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‘The Wanderer’ is a one of the few surviving Anglo-Saxon poems. It is a part of the Exeter Book. It is written in old English, detailing on Norman Conquest and how the Normans had ravaged the land of the Anglo-Saxons and captured it. The poem given here is a translated version of Jeffrey Hopkins.
About the Poet:
Information about the poet is unknown.
The theme of this poem is loss and sorrow. The ‘wanderer’ is in agony over the loss of his Chief, the loss of his nation and the loss of his identity. The poem however ends with the theme of spirituality and he finds solace in God.
This translated version consists of 116 lines divided into 7 stanzas. As is the nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the lines are alliterative. It does not follow a rhyme scheme.
Often the lonely receives love, The Creator’s help, though heavy with care Over the sea he suffers long Stirring his hands in the frosty swell, The way of exile. Fate never wavers.
In the first stanza, the persona talks about how ‘the lonely’, referring to the ‘wanderer’, was solitarily alone, receiving limited love and God’s grace. He suffers for a long time in exile, fate never showing kindness upon him.
The wanderer spoke; he told his sorrows, The deadly onslaughts, the death of the clan, “At dawn alone I must Mouth my cares; the man does not live Whom I dare tell my depths Straight out. I see truth In the lordly custom for the courageous man To bind fast his breast, loyal To his treasure closet, thoughts aside. The weary cannot control fate Nor do bitter thoughts settle things. The eager for glory often bind Something bloody close to their breasts.
The wanderer from the first stanza speaks here. He tells his tale of woe, how his clan and his chieftain had been killed. There was no one left for him to share his sorrows with. He states how a man who is courageous locks his sorrow in his heart and does not allow sorrowful thoughts enter his mind. The wanderer however was a weak man and hence, he could neither control fate nor could he not harbour bitter feelings for his loss.
“Wretched, I tie my heart with ropes Far from my home, far from my kinsmen Since a hole in the ground hid my chief Long ago. Laden with cares, Weary, I crossed the confine of waves, Sought the troop of a dispenser of treasure, Far or near to find the man Who knew my merits in the mead hall, Who would foster a friendless man, Treat me to joys. He who has put it to a test Knows how cruel a companion is sorrow For one who has few friendly protectors. Exile guards him, not wrought gold, A freezing heart, not the fullness of the earth. He remembers warriors, the hall, rewards, How, as a youth, his friend honored him at feasts, The gold-giving prince. Joy has perished,
Yet, he tries to swallow his grief and goes far away in search of a new ‘dispenser of treasure’, that is, a new Lord and his clan, someone who would be a friend in his lonely existence. He further states how his only companion had been sorrow, how he was in an exile where happiness ceased to exist once the ‘gold-giving prince’, his chieftain, had died.
“He knows how it is to suffer long Without the beloved wisdom of a friendly lord. Often when sorrow and sleep together Bind the worn lonely warrior It seems in his heart that he holds and kisses The lord of the troop and lays on his knee His head and hands as he had before In times gone by at the gift-giver’s throne. When the friendless warrior awakens again He sees before him the black waves, Sea birds bathing, feathers spreading, Frost and snow falling with hail. The wounds of his heart are heavier, Sore after his friends. Sorrow is renewed When the mind ponders the memory of kinsmen; He greets them with joy; he anxiously grasps For something to say. They swim away again. The breasts of ghosts do not bring the living Much wisdom. Woe is renewed For him who must send his weary heart Way out over the prison of waves.
Not only had he lost a friend in losing his Lord but he’d also lost his great wisdom. A lonely warrior now, he is deeply anguished, reminiscing over the happy times he had with his ‘gift-giver’. However, when he comes back to reality from that pleasant memory, grief strikes him once again even as he desperately tries to hold on to the old thoughts.
“Therefore in this world I cannot think of a reason Why my soul does not blacken when I seriously consider All the warriors, tested at war, How they suddenly sank to the floor, The brave kinsmen. But this world Every day falls to dust. No man is wise until he lives many winters In the kingdom of the world. The wise must be patient, Never too hasty with feelings nor too hot with words Nor too weak as a warrior nor too witlessly brash Nor too fearful nor too ready nor too greedy for reward Nor even too feverish for boasting until testing his fibre. A man should wait before he makes a vow Until, like a true warrior, he eagerly tests Which way the courage of his heart will course. The good warrior must understand how ghostly it will be When all this world of wealth stands wasted As now in many places about this massive earth Walls stand battered by the wind, Covered by frost, the roofs collapsed. The wine halls crumbled; the warriors lie dead, Cut off from joy; the great troop all crumpled Proud by the wall. One war took, Led to his death. One a bird lifted Over the high sea. One the hoary wolf Broke with death. One, bloody-cheeked, A warrior hid in a hole in the ground. Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty, Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.”
The wanderer at this point loses his will to live, yearning to have been killed like his kinsmen. He bemoans his fate for being a ‘true warrior’, for now to stand alone in a world where nothing was left for him to live. He grieves the loss of his lord here, how God had mercilessly snatched away his life and that of his clan’s to leave the ‘wanderer’ all alone in the world, joyless.
Then the wise man thinks about the wall And deeply considers this dark life. From times far away the wanderer recalls The deadly slashes and says, “What happened to the horse? What happened to the warrior? What happened to the gift-giver? What happened to the wine hall? Where are the sounds of joy? Ea-la bright beaker! Ea-la byrnied warrior! Ea-la the chiefs majesty! How those moments went, Grayed in the night as if they never were! A wall still stands near the tracks of the warriors, Wondrously high! Worms have stained it. A host of spears hungry for carnage Destroyed the men, that marvelous fate! Storms beat these stone cliffs, A blanket of frost binds the earth, Winter is moaning! When the mists darken And night descends, the north delivers A fury of hail in hatred at men. All is wretched in the realm of the earth; The way of fate changes the world under heaven. Here is treasure lent, here is a friend lent, Here is a man lent, here is a kinsman lent. All of the earth will be empty!”
The ‘wanderer’ considers his life to be a dark one where no one was there to answer his questions about where everyone dear to him had left, where everything that mattered to him ceased to exist. Winter had shrouded his land and his happiness along with it. It delivered its fury on men, taking the life of those beloved to him. Here, the winter refers to the Normans and their cruelty.
So spoke the wise in heart; he sits alone with his mystery. He is good to keep faith; grief must never escape A man’s heart too quickly unless with his might like a true warrior He has sought a lasting boon. It is best for him who seeks love, Help from the heavenly Father where all stands firm.
However, being the true warrior that he was, he does not let his grief completely consume him. He resorts to seeking love and help from God.
This is a heart-wrenching poem which sheds light on the horrors of war and the loss of life and property that accompanies it. It tells the tale of a man who loses everything he stood for and had only grief left in him. Yet, he stays put, seeking refuge in the Heavenly Father, God himself.