Sickness, loss, and death are a natural part of life that we continually confront over the course of our time on earth.  In modern culture, these cold realities of life are often shoved to the side.  We live in an age of abundant changes in technology, politics, and culture, where the underlying assumption is that most, if not all, of these changes are good.[1]  This assumption is the myth of progress, the idea that society will continue to improve indefinitely. Suffering poses a challenge to this progress, because it hints at an inherent brokenness that cannot be overcome by human hands.  Struggle and pain reveals the inescapability of morality.  Man has not always held our modern view of suffering and progress though.  The Anglo-Saxons, who lived during the Middle Ages, experienced the aftermath of the rise and fall of civilizations but did not seek to escape their present condition of frequent difficulty and disaster.  We see their perspective in the elegies, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Ruin,” as the poets lament over their struggles.  These Anglo-Saxon poems offer us a better perspective of struggle and the proper response to it, as it cultivates a knowledge of the transcendent.

The Anglo-Saxons lived in the British Isles from 410 AD to 1066 AD, and they conquered Britain by the end of 6th century.[2]  The Middle Ages were marked by a time of famine, disease, and violence, and the Anglo Saxons were specifically “devastated by violent disruption.”[3]  In 793 AD, the Vikings, coming from Norway, attacked monasteries and killed unarmed, helpless monks in eastern Scotland.  These attacks continued as the Vikings raided Anglo-Saxon cities and towns located along rivers and waterways.  As the Vikings destroyed villages, the Anglo-Saxons were left feeling insecure and vulnerable.[4]  By the end of the 800s, the Anglo-Saxons were pushed to the south of England.  In 1066, the Anglo-Saxon King Herald was defeated by the Norman King William at the Battle of Hastings, effectively ending the Anglo-Saxon period.[5]  The Anglo-Saxons’ wars against other tribes meant they were personally aware of pain, loss, struggle, and death.

The elegies are Anglo-Saxon poems that express deep lament over the struggles the people were facing.  One of these poems, “The Wanderer,” shares the personal experience of a warrior who is facing the death of his lord.   Experiencing grief, like facing the ocean waves in a winter storm, the wanderer cries, “sad at heart, cut off from my country, / far from my kinsmen, after, long ago, / dark clods of earth covered my gold-friend; / I left that place in wretchedness, / ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart.”[6]  As the wanderer details his struggles, we see the true heartache in his soul, as he is willing to face suffering head on.  In the Anglo-Saxon perspective, there is a recognition that suffering is a part of reality, that this “fate is inflexible.”[7]  There is an acceptance that suffering is part of what it means to be human.  In modern culture today, instead of living in the pain for a while, we work harder to prevent this pain from happening again. We may even attempt to numb the pain from the beginning.  For some, there is a continual striving for complete happiness, assuming that it is possible to reach a state of perfect happiness where there are no longer troubles in the world.  Underlying the Wanderer’s perspective here is the understanding that the “world dwindles day by day, and passes away.”[8]  There is a brokenness in the world that cannot be healed or undone by mere human action.  We need to take the time to sit in our grief for a while.  And when we do, we have the opportunity to wrestle with the existential questions of life. Why am I going through struggle?  What is the point of this pain?  Why does evil exist?  If we let it, struggle causes us to look outside of our grief and consider a transcendent meaning.  

The wanderer begins and ends with a recognition of the Lord’s mercy, identifying that stability is grounded in a reality that transcends this world.  After expressing his sorrow, he concludes his lament by stating, “It is best for a man to seek / mercy and comfort from the Father in heaven.”[9]  Notice the wanderer does not say, “It is best for a man to work harder and become stronger to avoid suffering.”  Or “It is best for a man to turn to material comforts in order to cope with struggle.”  What allows the wanderer to face the pain and live in it for a little while is the knowledge that his fate is not dependent upon anything that happened in this world.  His life would not be defined by trials but by a transcendent God who lives outside of this world yet chooses to care and respond to the wanderer’s needs.  When we affirm God’s transcendence, we are acknowledging that he is not limited to the physical universe.  God exists independently from the world as Creator and Sustainer, so real meaning is found when we look outside ourselves.  The wanderer could find joy because he has faith in a God who is always good, always compassionate, always loving, and always working for his good, no matter the circumstance.

Wisdom is directly connected with suffering throughout the poet’s lament.  In fact, the poet believes that one cannot be wise until he has experienced struggle, “for a man will not be wise / before he has weathered his share of winters / in the world.”[10]  It is important to identify how suffering produces wisdom.  A few lines later, the wanderer offers the answer: “A wise man must fathom how eerie it will be / when all the riches of the world stand waste.”[11]  The poet seems to say that we find new wisdom, growth, and meaning when we are faced with the transience of this world.  The wanderer lists the character of a wise man as patient and not too “passionate,” “hasty of speech,” hesitant, “rash,” “anxious,” “content,” greedy, or boastful.[12]  It is intriguing that all these characteristics, except one, are written in the negative, suggesting that suffering helps curb negative behavior and attitude, which puts a wise person in a central perspective between extremes. We develop better character the more we suffer loss.  The wanderer’s mindset stands in accordance with the apostle Paul when he writes, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”[13] The problem with the myth of progress is that we are blinded to the good found in suffering.  Hardship and pain is seen as an automatic affront to reaching perfection.  When progress is the standard by which we judge meaning and goodness, loss can only mean the opposite.  The poets of the elegies challenge this standard.

Another elegy, “The Seafarer,” has similar themes to “The Wanderer” but is more apparently Christian.  The seafarer describes his experience out on the sea, one marked by loneliness, affliction, and weariness.  Like “The Wanderer,” the depiction of an icy storm portrays the seafarer’s experience.  He laments, “Wild were the waves when I often took my turn, / the arduous night-watch, standing at the prow / while the boat tossed near the rocks.  My feet / were afflicted by cold, fettered in frost, / frozen chains; there I sighed out the sorrows / seething round my heart.”[14]  Away from the comforts and distractions of the city life on land, the wanderer is left to his own thoughts and the longings of his heart.  But as he seeks the world for meaning to satisfy his aching heart, he is left “unsatisfied.”[15]  When consumed by his struggles, it was his “heart’s longing” that urged him forward, to “wander far and wide.”[16]  Faced with the fact that no earthly splendor gives ultimate contentment or meaning, he only finds peace when he finds his identity in the kingdom of God, rather than the “kingdom of earth.”[17]

The seafarer offers a different framework by which we should live our lives, one that is defined by the infinite life we will have after we die.  For while the modern spirit seeks to find infinite progress on earth, the only infinity we can actually participate in is one that is grounded in the infinity of God.  The only progress that has lasting meaning is one that changes our souls for the better.  In what could be a response to the modern need for continual and growing prosperity, the seafarer writes, “The gold a man amasses while still alive / on earth is no use at all to his soul, / full of sins, in the face of God’s wrath.”[18]  The seafarer recognizes that what really matters is not how we do in this life, or how much we accomplish, but the state of our soul when we stand before God on judgment day.  In this perspective, suffering does not pose a threat to success; rather, suffering can lead one toward greater righteousness, which has greater value than any earthly success can offer.

Several times throughout the poem, the seafarer contrasts his situation with the “prosperous man” on land.[19]  The seafarer is convinced that the prosperous city-dweller living a comfortable life knows little if anything at all about the struggles he has faced out on the sea.[20]  The prosperous man has not experienced real pain and struggle, which the seafarer has experienced both daily.  Yet the seafarer seems to suggest that it is he, himself, who is truly blessed. While the prosperous man does experience comfort in this life, the seafarer describes him as proud and flushed with wine.  This description of the prosperous man as proud stands against his later assertion that it is the humble man who is blessed, for “mercy comes to him from heaven.”[21]  The thought process of the seafarer echoes the words of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” and “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”[22]  The comfort of life has bred pride in the prosperous man’s life, while struggle has bred humility in the sufferer’s life.  And if prosperity is ultimately going to breed pride and love for the things of this world instead of the eternal things of God, then it is actually dangerous.  But if suffering is what transforms us into people of pure hearts, then we can find deeper meaning in it, even as we mourn. While prosperous men feel they are handed the better deal in life, by not experiencing pain and hardship, the seafarer appears to be saying that he ultimately received the better deal.   He may be enduring “the paths of exile to the end of the world,”[23] but he knows he is “sailing to eternal bliss.”[24]  In our suffering, we are blessed.

One of the Anglo-Saxon elegies, “The Ruin,” tells of the Roman towns and buildings that were in shambles and had fallen apart after the Visigoths sacked Rome.  “Wondrous is this stone-wall, wrecked by fate; / the city-buildings crumble, the works of the giants decay /…a hundred generations / have passed away since then.  This wall, grey with lichen / and red of hue, outlives kingdom after kingdom.”[25]  When the poet speaks of the Romans as giants, he is demonstrating the esteem the Anglo-Saxons held for Rome.  Even though generations had passed, the ruins of Rome were a reminder that even the best man-made plans will inevitably fail.  Despite the wreckage, he considers the crumbled buildings, broken gates, and collapsed towers as “wondrous.”  Instead of despair, there is an appreciation of the past, as he imagines what these towns used to be.  He creates a picture of the former Rome; these ruins were once a “bright city in the broad kingdom. / Stone houses stood here; a hot spring gushed in a wide stream; / a stone wall enclosed the bright interior; / the baths were there; the heated water.”[26]  There appears to be a contentment within the heart of the poet as he admires the success of the past without feelings of loss.  There is beauty in the way the writer of “The Ruin” recognizes the brokenness of a fallen kingdom, reminding us that there is still goodness in the midst of decline.

Decline and destruction that prevents a perfect earthly life or world is a major enemy to the modern mindset; this kind of suffering is believed to have no inherent goodness and should be avoided at all costs.  There is humility, however, in knowing that perfection is unattainable and our accomplishments will not last, but today we pridefully assume that our achievements and insights in philosophy or government or technology are bringing us to a better place than ever, a place immune from failure or disaster.  The writer of “The Ruin” recognizes this idea in the Roman builder, who “quickened with a plan; / subtle and strong-willed, he bound the foundations / with metal rods–a marvel” but his achievement did not last; “fate the mighty altered it… / the place falls to ruin, shattered into mounds of stone.”[27]  When the Roman builder originally laid the foundation, he was not expecting it to fall, for he laid the foundation “with metal rods.”  How many marvels have we created today, with buildings and entertainment and medicine? We have wrapped them with “metal rods’ believing that our works will stand forever.  The writer of “The Ruin” reminds us that all man-made things will inevitably perish, confirming King Solomon’s proverb, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”[28] We may be faced with the ruins of human works now, but we look forward to a perfect eternal kingdom.

As we look at the modern mindset of progress, it is clear that we have lost a sense of the transcendent, of a spiritual level that offers meaning to us in the finite and transient world.  But as we also reflect on the medieval Anglo-Saxon mindset, we find that struggle can be an opportunity to find eternal hope.  But it is only an opportunity, if we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of grief.  We must learn how to lament.  Apologists can lead people toward lament, and in doing so cultivate the sense of transcendence.  What would happen if we sat with people in their suffering, if we encouraged them to talk to us about what was really going on?  What if we affirmed in people that crying was okay, that it is not shameful to be depressed?  As Christians, we are to mourn with those who mourn.  That means not distracting them from the pain but actually talking about what is going on in their heart.  This kind of apologetics does not involve intellectual argument or saying the right words (or saying anything at all).  It means inviting the unbeliever to a space where they are comfortable sharing emotions of grief, anger, confusion, or guilt.

When we create spaces for lament, we offer a worldview space for God.  Struggle, depression, and pain naturally lead to existential questions if we do not push them to the side.  As we are present with the unbeliever in their pain, we affirm there is meaning in the midst of struggle.  They have worth and purpose in the midst of this darkness.  We do not even need to bring up the name of God in order to cultivate the sense of a bigger reality outside of the material world.  We reject the current modern conception of reality by journeying through the pain with them and affirming that the suffering does not define them.  Asking questions invites the unbeliever to think through how they are feeling and why they are angry or upset, getting to the root of the distress.  We face the reality of uncertainty and death together, and we affirm the reality of peace and hope all the while.  A grace-filled space to grieve confirms the presence of a transcendent hope and love, which can only be grounded in the truth of an eternal Savior.  Ultimately, when we practice lament, we directly confront the modern misconception of suffering, demonstrating that we can find real meaning and prosperity in the midst of pain.

Citation Information

Donald W. Catchings, Jr., “Chronological Snobbery: In Reply to Contemporary Petrarchs,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 69-72.

Direct Link:

[1] Dr. Holly Ordway, post to “Unit 1 Writing Workshop,” September 14, 2016 (10:35:22 a.m. CDT), Medieval Philosophy & Culture forum, accessed September 17, 2016.

[2] Dr. Holly Ordway, “Anglo-Saxon Historical Context” (online lecture, Medieval Philosophy & Culture online course, Houston Baptist University, accessed September 15, 2016.

[3] Miri Rubin, The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 21.

[4] Ordway, “Anglo-Saxon Historical Context.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The Wanderer,” in The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 50.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] Ibid., 53.

[10] Ibid., 51.

[11] Ibid., 52.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Romans 5:3-4, ESV.

[14]  “The Seafarer,” in The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 53.

[15] Ibid., 54.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 54.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 56.

[22] Matt. 5:3,4,5,10, ESV.

[23] Ibid., 54.

[24] Kevin Crossley-Holland, “The Elegies” in “The Seafarer,” in The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 48.

[25] “The Ruin,” in The Anglo Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 59.

[26] Ibid., 60.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Prov. 19:21, ESV.