Sedges in Literature

Few of us now associate sedges with violence, but that has not always been so. The genus name Carex comes from the Latin for “cutter” because of the sharp leaf margins on many species. For the same reason, “elk-sedge” is a kenning (metaphor) for “sword” in Old English poetry.

The Old English Rune Poem is an alphabet poem with verses to help learn the runes. The verse about Algiz (= Eolh) references sedges. Translations vary in wording but have similar ideas, with the critical exception of confusion about whether the subject of the verse is a plant or a mammal:

(Eolhx) Elk-sedge is usually found in the fens,
Growing on the water, Grimly wounding,
Staining with blood, any man who grasps it.

[Translation by Tom Wulf;]

(Eolh-secg) Elk-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.


The elk of the sedge often dwells in fens,
grows in water, grimly wounds
and burns with boils the blood of the hero who seizes it.


Eolh-secg a home hath | oftest in a fen
waxes in water | woundeth grim,
blood it brings | on men whichever
who in anyway | dares to grasp


Most poetic references to sedges summon depressing images of winter and loss.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
John Keats

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true'.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

He Hears the Cry of the Sedge
by Williams Butler Yeats

I wander by the edge
Of this desolate lake
Where wind cries in the sedge:
"Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round,
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West,
And the girdle of light is unbound,
Your breast will not lie by the breast
Of your beloved in sleep."

The same image appears in more modern poetry. See Gray Days by John Charles McNeill []

For the sedge taxonomist, the depressing effect of sedges may be less symbolic.

Untitled, by Bruce Newhouse:

As does the wind, I cry in sedges
Fair Ovales, identity unknown,
Lost in those with/without edges
My soul has gently flown....

I've cried in sedges before

Shakespeare had a more positive view of sedges as components of wetland ecosystems.

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, i:

IRIS: You nymphs, call'd Naiads, of the windring brooks,
With your sedged crowns and ever-harmless looks,
Leave your crisp channels and on this green land
Answer your summons; Juno does command:
Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate
A contract of true love; be not too late.

Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, II, i:

BENEDICK: Alas, poor hurt fowl! now will he creep into sedges.

Shakespeare, King Henry IV, part I, I, iii

HOTSPUR: Revolted Mortimer!
He never did fall off, my sovereign liege,
But by the chance of war; to prove that true
Needs no more but one tongue for all those wounds,
Those mouthed wounds, which valiantly he took
When on the gentle Severn's sedgy bank,
In single opposition, hand to hand,
He did confound the best part of an hour
In changing hardiment with great Glendower.

Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, II, vi:

JULIA: . . .
The current that with gentle murmur glides,
Thou know'st, being stopp'd, impatiently doth rage;
But when his fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with the enamell'ed stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage,
And so by many winding nooks he strays
With willing sport to the wild ocean.