"The Wanderer": An Old English Poem

Wandering is an ambiguous mode of solitude. Voluntary wandering has been identified as the provenance of wizards and shamans, poets and romantics. The shamans of China and the Americas were wanderers. In Germanic mythology, Odin took on the guise of Vegmar the Wanderer, with blue cloak, traveler's staff, and long white beard. Gandulf and Aragorn of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Ged, the wizard of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, are wanderers. The knights-errant of Europe skirt the definitions of voluntary wandering and vagabonding.

In medieval Japan, the hijiri were wandering monks, and the Franciscans of medieval Europe were initially homeless wanderers, like troubadours, of whom they were a spiritualized counterpart. The Hindu sadhu and the Jain digambara of India, making no claim to home or property, were never in one place very long. There is a moral sense in wandering, a clear and projected moral compass that has less to do with locale and geography. The Japanese poet Basho's famous wanderings added an aesthetic element to wandering as a kind of anti-modern questing.

But wandering is also involuntary, and that is the ambiguity of the solitude it entails. Refugees of war and natural disaster have been wanderers who remind us of the uglier vicissitudes of society. Thrust into an undesired solitude, the involuntary wanderer becomes an exile. These have been presented in history as faceless masses of humanity's cruelties. In lore, these have ranged from the feisty survivor like Homer's Odysseus to the troubled wanderer of the Old English elegy known simply as "The Wanderer."

Here is an economical version of "The Wanderer." The English translations of Diamond, Romano, and Thorpe were consulted, as well as the Leslie and the Dunning and Bliss editions of the original. Other sources of reflection included ancient Chinese poems and the cluster of British post-World War I poems on similar subjects of war and ruin, plus the Anglos-Saxon and Germanic poems of the era, and varied literary sources such as those mentioned above.

Brevity and clarity of feeling were the guiding points for this version. It deviates from the original in everything technical because that was not what I wanted to capture -- not scholarship but emotion. This is made more obvious by the fact that the original and full translations run 115 lines, while my version is less than half the length at 56 lines.

The Anglo-Saxon poem was meant to be sung, hence memorized. The elegy dates from no later than the eleventh century, more likely hundreds of years earlier; it dates more or less from the era of Beowulf, the most familiar of the Anglo-Saxon poems. "The Wanderer" conjures the perennial fear of the European Dark Age outposts of modest civilization: violence and the rapacity of unseen and unpredictable forces. It is an uncertainty vaguely reflected in all cultures over time and distance, not exempting today.

The poem presents the despair of a vassal whose lord and retainers were slain in a marauders' attack, and the whole town and its people wiped out. The poet has survived, but the horror of that day haunts him. He takes up a little boat to seek out a new lord and a welcoming village, but everywhere he goes he encounters the same carnage and destruction. And so the poet is a wanderer on the face of the land and sea, suffering a grim and irreconcilable solitude.

Despite its apparent literalness, there is symbolism and irony in "The Wanderer." As with any poem, much can be discovered whether the poem was conscious of it or not. The position of simplicity of mind is very effective in presenting such a heartfelt narrative.

An obvious interpolation was made by a pious editor, who added lines expressing religious optimism at the beginning and at the end of the poem. But these lines do not fit the tone of the poem at all, and so have been omitted.


The solitary looks for the favor of fortune,
For serene waters and a welcoming haven.
But his lot is to plough the wintry seas.
An exile's fate is decreed for him.

Each dawn stirs old sorrows.
The slaughter of lord, kin, village, and keep.
Best to swallow grief, to blot out memories.
Best to seal up the heart's wretchedness.

There is none with whom to speak,
No one alive who will understand.
Best to hide sorrow in one's chest.
The storms of fate suffice to busy me.

Years ago, I buried my master in the ground.
Grieving, I crossed winter seas seeking another:
A generous lord to share hall and treasure,
And I a friendless man seeking order anew.

But frostbite and hunger are my lot now.
My sleep is haunted by dreams of the past:
I kneel acknowledging my master's gift.
Gladly I accept a boon of gold in service.

Then the seabirds' shriek startles me.
I shiver in the dark dawn's frost and hail.
My heart recalls the image of my dream.
The pangs of sorrow and exile reawaken.

The present is overthrown by the past.
Rue rash youth's squandering of fortune.
All things dissipate like sea mist.
There is nothing to cling to but memories.

Is not the wise man's virtue patience?
Oaths and intemperance are follies.
The wise man guards his heart with caution.
The cheerful hall will be desolate in old age.

Everywhere the wind blows through empty ruins.
A few walls are left, covered with frost.
Unburied dead, once proud kin, lie wretched.
They are the sad prey of crows and wolves.

The lands were made desolate in a stroke.
Now the halls and remnants are silent.
Stonework empty, wealth dissipated:
Everywhere the same thing meets the eye.

Horse, rider, ring-giver, chalice,
High seats, hall-sounds -- where are they?
So asks my dark mind, full of grief.
Gone, as if never having been.

Storms blast the rocky cliffs.
Blizzards lash earth and sea.
Winter comes, darkness falls.
The world lies silent and empty.

No men or women to be found.
All in this life is suffering.
No good fortune to be expected.
No abode but a house of sorrow.

The wise man cloaks his heart:
Steadfastness and temperance.
He does well to dissemble his feelings.
Let his faith rest in that alone.