, I have thought of you.
When it rained, I sat here crying
while the hostile news drowned me.
It pains me, yes, but I need it.

Wulf, oh Wulf! I dream about you
and it starves me, this absence that
empties my heart; I lack everything but food.
Just take heed, Eadwacer, take heed of our cub
as they drive him away, a wolf to the woods.

In all cases, I guess, the poorly-assembled soon falls apart…
and then this, the story of us.

Wulf’s Lover by Ruth Thrush

It’s as if someone gave them a gift,
     If he is alone, he is prepared:
     For us, things are different.

Wulf and I, we were islands,
Islands that are prisons, prisons that are swamps,
Islands where there are men in all their rawness.
     If he is alone, he is prepared:
     For us, things are different.

I cannot walk far enough; Wulf persists.
When it rained, I cried,
Then it was the bold embrace of wars.
How I loathed my love!

Wulf, my Wulf! My want for you
Made me sick. Your unfamiliarity,
Sensible spirit, lack of hunger—

Do you understand, Watchman? A wolf carries
Our vile cub into the wood.
That which was never whole is easy to tear apart:
Think of our shared song.

A Musical Interpretation of 'The Battle of Maldon' – ‘We’re Gonna Fight the Vikings’ by Dot Foster

Verse 1:
Have you heard sailor, what these people say?
Telling lies right to my face.
Can’t you see warrior, what stands in my way?
My Lord Æthelred won’t stand for this disgrace.
He was stood by the river, smile on his face,
I could see cunning in his eyes, when he looked my way
He said ‘Take our war-price, we offer this in faith – 
Money for your lives, it’s a fair exchange.’

Listen live: Scarlet Healy

Everyone listened when Byrhtnoth spoke
But not everyone did as they were told 
There wasn’t fear for the brave and bold
Oh! We’re gonna fight the Vikings. 

Verse 2:
The Viking fell to his knees, refusing to stand,
Said he begged only for safe passage through the land.
He said if we’re going to fight, let it be fair – 
After all, you are stronger, so what do you care?
Byrhtnoth was eager, he fell for the trap,
Young warriors slain, too slow to attack.
The river ran red with the warriors’ blood,
I saw my Lord’s head up-tilted, praying to God.


Verse 3:
While Bryhtnoth looked up to the heavens above,
His men gave up lives in a labour of love,
Our lord was cut down, lying trampled in the mud,
We would not surrender, we would gladly spill our blood,
There were cowards who fled in shame from the fight,
But others who ran to embrace the sword’s bite,
The keener the heart, the greater the mind,
I will lay down my life, leave my body behind. 


Godric and Godwine and Godwig,
The three brothers fled as traitors,
If it weren’t for these cowards and betrayers,
God could have answered our prayers, 
Given us back our years,
No war widow would have shed a tear,
If Byrhtnoth had covered his pride,
And those cowards hadn’t run and hide.

Verse 4:
Have you heard sailor, what these people say?
So many lives were lost at Maldon that day.
What can I do with this remorse and pain?
To have my brave friends remembered again?
I will write a poem, to immortalise their names,
To honour their lives, their bravery by fame.