In this long poem, one of the famous British poets of the Victorian era, Robert Browning talks about the wanderers. Wanderers, who are unaware of living at peace in one place, is always in the haste of discovering the new and knowing the unknown. For them nothing is impossible. Even in the raging sea-tides, they find inspiration to do more and take a step further in the alleyways of undiscovered regions of the earth. They don’t fear the sea. But, the wanderers use it in their favor. In this poem, Browning portrays the adventurous spirit of those men.
Summary of The Wanderers
At first, Browning presents the galleys or ships on which the group of wanderers is voyaging to discover new land. The ships are “rude and bare to the outward view.” Inside each of the ships, there is a stately tent guarded with cedar pales. A folded and purple awning covers the upper part of the tent. The sailors spend their day rowing. While at night they use the strength of the wind to sail through. Then they sleep peacefully like the islanders or men inhabiting the land. One day they came across a dim-specked land betwixt the sea and the sky. Seeing the land after a long time made them happy. At the same time, their heart knew they had to move forward leaving what remained behind for them waiting to live in one place for a lifetime. But, the wanderers were not like them.
‘The Wanderers’ consists of three stanzas. Each stanza doesn’t have a specific line count. The first stanza is long enough and it has 37 lines. The second stanza consists of 13 lines and the final stanza has 23 lines. The poet makes this division according to the subject matter of the poem. The first stanza describes the nature of the wanderers and their journey. The second stanza deals with their happiness after discovering an island. And, the final stanza again returns to their basic mindset of wanderlust. Hence, in this stanza, the poet describes their departure from the newly discovered land. There isn’t any set rhyme scheme in this poem. Some lines rhyme alternatively whereas the consecutive lines of the poem rhyme together. However, the overall poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter.
Browning presents a variety of literary devices in this poem. Likewise, the poem begins with a personification. Here, the poet personifies the “cleaving prows”. In “A gallant armament”, there is a metaphor for the galley or ship. Thereafter, the poet uses alliteration in “black bull-hides.” There is a personal metaphor in the phrase, the “dancing brine”. Thereafter, in the line, “That neither noontime nor star-shine”, one can find a consonance. The poet also uses a simile in the lines, “But when the night-wind blew like breath” and “Like men at peace on a peaceful shore.” In this poem, there is a metonymy in the use of “helm”. Here, the poet refers to a helmsman. The second stanza begins with a personification like the first stanza. And, the last stanza ends with an epigram.
Analysis of The Wanderers
OVER the sea our galleys went,
With cleaving prows in order brave
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave—
A gallant armament:
Each bark built out of a forest-tree
Left leafy and rough as first it grew,
And nail’d all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black bull-hides,
Seethed in fat and suppled in flame,
To bear the playful billows’ game;
So, each good ship was rude to see,
Rude and bare to the outward view.
The poem, ‘The Wanderers’ begins with the description of the seafarers who are riding on their galleys. Their galleys went over the sea cleaving the waves like brave warriors. The wind increased their speed and the waves that tried to bound them. Still, they moved in as their ship was like a “gallant armament”. Each bark was built out of a forest tree that was left for a long time to become more leafy and rough. Thereafter, they nailed the planks with black bull-hides over the gaping sides. They seethed the hides in fat and suppled in flames to make those more resistant in the salty sea-water. Here, the poet uses personification in “playful billow’s game”. He personifies the billow or wave and compares the waves to children.
In the last two lines of this section, the speaker says that their good ship was rude and bare to see from outside. Their ship represents the men riding on them. Like the wanderers, the ship also looks rude from outside. But, inside the ship, they had a beautiful time.
But each upbore a stately tent
Where cedar pales in scented row
Kept out the flakes of the dancing brine,
And an awning droop’d the mast below,
In fold on fold of the purple fine,
That neither noontide nor star-shine
Nor moonlight cold which maketh mad,
Might pierce the regal tenement.
Thereafter the speaker says though it was rude from an external view, it was decorated and beautiful from inside. Inside each ship, there was a stately tent. The cedar pales that had a fresh scent of foliage, kept out the flakes of the brine. Moreover, there was an awning that covered the mast below. It was made of purple folds. The noontide, star-shine, moonlight, or cold could not pierce the regal tenement. It means that the wanderers felt safe inside the tent.
When the sun dawn’d, O, gay and glad
We set the sail and plied the oar;
But when the night-wind blew like breath,
For joy of one day’s voyage more,
We sang together on the wide sea,
Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
The speaker says when the sun dawned they became gay and glad. The sailors set the sail and piled the oar. During the night, when the wind blew like breath, they became joyous again. As the wind led them further in their journey. They sang together on the wide sea like men living peacefully on a “peaceful shore”. Here, the poet creates a contrast between the lives of the seafarers and that of the islanders. The former symbolizes activity and spontaneity. Whereas the latter is a symbol of stagnancy.
Each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
Each helm made sure by the twilight star,
And in a sleep as calm as death,
We, the voyagers from afar,
Lay stretch’d along, each weary crew
In a circle round its wondrous tent
Whence gleam’d soft light and curl’d rich scent,
And with light and perfume, music too:
So the stars wheel’d round, and the darkness past,
And at morn we started beside the mast,
And still each ship was sailing fast!
When night came, they made sure that the helmsman was heading toward the right direction by following the twilight star. Moreover, they loosened each sail free in the wind and let the wind decide their way. However, at night the voyagers slept as calm as death. Here, the poet uses a simile to compare their peaceful sleeping to death. Moreover, they stretched on the ship and each weary crew slept encircling their wondrous tent. They could see the soft light of the stars and the moon gleaming through the awning. The scent of the cedar pales and the music in the sea waves made them more delightful.
In this way, the stars wheeled round and the darkness of night passed. In the morning, they started rowing again beside the mast. Here, the speaker interestingly says, “And still each ship was sailing fast!” It means that after the previous day’s hard-work their minds were not weary. They felt as energetic as they were on the day before. Thus, they kept moving after a sound sleep at night.
Now, one morn, land appear’d—a speck
Dim trembling betwixt sea and sky—
‘Avoid it,’ cried our pilot, ‘check
The shout, restrain the eager eye!’
But the heaving sea was black behind
For many a night and many a day,
And land, though but a rock, drew nigh;
At the beginning of the second stanza of ‘The Wanderers’, the speaker says one morning a piece of land appeared in their view. It was like a “speck” that was dim and it seemed trembling between the sea and sky. The pilot of the ship cried out to avoid it. He advised his fellow sailors to check if it was real or not and restrain their eager eyes. Here, the poet refers to the rationality of the group of sailors as a whole. Thereafter, the speaker says that the heaving sea was black behind for many nights and days. It means at that time, not the sea but the speck of land incited hope in them. But, the land ironically appeared as a mere rock to the speaker.
So we broke the cedar pales away,
Let the purple awning flap in the wind,
And a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
And steer’d right into the harbour thus,
With pomp and paean glorious.
As the land drew nearer, the wanderers broke the cedar pales away and let the purple awning flap in the wind. They appeared as a bright statue standing on each deck. In this way, the speaker glorifies each of the crew on board. After seeing the land, they shouted together and steered right into the harbor. There was pomposity in their mind and they sang a paean or a song of praise in sheer happiness. For the seafarers, it was like an achievement. Their toil of day and night was bearing fruit. For this reason, there was a mood of celebration in their minds.
A hundred shapes of lucid stone!
All day we built its shrine for each,
A shrine of rock for ever one,
Nor paused till in the westering sun
We sat together on the beach
To sing because our task was done;
When lo! what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
A loaded raft with happy throngs
Of gentle islanders!
Arriving at the island, the wanderers stood there like a hundred shapes of lucid stone. All-day long they built a shrine for each of them. It would be a memorial of each sailor’s achievement. They didn’t stop building the stone-shrines even after sunset. Thereafter, they sat together on the beach to sing as their task was done. The wanderers shouted at their best and sang merry songs. They laughed in a manner that could even stir the distant lands. It is the use of hyperbole. However, in this section, the poet uses a metaphor to describe the seafarers. He compares them to “a loaded raft with happy throngs of gentle islanders.”
‘Our isles are just at hand,’ they cried,
‘Like cloudlets faint in even sleeping;
Our temple-gates are open’d wide,
Our olive-groves thick shade are keeping
For these majestic forms’—they cried.
O, then we awoke with sudden start
From our deep dream, and knew, too late,
How bare the rock, how desolate,
Which had received our precious freight:
Yet we call’d out—’Depart!
Our gifts, once given, must here abide:
Our work is done; we have no heart
To mar our work,’—we cried.
In the section of ‘The Wanderers’, the poet captures the conversation of the sailors. Some of the sailors cried that their isles were just at hand like the “cloudlets faint even in sleeping.” In this way, the poet presents anticipation. A reader can understand from this simile that they were going to leave that island. A wanderer’s life is not destined to be fixed at one spot as an islander. However, the speaker says their temple-gates were opened wide. Here, the “temple-gates” are a reference to the imaginary gates of the shrines that they had made. Moreover, the olive-groves of the island were keeping the majestic forms in the thick shade as if these were the protectors of the forms made by them.
Thereafter, they awoke with a sudden start from their deep dream and understood the hope was fading away. It was merely a bare rock with no human habitation nearby. They had paid their freight to the island and it was time to depart. Hence, they left their stone-made shrines at that place and they had no intention to mar the work they had done. Thereafter, they left the island and led their ships toward a new destination that awaited beyond the horizon of human knowledge.
Being a poem of the Victorian period, several thematic elements in the text were popular at that time. Firstly, one of the major themes of Victorian poetry is wanderlust. In this poem, one can get the idea of what wanderlust means from the mindset of the wanderers. Another important aspect of this poem is a man’s curiosity to know more. After discovering the island, they didn’t stay there. They just took a momentary break before a new beginning. Apart from that, Browning also presents the themes of mobility, courage, and brotherhood in this poem. In some other poems from this period, the mentioned themes can be found.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Browning’s ‘The Wanderers’.
- The Wanderer (Old English Poem) – In this poem, the speaker details the life and struggles of a wanderer.
- The Seafarer, Translated by Ezra Pound – In this Anglo-Saxon poem, the speaker describes the earthly and spiritual life on the sea.
- Sea Fever by John Masefield – This poem describes the poet’s longing to go to sea.
- Part I: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T. Coleridge – It’s one of the best Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems. The poem is about how the Ancient Mariner’s ship sailed past the Equator and was driven towards the South Pole.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Hope here.