A traveler is not a wanderer and the wanderer is not a hermit, but there are affinities among them.
The Japanese Zen poet and hermit Basho traveled throughout Japan visiting shrines and places of interest — but on his last journey he had renounced his property, a hut, expecting not to return. Basho’s journey was as a pilgrim and a traveler but he was not lost, in the sense that we typify the classic wanderer. In part due to age and infirmity, he traveled in company and not strictly as a hermit, but in spirit he was still so.
What is a wanderer but a homeless soul, or perhaps a dwelling-less one? The hijiri of Japan, also inspired by spiritual motives, considered themselves homeless, much like the sadhu of Hindu India and the digambara of Jainism. These are wanderers in that they trek across the geography without possession or claim to anything on the earth. In this way they belong unabashedly to it. But they, too, are not lost.
Wanderers have been made so, too, in history — exiles, fugitives, and survivors of war and disasters. Their pitiable states are hardly to be romanticized. Victims of injustice or historical circumstance fall into the category of involuntariness. That is a social consequence, not a freely elected pursuit.
Thus the “Wanderer” of Old English elegy (see Hermitary article) borders on eremitism not because of any less involuntariness but because he concludes that to be alone and a solitary is his fate — though how he got there was not of his choosing. He reflects and writes and universalizes, and so becomes a wanderer.
Odysseus of Greek lore is a homeless victim of war, too, but he savors adventure, mingling pleasure with the sorrow of exile and the longing for home. The difference with the Old English poet is that Odysseus has not lost his home but only lost his way home. Because he can still identify with home, and with a wife and child and property, Odysseus is a wanderer by proxy.
Sea poems with their vigor and optimism make wandering the opposite of tragic tales of exile and loss. The poetry of John Masefield, for example, should be read aloud for its exquisite capture of rhythm:
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. …
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry-yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
These are rousing lines even if we adhere to the Portuguese saying: “Love the sea but stay on the land.” Masefield could be giving voice to the Dharma Bums at sea, or even Han-shan were he to trade his Chinese mountain haunts for the ocean, assuming he could tolerate his fellow mariners. Masefield is not a hermit, of course, but the secret pleasure that he enjoys being both alone and simultaneously in company is not unlike a coenobite’s monastery flung open to the sky and seas, with cabin provisions for the hermit.
Such enthusiasm should infect eremitism and solitude just as throughly. Except for the struggles with philosophizing and emotions, a hermit can awaken each day just as intensely. Ascending mountains of logic can have its reward, but a wild appreciation for what is right there in front of us, filling our eyes or nostrils or sweeping our hair, can bring to our days as wanderers a great joy.