Firstly, let’s get rid of the idea of the poem as an autobiography. Yes there is an I.
Oft ic sceolde āna ūhtna gehwylce
mīne ceare cwīþan. Nis nū cwicra nān
þe ic him mōdsefan mīnne durre
But the speaker is a fictional construct: the “I” an empty space into which the performer of the poem steps. The Exeter book is a book to read from, placed on a lectern. The reader steps into the role, becomes the anhaga, who thus magically appears in the place where the performance occurs.
Imagine, urges this text, imagine a man in this situation. Speaking to you.
He has lost everything external that gives his life meaning: his kin, the bonds of fealty that tied him to his lord, the social and legal definitions and protection those afforded, the obligations which shaped his behaviour and gave him finite purpose; he has lost his country, he is adrift in a hostile world looking for context. He cannot even expect to land where his language is spoken and he may be given the chance to explain himself before they kill him.
Who is he?
Take away all those external markers of identification, those makers of social identity, and who is he?
And the poem says that you are all in this situation:, you, sitting there listening, safe in your assumption that the I speaking is not the I listening. Who are you?
What do you ground your answer in? A name (with its assumptions of family: x son of A or Y daughter of B?) A relationship? A history? The name of your village, your kingdom, your Lord? The accumulation of experience that passes as your biography? The world? Heroic actions? Acquisitions: fame, possessions, knowledge, the beauty of made things? The language you speak with its colouring of status and education and regional provenance?
Friends, lords, family, companions: they all die, says the poem. One the wolf took off, another the bird bore away, another was buried in a ditch by his kinsmen. It all rots, rusts fades, crumbles: Even the walls stand ruined, and soon it’s all gone.
And when it’s all gone...and then something odd happens. The poem wants to say; you will find meaning and context in god. That is the lesson and this is what it says. If you do not know God then your life is simply an exile lived in a hostile space. Search for him and find him and you will no longer be alone.
But lurking in the background is a different question. Not a “pagan” answer. (This is a Christian poem. Not a pagan poem topped and tailed with Christian sentiment to make it fit for the cloister, but a very obviously Christian poem.)
Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle hū gǣstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela wēste stondeð,
swā nū missenlīce geond þisne middangeard
winde biwāune weallas stondaþ,
hrīme bihrorene, hrȳðge þā ederas.
gǣstlic :a lot depends on how you translate that one word
The first clause could easily be translated :
A wise man knows how ghastly it is when all this world’s wealth stands waste.
Ghastly: in early use: causing terror in modern use: suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death of carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking. (OED)
But you could also translate gǣstlic as ghostly, in the sense of “not of the body”. Peter Baker’s suggestion, by extension, is spiritual. But since I’m not doing an academic translation, how about: liberating.
A wise man knows how liberating it is to stand alone in front of the ruins of whatever he thought made him who he was.
The poem rephrases the question, cutting through the post modern waffle about identity as performative, as self as fractured an unknowable, as constructed by nationality or language and culture.
The last human on the planet, utterly alone, would still be an “I”.
So not what roles do you play, not what labels do you wear, but who or what is this irreducible, unique “I” who stands looking at the ruins?