The Wanderer (Old English poem)

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The Wanderer
First page of The Wanderer from the Exeter Book
LanguageOld English
DateImpossible to determine[1]
ProvenanceExeter Book
Verse formAlliterative verse
Lengthc. 115 lines
PersonagesThe narrator of the "wise man"'s speech, and the "wise man", presumably the "Wanderer" himself.
TextThe Wanderer at Wikisource

The Wanderer is an Old English poem preserved only in an anthology known as the Exeter Book, a manuscript dating from the late 10th century. It comprises 115 lines of alliterative verse. As is often the case with Anglo-Saxon verse, the composer and compiler are anonymous, and within the manuscript the poem is untitled.


The date of the poem is impossible to determine, but scholarly consensus considers it to be older than the Exeter Book itself, which dates from the late 10th century.[2] The inclusion of a number of Norse-influenced words, such as the compound hrimceald (ice-cold, from the Old Norse word hrimkaldr), and some unusual spelling forms, has encouraged others to date the poem to the late 9th or early 10th century.[3]

As is typical of Old English verse, the metre of the poem is alliterative and consists of four-stress lines, divided between the second and third stresses by a caesura. Each caesura is indicated in the manuscript by a subtle increase in character spacing and with full stops, but modern print editions render them in a more obvious fashion. It is considered an example of an Anglo-Saxon elegy.[4]


The Wanderer conveys the meditations of a solitary exile on his past happiness as a member of his lord's band of retainers, his present hardships and the values of forbearance and faith in the heavenly Lord. The warrior is identified as eardstapa (line 6a), usually translated as "wanderer" (from eard meaning "earth" or "land", and steppan, meaning "to step"[5]), who roams the cold seas and walks "paths of exile" (wræclastas). He remembers the days when, as a young man, he served his lord, feasted together with comrades, and received precious gifts from the lord. Yet fate (wyrd) turned against him when he lost his lord, kinsmen and comrades in battle—they were defending their homeland against an attack—and he was driven into exile. Some readings of the poem see the wanderer as progressing through three phases; first as the ānhaga (solitary man) who dwells on the deaths of other warriors and the funeral of his lord, then as the mōdcearig man (man sorrowful of heart)[6] who meditates on past hardships and on the fact that mass killings have been innumerable in history, and finally as the snottor on mōde (man wise in mind) who has come to understand that life is full of hardships, impermanence, and suffering, and that stability only resides with God. Other readings accept the general statement that the exile does come to understand human history, his own included, in philosophical terms, but would point out that the poem has elements in common with "The Battle of Maldon", a poem about a battle in which an Anglo-Saxon troop was defeated by Viking invaders.[7]

However, the speaker reflects upon life while spending years in exile, and to some extent has gone beyond his personal sorrow. In this respect, the poem displays some of the characteristics of Old English wisdom poetry. The degeneration of “earthly glory” is presented as inevitable in the poem, contrasting with the theme of salvation through faith in God.

The wanderer vividly describes his loneliness and yearning for the bright days past, and concludes with an admonition to put faith in God, "in whom all stability dwells".


Critical history[edit]

The development of critical approaches to The Wanderer corresponds closely to changing historical trends in European and Anglo-American philology, literary theory, and historiography as a whole.[8]

Like other works in Old English, The Wanderer simply would not have been understood between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries because of the rapid changes in the English language after the Norman Conquest.[9] Until the early nineteenth century, the existence of the poem was largely unknown outside of Exeter Cathedral's library. In John Josias Conybeare's 1826 compilation of Anglo Saxon poetry, The Wanderer was erroneously treated as part of the preceding poem Juliana.[10] It was not until 1842 that it was identified as a separate work, in its first print edition, by the pioneering Anglo-Saxonist Benjamin Thorpe. Thorpe considered it to bear "considerable evidence of originality", but regretted an absence of information on its historical and mythological context.[11] His decision to name it The Wanderer has not always been met with approval. J. R. R. Tolkien, who adopted the poem's ubi sunt passage (lines 92–96) into The Lord of the Rings for his Lament for the Rohirrim, was one of the scholars who expressed dissatisfaction. As early as 1926–7 Tolkien was considering the alternative titles "An Exile", or "Alone the Banished Man", and by 1964–5 was arguing for "The Exile's Lament".[12] Despite such pressure, the poem is generally referred to under Thorpe's original title.

Themes and motifs[edit]

Critics have identified the presence in The Wanderer of a number of themes and formal elements common to the Old English elegies, including the "beasts of battle" motif,[13] the ubi sunt formula,[14] the exile theme,[15] the ruin theme,[15] and the journey motif, as also seen in The Seafarer.[16]

The "beasts of battle" motif, often found in Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, is here modified to include not only the standard eagle, raven, and wolf, but also a "sad-faced man" (sumne drēorighlēor, l. 83). It has been suggested that this is the poem's protagonist.[17]

The ubi sunt or "where is/where are they" formula is present in lines 92–94, in the form hwær cwom ("where has ___ gone"):

The motific use of this phrase emphasises the sense of loss that pervades the poem.

It has been argued that the concluding admonition is a later addition, as it lies at the end of a poem that some would say is otherwise entirely secular in its concerns. Opponents of this interpretation such as I. L. Gordon have argued that because many of the words in the main body of the poem have both secular and religious meanings, it is not necessarily the case that the poem's explicitly religious conclusion represents a later addition.[18]

In "The Wanderer's Courage" (2005), L. Beaston describes the psychological or spiritual progress of the wanderer as an "act of courage of one sitting alone in meditation", who through embracing the values of Christianity seeks "a meaning beyond the temporary and transitory meaning of earthly values".[19]

Speech boundaries[edit]

A plurality of scholarly opinion holds that the main body of the poem is spoken as monologue, bound between a prologue and epilogue voiced by the poet. For example, lines 1–5, or 1–7, and 111–115 can be considered the words of the poet as they refer to the wanderer in the third person, and lines 8–110 as those of a singular individual in the first person.[20] Alternatively, the entire piece can be seen as a soliloquy spoken by a single speaker.[21] Due to the disparity between the anxiety of the "wanderer" (ānhaga) in the first half and the contentment of the "wise one" (snottor) in the second half, others have interpreted it as a dialogue between two distinct personas, framed within the first person prologue and epilogue. An alternative approach grounded in post-structuralist literary theory, and posited by Carol Braun Pasternack identifies a polyphonic series of different speaking positions determined by the subject that the speaker will address.[22]

Influence and adaptations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sanders, Arnie. ""The Wanderer," (MS Exeter Book, before 1072)". Goucher College. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
  2. ^ "The Wanderer." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Julie Reidhead. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 117-118. Print.
  3. ^ Klinck 2001, pp. 19, 21
  4. ^ Greenblatt, Stephen (2012). The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-393-91247-0.
  5. ^ "eard-stapa". Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.
  6. ^ Clark Hall, J. R., ed. (1960) [1894]. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 239. ISBN 9780802065483.
  7. ^ Donaldson, E. T. "The Battle of Maldon" (PDF). W.W. Norton. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  8. ^ Fulk & Cain 2005, p. 177
  9. ^ Stenton 1989
  10. ^ Conybeare 1826, p. 204
  11. ^ Thorpe 1842, p. vii
  12. ^ Lee 2009, pp. 197–198
  13. ^ "The Beasts of Battle: Wolf, Eagle, and Raven In Germanic Poetry".
  14. ^ Fulk & Cain 2005, p. 185
  15. ^ a b Greenfield 1966, p. 215
  16. ^ Stobaugh, James (2012). British Literature: Cultural Influences of Early to Contemporary Voices. New Leaf Publishing Group. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-89051-673-7.
  17. ^ Leslie, R.F. (1966). The Wanderer. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 17.
  18. ^ Gordon, I.L. (January 1954). "Traditional Themes in the Wanderer and the Seafarer". The Review of English Studies. 5 (17): 1–13. JSTOR 510874.
  19. ^ Beaston 2005, p. 134
  20. ^ Greenfield & Calder 1986
  21. ^ Rumble 1958, p. 229
  22. ^ Pasternack 1991, p. 118
  23. ^ Daniel Albright, 'Modernist Poetic Form', in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry, ed. by Neil Corcoran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 24-41 (p. 33).
  24. ^ Stations (Belfast: Ulsterman Publications, 1975), p. 19.
  25. ^ Andy Brown, '"I Went Disguised in it": Re-evaluating Seamus Heaney's Stations', in British Prose Poetry: the Poems Without Lines, ed. by Jane Monson - (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 177-92 (p. 181); ISBN 978-3-319-77862-4, doi:10.1007/978-3-319-77863-1.
  26. ^ Paul Batchelor, '"I am Pearl": Guise and Excess in the Poetry of Barry MacSweeney' (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Newcastle University, 2008), p. 135.
  27. ^ Anhaga: Pray for Hardship & Other Poems (Smoking Lung Press, 2011), ISBN 9781551524306 [first publ. 1983]).
  28. ^ Chris Jones, 'New Old English: The Place of Old English in Twentieth-and Twenty-first-Century Poetry', Literature Compass, 7 (2010), 1009–19 (p. 1016); doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2010.00760.x.
  29. ^ Viñao, Ezequiel. "the wanderer for a cappella voices (2005) from a tenth century anglo-saxon text". tloneditions. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  30. ^ Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). HarperCollins. p. 202. ISBN 978-0261102750.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beaston, Lawrence (2005). "The Wanderer's Courage". Neophilologus. 89: 119–137. doi:10.1007/s11061-004-5672-x. S2CID 171181175.
  • Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems. Translated by Bradley, S. A. J. London: Dent. 1982. (translation into English prose)
  • Conybeare, John Josias (1826). Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Harding and Lepard.
  • Dunning, T. P.; Bliss, A. J. (1969). The Wanderer. New York. pp. 91–92, 94.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Fulk, R. D.; Cain, Christopher M. (2005). A History of Old English Literature. Malden: Blackwell.
  • Greenfield, Stanley B. (1966). A Critical History of Old English Literature.
  • Greenfield, Stanley; Calder, Daniel Gillmore (1986). A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press.
  • Klinck, Anne L. (2001). The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study.
  • Lee, Stuart D. (2009). "J.R.R. Tolkien and 'The Wanderer: From Edition to Application'". Tolkien Studies. 6: 189–211. doi:10.1353/tks.0.0060. S2CID 171082666.
  • Pasternack, Carol Braun (1991). "Anonymous polyphony and The Wanderer's textuality". Anglo-Saxon England. 20: 99–122. doi:10.1017/S0263675100001770. S2CID 161579342.
  • Rumble, Thomas C. (September 1958). "From Eardstapa to Snottor on Mode: The Structural Principle of 'The Wanderer'". Modern Language Quarterly. 19 (3): 225–230. doi:10.1215/00267929-19-3-225.
  • Stenton, Frank (1989). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1842). Codex Exoniensis. A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: William Pickering.

External links[edit]