Ubi-Sunt Poetic Verse in Beowulf and The Wanderer
Ubi sunt, literally meaning, “where are?” in Latin, is also the name of a verse form traditionally used in Old English poetry. In the Ubi-sunt poetic form, a narrator asks a series of questions that tend to take the form “Where are the ____ of yesterday?” or “Where has the _____gone?”
The most commonly cited example of this verse form is the poem “The Wanderer.” While not adhering as strictly to the form outlined in “The Wanderer,” the passage commonly referred to as the “Lament of the Last Survivor” in the alliterative epic “Beowulf is also a good example of Ubi-Sunt. The underlying feature of all Ubi-Sunt poetry is an expression of loss for bygone days, and a reflection on the transitory nature of existence.
The Decline of Heroism
“Beowulf “ is a work that celebrates elements of Germanic culture, specifically the Heroic ideals of comitatus (fraternity), and seledream (“joy of the hall”). Taking place in a time period centuries before its estimated publication, in a region far from its English audience, the epic poem is often interpreted as a tribute to a bygone era.
While “Beowulf” seeks to glorify Germanic Heroism, there are indications that this “glorious” age is waning. The “Lament of the Last Survivor” depicts not only the culture of Heroism, with it’s emphasis on comitatus and seledream, but begs the question of what remains in the wake of the loss of these ideals. Each poem provides a different perspective, the speaker in "Lament" is the lord who has lost his men, while the narrator of "The Wanderer" is a man who has lost his king and his fellows.
“I am left with nobody to bear a sword or to burnish plated goblets, put a sheen on the cup,” says the narrator, a lord, in “Lament.” “The companies have departed.” This is not a lament at a mere lack of servants to undertake in menial household duties, but rather a bewail at the loss of comitatus, or form of kinship between the lord and the thanes.
It was the thanes who guarded, protected, and fought for the lord in peace or war, even to the point of death, which was common in those days. Comitatus is a feature of Germanic Heroism in which the lord’s men would live, breath, and die for the lord; these are the “companies” of whom the lord of “Lament” refers to when he speaks of “…honorable men. My own people.” The mention of the lord’s men as sword-bearers and goblet-burnishers also speaks to the role of the lord within this relationship, that of a “giver of treasure,” as the Wanderer, a former thane, describes his own lost lord.
This relationship between “treasure-giver” and thane is one based on more than the simple bestowing and receiving of material possession. A deep significance is attached to the idea of comitatus, one of mutual reverence and respect. Just as the Wanderer is left “wretched,” to “travel most sorrowfully,” at the loss of his “gold-friend,” so too is the lord “deprived of joy” at the loss of his men. This is why the lord of the “Lament” is so unhappy as he deposits his treasures into the barrow; there is no joy for him in either the treasure, or in life, without men to share the joys of the bounty with.
The concept of seledream is vital to understanding this unhappiness. In a life that was often hostile, violent, and unforgiving, the comfort of the hall provided a much-needed respite from conflict and bloodshed. Within the hall was to be found physical comforts, feasting, the drinking of mead, entertainment, and camaraderie.
Seledream is to the Wanderer “seats at the feast…revels in the hall…the bright cup….the mailed warrior…the beloved troop.” For the lord of “Lament” the “sweet life of the hall” is a “trembling harp…tuned timber…tumbling hawk swerving.” The hall essentially represented all that was good in a world of strife, without it, and the comitatus, both the lord and his thanes were left lacking meaning, purpose, and reward in life and it’s pursuits.
Emptiness and Loss
The lord of “Lament” has kept his gold but lost his men, rendering the treasure useless. In homiletic fashion, he warns, “Pillage and slaughter have emptied the earth of entire people’s.” It is this emptiness that leads to the lament. Though the Ubi-Sunt topos of “Where has” is not present, it remains almost unspoken.
“The companies have departed. The hard helmet, hasped with gold, will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps; the coat of mail that came through all fights, through shield-collapse and cut of sword, decays with the warrior.” We are made aware that these things are gone, stripped, sleeping, decayed; yet these are generalized notions.
It is a similar intonation to the famous Ubi-Sunt passage of the Wanderer, which asks:
Where is the horse gone?
Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
The underlying importance of the Ubi-Sunt topos is a sense of loss, as well as a wailing or lament for these lost things. This comes through especially in the repeated phrase “Where is/where are,” creating a rhythmic quality similar to a cry of mourning. The query however signifies that no only is there an expression of grief in the lines, but also a question as to where this loss places the questioner in the broader schema.
At stake is more than a simple statement of absence, but a statement of the now disjointed relationship of the questioner to his environment and his surroundings, which both the Wanderer and the lord of “Lament” embody, though the lord does not engage in query but uses declarative statement. He has nonetheless lost his frame of reference, his anchor in the world, and is now set adrift, both figuratively in an internal state of mental exile resulting from a sense of alienation, as well as literally as actual exiles; the Wanderer, must “[travel] most sorrowfully over the frozen waves,” and the lord who also “moved about the world, deserted and alone.” Despite the lack of the actual Ubi-Sunt topos, “Lament” still employs the basic sentiment behind the form.
Though the theme of exile in both “Lament” and the Wanderer” hold much in common, it is however important to note one crucial difference. Although both characters are condemned to wander in exile and unhappiness about middle-earth until the time of their respective deaths; it appears to be only the Wanderer who ultimately finds a form of redemption in the promise of “consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.” This consolation is described at the ending of the poem, implying that there is some solace in replacing the lost mead hall with reward in Heaven.
Thus an element of heroic martyrdom has been introduced, the Wanderer’s new task is to endure his tribulations on earth with stoicism, “ to never speak his grief of his breast too quickly,” that he will thus be rewarded in the afterlife as he might have been rewarded in his previous one within the great hall. The lord of “Lament,” by contrast, wanders “lamenting his unhappiness day and night, until death’s flood brimmed up in his heart.” Though death has put an end to his suffering, there has been no sense of consolation while still alive that this will one day be the case.
If the “Lament” is meant to tell a tale that happened before the introduction of Christianity, then we see a sort of homiletic aspect to the poem when we consider the comparison to the more Christian elements that exist in other portions of the poem. The lord of “Lament” serves as comparison to Beowulf, who was at once a Germanic hero, and yet “pleasing to Him [God].” Beowulf was aided in his mission by the belief that he was doing “God’s work,” yet the lord of Lament had no such sense of divine purpose, which might have greatly alleviated the suffering of his heart.
The Underlying Question
It is this line of thinking that the actual Ubi-Sunt query, not simply the underlying sentiment, which impacts the work as a whole. The very notion of this questioning format implies by nature that some form of resolution be reached. The question is utilized as a means of comprehending a changing world, and interpreting the relation of the individual, society, and culture within this world that is rapidly transforming or broadening. While the “Lament” begins to ponder this theme, as the lord must find a way to cope (or not to cope) with his losses, the declarative format implies more of a sense of loss and lament than of a true effort to place events into context with a broader picture.
Thus despite the similarity, the common underlying themes, emotions, and events of the two works, the “Lament” must be considered elegiac to times past rather than as a fuller attempt at contextualizing the erosion of Heroic German culture through the loss of comitatus and seledream. Though there may be a homiletic aspect in the fact that the reader can infer meaning or knowledge from reading the lament, there is no epiphany of character; we do not witness the narrator or characters acquiring knowledge, wisdom, or redemption during the course of the work as in the more traditional Ubi-Sunt variation.
It is the Ubi-Sunt topos that picks up where the traditional elegiac prose of “Lament” leaves off, attempting to pose answers to questions that are only broached within the latter. The lament serves to address the issues as they exist currently, yet it is the Ubi-Sunt that moves towards a consideration of how these issues and themes will resound and translate into the future.