The wanderer asks the Lord for pity and understanding, but sometimes he must take to the sea and become an exile. This is fate, and it cannot be avoided. The wanderer remembered hardship, death, and the ruin of kinsmen, and said that he knew that he would have to think upon these things in his loneliness and isolation. He will not talk to anyone about what is in his heart. He knows that it is dignified for a man to keep his feelings and thoughts to himself, no matter what he might be thinking. Those who are weary in their hearts know they cannot stop fate and that no good comes from expressing their desires; it is clear that most who seek glory and fame have something painful concealed within. The wanderer said he restrained his feelings even though he was mournful because he was exiled from his country and kinsmen after the death of his lord. He left his home and sailed the rough waves with the coldness of winter in his heart, seeking a new lord who would take him into his hall and take care of and entertain him, as he was friendless. Those who have experienced exile know how cruel this sorrow can be.
The wanderer’s body is frozen and he is full of memory of halls and treasure and how his lord cared for him. All of the joys are now passed away. Any man who does not have the counsel of his lord is filled with sadness, and when he sleeps he dreams of the earlier days when he laid his hands and head upon his lord’s knees. The lonely man then must wake to the dark waves, sea-birds, and frost and snow. Upon waking his sorrow is heavier and he remembers his kinsmen. He joyfully welcomes them and then watches them swim away again. Their spirits cannot bring song to him. His sorrows multiply because he must send his heart over the waves over and over again. The wanderer does not know why he does not experience darkness when he thinks about the warriors who had to leave the lord’s hall. The world passes away and men can only gain wisdom after they have had many winters. A wise man must not be hasty in speech, rash or fickle in battle, nervous, greedy, or boastful.
A wise man will not boast until he is sure in his mind and free of doubt. A wise man must know that the world’s riches will pass away, buildings will succumb to frost and fall down, lords will die, their followers will disperse in death or journeys (one was carried off by a bird, another killed by a wolf). The “Maker of Men” laid the world to waste and the land was silent. He who looked upon the ruins and thought deeply about life remembers the slaughters and asks questions: Where is the horse? Where is the man? Where is the one that gives gold? Where is the banqueting hall? Where are the pleasures of the mead hall? The wanderer remembers and laments lost treasure, warriors, and the glorious ruler.
That time is now gone and it is in darkness as if it had never been. The warriors have been replaced by a large wall with serpents upon it. Spears have claimed the warriors. Storms rage and snow and sleet fall across the world as winter settles in. Darkness and shadow come, and fierce hailstorms frighten men. Life is difficult and everything is subject to fate. Possessions, friends and men themselves are transitory and “the whole world is a wilderness.” All of this was thought by a wise man. A man who stays steadfast in his beliefs and keeps his sorrow to himself before he knows how to shape it is courageous. It is best for a man to look to God for mercy, comfort, and, above all, security.
“The Wanderer” is arguably the most famous and critically-debated Anglo-Saxon poem, with multiple interpretations jostling each other for attention. The poem is admittedly difficult in terms of the numbers of speakers, the relationship between pagan and Christian themes and influences, and the tension between the personal and the general. It is an elegy composed of alliterative metre that focuses on the wanderer’s loss of his lord and the subsequent grief and search for wisdom that accompany this loss. “The Wanderer” is often read in company with “The Seafarer”, and much critical work focuses on both of these poems. The two have in common their solitary speakers, the theme of the decay of the material world, a melancholy tone, and the desire to find security in God. “The Wanderer” is also read in light of the poetry of Boethius.
In terms of summary, the wanderer is a former warrior whose lord has died; he remembers the fealty he paid to his lord, the revelry of his hall, and his
relationships with his kinsmen. He endeavored to find a new lord but was unsuccessful, and now he wanders alone, trying to keep his melancholy thoughts to himself and gain wisdom from them. He describes his solitary journey, contrasting the warmth and comfort of the lord’s hall with the vast wintry world he now inhabits. He identifies with the fate of all lonely wanderers. In the second part of the poem he moves into a more general discussion of humanity as a whole; he contemplates ruins and the destruction of manmade artifacts. There is also a discussion of the characteristics of a wise man; the narrator lists several traits that a wise man should not possess, such as anxiety, braggadocio, and irresoluteness. At the end of the poem he explains that he has passed many winters and has attained wisdom. He exhorts his readers to look to God for security.
Scholars disagree about the amount of speakers, with some contending that there is only one and others believing that with the shift of the personal to the general, a new narrator has taken over the poem. It is commonly assumed that the first seven lines are an introduction, the wanderer’s monologue begins in line 8, and a new monologue begins in line 92. It may be a new speech by a wise man or a speech by the wanderer himself, who may be a wise man.
John L. Selzer’s article looks at “The Wanderer” within the meditative tradition that stems from the work of St. Augustine, which the Anglo-Saxons would have been very familiar with. The wanderer begins his tale with an evocation of memory –of past actions, of lost friends and a lost way of life. He is meditating on his earlier life and his earlier self. His description of how he looked for another lord is also in the past. He suffers at sea and dreams of happier times; and, perhaps most sadly, “and in the midst of physical and mental exhaustion, he lapsed into deeper memories, even hallucinations, in his interior quest for his lord, so that the memory of his kinsmen mingled with the real seabirds to produce the illusion that the birds were his kinsmen.”
This meditation then closes, and the wanderer now look to apply his understanding to those memories and recollections. In the more analytical and general section, the poem is in present tense to reinforce the present thinking that is clearly going on. The wanderer comes to the conclusion that “experiencing the trials of the world is not simply a hardship; if hardships are approached with the right attitude, they can be a means of gaining higher knowledge.” That knowledge is an understanding that there is security in God and heaven beyond earthly trials. This is the result of the wanderer’s meditation.
Many scholars debate the relationship between pagan and Christian themes. The mention of God at the end of the poem suggests it is a Christian poem, but this may be too simple of a conclusion. The Christian attitude, as I.L. Gordon views it, is more admonitory in tone. There is nothing explicitly Christian in it, and pagan elements are present as well. Christian themes like the transience of life have their roots in earlier poetic traditions. Gordon suggests that it is too easy to view the lonely wanderer as a Christian figure, and “the identification is superficial: the figure remains the melancholy exile of secular elegy, bemoaning his lot.” Vivian Salmon looks at Old Icelandic literature and heathen folklore and finds influence for the poem there, especially in the idea of the external soul “the soul was regarded as a separate entity enclosed by a wall of flesh” and that could take on animal shape. This adds clarification to the scene with the seabirds-as-fallen-comrades.