Ubi Sunt in Old English

The Ubi Sunt sensibility hovers throughout Old English poetry but only in The Wanderer (92-96) does it take a form  – and rhetorical refrain – so close to the more familiar neiges d’antan of Villon.

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.


Where has the horse gone? Where the warrior? Where the treasure?

Where the seats of feasts? Where are the hall joys?

Oh, the bright cup! Oh, the mailed warrior!

Oh, the prince’s glory! How that time departed,

grew dark under the night helmet as if it hadn’t been

(tr. Robert E. Bjork)


Tolkien lends a modified version of these lines to Aragorn in the Two Towers as he speaks of Rohan – “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?”

Fate of the mead-mad man

From the Old English poem, Fortunes of Mortals (translated Robert E. Bjork)

Sum sceal on beore     þurh byreles hond
meodugal mæcga;     þonne he gemet ne con
gemearcian his muþe     mode sine,
ac sceal ful earmlice     ealdre linnan,
dreogan dryhtenbealo     dreamum biscyred,
ond hine to sylfcwale     secgas nemnað,
mænað mid muþe     meodugales gedrinc. (51-57)

One through beer from the cupbearer’s hand will
become a mead-mad man; then he will know no measure,
will not give boundary to his mouth with his mind,

but he must very wretchedly yield up his life,
endure great misfortune bereft of joys,
and people will say he killed himself, well decry
the drinking of the mead-mad man with their mouths
Meodugal – here alliteratively rendered mead-mad – is a compound of mead (meodu) and an adjective (gal) defined with the Latin equivalent luxuriosus (immoderate, wanton, self-indulgent).  The root of that adjective is the same that yields geil (lit. horny) in modern german, and I can’t help wanting break the alliteration in favor of the anachronistic ‘mead-horny’ – on parallel with the similar split in sense of French-derived ‘besotted’ (‘madly impassioned for’ and ‘drunk’)
It’s a shame Malcolm Lowry never worked this passage into Under the Volvano as fortune of the mezcal-mad man