The Wanderer (Old English Poem)

‘The Wanderer’ was written in the 10th century AD by an anonymous poet in Old English, a version of the English language that is quite different from that which is spoken. Here are the first four lines of ‘The Wanderer’ in the original Old English: 

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,

metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,

There are very few words in these four lines that a contemporary English speaker would be able to recognize. In part due to the translation difficulties with these poems and in part due to some confusing passages, often Old English/Anglo-Saxon poetry has different interceptions. This certainly holds true between the different translations. The translation used in this analysis was completed by Siân Echard. 

The Wanderer by Anonymous


Summary of The Wanderer 

‘The Wanderer’ is a long Old English poem in which the speaker details the life and struggles of a wanderer.

In the first parts of this piece, the speaker describes a wanderer, someone who lost everything that meant something to him. He’s lost his lord, his home, his kinsmen, and more. Now, he’s seeking out a new life but can’t escape the memories of the old one. As he travels, he has brief moments of peace as well as some nice dreams. But, just as he starts to feel a bit of his sorrow lift, he’s reminded of all he’s lost. One of the upsides of having experienced many sorrows and winters is that he has knowledge that only the elderly and other wanderers possess. But that’s not enough to relieve him of his unhappiness. At the end of the poem, the speaker focuses on what he sees as the only true solution for sorrow—God. 


Themes in The Wanderer 

The anonymous writer of ‘The Wanderer’ engages with themes of loneliness, suffering, and religion in the text. These themes are quite common within the best-known Anglo-Saxon verse. The speaker in this piece is well acquainted with sorrow and describes a “wanderer” experiences with it. This person is separate from their “lord,” the person around whom they structured their life. Now, they’re aimlessly seeking out a new “lord” while mourning the old and all the warm memories along with that time. Additionally, the speaker further emphasizes the wanderer’s loneliness by describing the other losses he suffered. In the end, the speaker draws the poem to a quick conclusion telling the reader that the only solution for this sorrow is to turn one’s mind and heart to God. 


Structure and Form

‘The Wanderer’ is an Old English poem that’s written in 153 lines. This translated version is in modern English and only reaches 116 lines. As is the case with the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon poetry, these lines are alliterative, meaning that rhythm I based on the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. There is no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern discernible in the translation. In this particular version, the translator has attempted to keep the stanzas the same length. The majority of them are four-five lines long.


Literary Devices

The anonymous poet of ‘The Wanderer’ makes use of several interesting literary devices that are still discernible despite the vast differences between Old English and modern English. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. Caesural pauses were an important part of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Often, the lines were stopped midway through and picked up later on. For example, the ninth line of the poem reads: “Bewail my sorrow; there is now none living.” The original version is, “mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan.” 

Enjambment is another important formal device, one that’s concerned with the way that lines transition. If a line is cut off before the natural conclusion of the sentence or phrase, it is likely enjambed—for example, the transition between lines three and four, as well as lines seven and eight. 


Analysis of The Wanderer 

Lines 1-9 

“Often the solitary one experiences mercy for himself,

the mercy of the Measurer, although he, troubled in spirit,

over the ocean must long

stir with his hands the rime-cold sea,

travel the paths of exile – Fate is inexorable.”

So said the wanderer, mindful of hardships,

of cruel deadly combats, the fall of dear kinsmen –

“Often alone each morning I must

Bewail my sorrow; there is now none living

In the first four lines of ‘The Wanderer,’ the speaker introduces the reader to a solitary man, sometimes called a “lone-dweller” or, in this case, a “solitary one.” This man hopes for mercy from God and good favour despite his fate. That is, to wander the “ocean” or the “rime-cold sea.” In some versions of the poem, the following lines refer to someone known as the “earth-stepper,” in this version, the translator chose the word “wanderer.” This is either the same person as in the first stanza or someone similar. He’s just as alone as the first speaker is anyway. 

The wanderer is headed for a speech, but first, the speaker tells the reader that the wanderer is thinking about the hardships he’s had to suffer. These include the deaths of “dear kinsmen.” The eighth line of the poem brings in the first lines of the speech, included in quotation marks. 


Lines 10-23 

to whom I dare tell clearly my inmost thoughts.

I know indeed

that it is a noble custom in a man

to bind fast his thoughts with restraint,

hold his treasure-chest, think what he will.

The man weary in spirit cannot withstand fate,

nor may the troubled mind offer help.

Therefore those eager for praise often bind a sad mind

in their breast-coffer with restraint.

So I, miserably sad, separated from homeland,

far from my noble kin, had to bind my thoughts with fetters,

since that long ago the darkness of the earth

covered my gold-friend, and I, abject,

proceeded thence, winter-sad, over the binding of the waves.

The speaker tells the reader that nowadays since he’s completely alone, there is no one to whom he can “tell clearly [his] inmost thoughts.” His relatives are dead, and one of the consequences of this is that he’s entirely alone. He doesn’t want to reveal his thoughts to just anyone; they’re personal to him. This is a theme common to Old English poetry, as is solitude. 

The following lines state that expressing sorrow helps no one. The “troubled mind” doesn’t “offer help.” So, he adds, he had to “bind” his thoughts with “fetters,” or chains, since he was far from his homeland. He’s physically, mentally, and emotionally alone. In the next stanza, he adds that his “gold-friend,” sometimes translated as “lord,” died, and now he’s seeking out another. Without a “lord,” the Anglo-Saxon warrior had no source of protection or income. Readers should also take note of the use of personification in these lines when the speaker says that the “darkness of the earth / covered my gold-friend.” 


Lines 24-33 

Sad, I sought the hall of a giver of treasure,

Where I might find, far or near,

one who in the meadhall might know about my people,

or might wish to comfort me, friendless,

entertain with delights. He knows who experiences it

how cruel care is as a companion,

to him who has few beloved protectors.

The path of exile awaits him, not twisted gold,

frozen feelings, not earth’s glory.

he remembers retainers and the receiving of treasure

In the next lines, the speaker describes how he sought out “a giver of treasure,” or a new lord, everywhere he went. He thought there might be someone who “might wish” to comfort him and remedy his friendlessness. He knows that if he can’t find a new situation for himself that he’s going to end up on a “path of exile” where there’s no “twisted gold” but “frozen feelings” and no glory. 


Lines 34-43 

how in youth his gold-friend

accustomed him to the feast. But all pleasure has failed.

Indeed he knows who must for a long time do without

the counsels of his beloved lord

when sorrow and sleep together

often bind the wretched solitary man–

he thinks in his heart that he

embraces and kisses his lord, and lays

hands and head on his knee, just as he once at times

in former days, enjoyed the gift-giving.

In the next passage, the speaker contrasts the life he used to live with what he’s experiencing now. He once woke to happiness and contentment, but now he’s a “wretched solitary man.” He’d like to return to the life he had and dreams of what it would be like. 


Lines 44-53

Then the friendless man awakes again,

sees before him the dusky waves,

the seabirds bathing, spreading their wings,

frost and snow fall, mingled with hail.

Then are his heart’s wounds the heavier because of that,

sore with longing for a loved one. Sorrow is renewed

when the memory of kinsmen passes through his mind;

he greets with signs of joy, eagerly surveys

his companions, warriors. They swim away again.

The spirit of the floating ones never brings there many

Unfortunately, the speaker describes the “friendless man” waking from this happy dream. None of it was real. He’s still on the sea with the “dusky waves” in front of him. The imagery in these lines is different from that which has filled the previous lines. There is a greater focus on nature and how it surrounds the wanderer. He’s “sore with longing for a loved one.” The seabirds have the freedom to fly away that the wanderer does not. The wanderer is constantly reminded of his situation as soon as he starts to take comfort in what’s around him. 

The wanderer describes his companions as “swim[ming] away again.” This is a creative and thoughtful way of bringing in the seascape around the wanderer and merging it with his thoughts. 


Lines 54-68 

familiar utterances. Care is renewed

for the one who must very often send

his weary spirit over the binding of the waves,

Therefore I cannot think why throughout the world

my mind should not grow dark

when I contemplate all the life of men,

how they suddenly left the hall floor,

brave young retainers. So this middle-earth

fails and falls each day;

therefore a man may not become wise before he owns

a share of winters in the kingdom of this world. A wise man must be patient,

nor must he ever be too hot tempered, nor too hasty of speech

nor too weak in battles, nor too heedless,

nor too fearful, nor too cheerful, nor too greedy for wealth

nor ever too eager for boasting before he knows for certain.

Moving on, the speaker says that the visions he’s had of his lost kinsmen did not bring him the joy that he would’ve liked. They bring no relief to his exile. In fact, he says, they make things worse for him. When he sends his spirits over the “binding waves” back to the hall, his mind grows dark. He contemplates the lives of “men” and how they “suddenly left the hall floor, / brave young retainers.” 

The following lines bring in an idea that the speaker mentioned previously, that someone who experiences sorrow and loss as the wanderer has knows things that others don’t. A man, the speaker says, isn’t wise until he owns “a share of winters in the kingdom of this world.” This is yet another example of “cold” as a symbol of this speaker’s state of being. It might also be connected to age, or years/winters, that have passed. The elderly have similar knowledge to those that have been exiled. 

The speaker is suggesting that the world, the “middle-earth,” is going to fail as humankind fails. 


Lines 69-88

A man must wait, when he speaks a boast,

until, stout-hearted, he knows for certain 

whither the thought of the heart may wish to turn.

The prudent man must realize how ghastly it will be

when all the wealth of this world stands waste,

as now variously throughout this middle-earth

walls stand beaten by the wind,

covered with rime, snow-covered the dwellings.

The wine-halls go to ruin, the rulers lie

deprived of joy, the host has all perished

proud by the wall. Some war took,

carried on the way forth; one a bird carried off

over the high sea; one the gray wolf shared

with Death; one a sad-faced nobleman

buried in an earth-pit.

So the Creator of men laid waste this region,

until the ancient world of giants, lacking the noises

of the citizens, stood idle.

He who deeply contemplates this wall-stead,

and this dark life with wise thought,

The next ones bring in some of the knowledge that wanderers and the elderly often have that others don’t. Men have to be patient and thoughtful, not too quick to speak, or too eager to boast over one’s accomplishments. The following lines remind the reader of something else the wanderer has learned that existence is not permanent. Life, human creation, and memories collapse. 

This is how God, the Creator, has “laid waste” to the region. The old buildings he’s been so interested in in the previous lines are now useless. They were the work of “old giants.” Even great, gigantic creations still eventually fail. By this point, the speaker’s fully engulfed in a dark vision of the world. “This wall-stead” is another point of contemplation. They represent the broader losses the world suffers.


Lines 89-93 

old in spirit, often remembers long ago,

a multitude of battles, and speaks these words:

“Where is the horse? Where is the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure?

Where are the seats of the banquets? Where are the joys in the hall?

Alas the bright cup! Alas the mailed warrior!

In these lines, the speaker transitions. He describes what he’s learned from his various contemplations. His words are emotional and repetitive as he wonders over the loss of things that have disappeared over time. The speaker is concentrated on the things one might see in a great hall, such as that of his deceased lord. 


Lines 94-108

Alas the glory of the prince! How the time has gone,

vanished under night’s helm, as if it never were!

Now in place of a beloved host stands

a wall wondrously high, decorated with the likenesses of serpents.

The powers of spears took the noblemen,

weapons greedy for slaughter; fate the renowned,

and storms beat against these rocky slopes,

falling snowstorm binds the earth,

the noise of winter, then the dark comes.

The shadow of night grows dark, sends from the north

a rough shower of hail in enmity to the warriors.

All the kingdom of earth is full of trouble,

the operation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.

Here wealth is transitory, here friend is transitory,

here man is transitory, here woman is transitory,

The wall against which soldiers have fallen is “wondrously high” and covers in depictions of serpents. The area has been destroyed and plundered, as have the warriors from their lives. The speakers were hungry for slaughter, and their fate was solidified. 

The speaker turns to talk about the wind’s effects on the wall, but first, he describes it as “rocky slopes,” suggesting that the wall is a part of nature, perhaps even more than it is a part of humankind’s creation. Darkness falls, and the “kingdom of earth is full of trouble.” There is a personified snowstorm attack that includes a hailstorm and destroys the wall. 


Lines 109-116

this whole foundation of the earth becomes empty.

So spoke the wise in spirit, sat by himself in private meditation.

He who is good keeps his pledge, nor shall the man ever manifest

the anger of his breast too quickly, unless he, the man,

should know beforehand how to accomplish the remedy with courage.

It will be well for him who seeks grace,

comfort from the Father in the heavens, where a fastness

stands for us all.

The poem comes to its conclusion as the speaker reflects on what his increased sight teaches him. As seems obvious by this point, the speaker comes to the conclusion that life is complicated, hard, and ultimately depressing and lonely. Fate, he decides, governs everything and everyone. This was an idea that came up very early in the poem and to which he’s returned, a common practice in this long poem. There is something of a contrast between “fate” and the “Creator” that he also spent time talking about. One suggests randomness, while the other suggests intention. Everyone, he adds, belongs to God and to God will return. 

In the end, as a cure for all the sorrow that he’s experienced and that everyone around him has (as well as the metaphorical other “wanderers” in the world), he suggests God. God is where “all fastness / stands for us all.” The sudden ending is a solid conclusion to this winding poem. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Wanderer’ should also consider reading some other well-known Anglo-Saxon poems. For example, ‘The Seafarer,‘The Wife’s Lament,’ and ‘Beowulf.’ The latter is the best-known of the Anglo-Saxon Old English poem. It tells the story of the hero Beowulf who slays the monster Grendel and its mother. ‘The Wife’s Lament’ is told from a sorrowful woman’s perspective as she mourns the loss of her “lord” and her place in the world. Her loneliness is poignant and painful. ‘The Seafarer’ is another piece that focuses on loneliness and solitude.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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