The Wanderer on wanderers
Over the ferry
Along the cornfield path
A wanderer goes
As the moon
In the clouds (Park MogWol, Translated...the Korean poem goes: Gangnaru Geonnaseo / Milbat Gileul / Gureume dal gadeushi / ganeunnageune)
The title of Park MogWol’s early 20th century poem (Nageune) has been translated as ‘The Wanderer.’
These first five compact, suggestive lines (four lines, in the original Korean) start with a picture of the landscape and finish with the image of the wanderer. A word for word translation of the Korean would be something like ‘ferry passing-over / cornfield path / through clouds moon-like / going wanderer’. It brings to mind a ‘figure in a landscape’ kind of painting, the landscape being rural Korean, the figure an unnamed wanderer. The simile of the wanderer as being like the moon is an arresting one, suggesting a body at once separate from the earth and at the same time beholden to it, moving according to powers beyond its control. In the Korean, the two consonants of nageune, an ‘n’ and a hard ‘g’, are echoed throughout the poem, again suggesting an irrevocable connection between the man and the landscape.
I came across the poem some years ago in a short anthology of Korean poems translated for English speakers, and this poem jumped out at me, its imagery so extraordinarily vivid and fresh. My wife told me that Park’s poem was in fact a standby of Korean literature, a poem most Korean schoolchildren would be familiar with – analogous, indeed, at least a generation or two ago in England, with Wordsworth’s Daffodils, which strangely enough also starts with some lines about wandering:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
Wordsworth’s simile suggests a figure somewhat removed from the earth and its sustenance, and perhaps from its society, but his poem is actually about a moment where he finds an inspiring sight – those dancing daffodils – in nature that, he claims, sustains and soothes him in later moments:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon my inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
The power of Wordsworth’s lines have perhaps been weakened by their very familiarity, but the idea his poem and that of other Romantics embodied, that is, the quest for transcendent beauty in nature, is one that we take for granted these days, one we unconsciously pay tribute to every time we post a picture of a breath-taking view on Facebook or Instagram.
As Bernard O’Donaghue* has pointed out, this idea would have been completely alien, and perhaps absurd, to the authors of the very first wanderer poems in English literature, the tenth century elegies, perhaps written by monks or scribes, later christened ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’ by their 18th and 19th Century discoverers.
The Wanderer, for example, laments how:
must for a long time
row by hand
along the waterways
of the ice-cold sea,
tread the paths of exile
Likewise The Seafarer, in Ezra Pound’s translation, beautifully employing, by the way, the alliteration and compound words of Anglo-Saxon, complains:
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my Kinsmen
Unlike Wordsworth, and even Park, these writers find little that is pleasurable, let alone transcendent in their journeys: it is settled agricultural land and the fellowship of man where there contentment lies. There are echoes in these Old English poems of some older wanderers still – the earliest of all mankind, the Biblical figures of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden, or their son Cain damned to wander the earth after murdering his brother. For the Anglo-Saxons, as much as for the early Hebrews, wandering is synonymous with hardship. Whatever pagan habits the Old English had inherited from their Scandinavian forebears, their view of the world is a resolutely Christian one.
This view finds expression again in a much later lyric, a song rather than a poem, from 19th century America:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that fair land to which I go.
That is the opening verse of the cowboy ballad ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’. No mention of wandering here, but that ‘wayfaring’ holds an echo of the Old English word for travelling (faran), and the phrase ‘world of woe’ too has a nice Anglo-Saxon alliterative ring to it. This traveller may be travelling the badlands of 19th century America rather than the moors and marshes of Dark Ages England, but he has a similarly low expectation of getting anything good on his journey, that is, none at all. Instead he has his eyes set on a ‘fair land’ free of all worldly woe – heaven, in other words, the afterlife – as the song’s refrain makes clear: ‘I’m coming home, over Jordan.’ It’s a beautiful song with a rather austere religious sentiment behind it, that until the end of our journeying on earth, until our death, we are implicitly not at home in the world.
Ivor Gurney, a poet and composer of the early twentieth century knew exactly where in the world his destination was. Gurney’s wanderings were not religiously inspired, nor aimless, but necessitated by war. He traversed the killing fields of northern France during the First World war, and then, his fragile mental state upset by what he had witnessed, spent time in different sanatoriums and asylums in Britain.
His unnamed wanderer poem is my very favourite. It begins:
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces
Or can anew see clear
The first half of that assertion is a moot point, I guess, though nicely put, and could be read as a spin on Kipling’s old question ‘Who knows England that only England know?’
But Gurney wasn’t a traveller boasting of wisdom acquired on his travels, a nationalist boasting of England’s glories, or a pilgrim heading for a promised land (despite the hint of spiritual quest in the word ‘graces’), but a soldier hoping for the familiarity and comfort of home.
*Bernard O’Donaghue, writes about Old English poetry in chapter one of The Cambridge History of English Poetry, Ed.
Michael O’Neill, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
The Wanderer / Nageune, by Park MogWol, Transl. Go Chang Su, Korea’s Beautiful Poems,Hollym Publishing, Seoul, 2002
Translation of The Wanderer from anglo-saxons.net, slightly altered for clarity by the author
The Seafarer from Selected Poetry of Ezra Pound, Selected by Thom Gunn, Faber and Faber, Lond0n, 2005
Other poems can be found online