Washington State University
The Wanderer exists in one manuscript — the Exeter Book, from about 975. But it almost always appears in translation among the Old English poetry in any anthology of English literature. It is considered a prime example of the Old English elegy; others include The Seafarer, Deor, The Wife’s Lament, and The Ruin.
The elegiac mood of this Anglo-Saxon poem is created by the description of the “eard-stappa” (earth-stepper) who is the sole survivor of a “fierce war-slaughter.” Much is made traditionally of the occurrence of the Ubi sunt? trope — the series of lamenting questions (“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”; “Where have all the flowers gone?”; etc.). Most worth noting, though, in terms of “poetry,” is the series of images concerning binding and enclosures:
- “it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart’s coffer, keep closed the hoard-case of his mind….”
- “men eager for fame shut sorrowful thought up fast in their breast’s coffer.”
- “I … have had to fasten with fetters the thoughts of my heart….”
The earth in this poem “covers” and “binds” his “gold-friends” now dead. He sees the ruin, which once contained scenes of joyous gatherings and now is being “bound” with thick snow, and says, “all this earthly habitation shall be emptied.” So part of the grim mood of this poem is created by the subtle implication that the Wanderer, like the ruin, will eventually too lose those warm scenes inside, his memories of happier times, when the enclosure that is himself becomes similarly “bound” and covered.
Conner, Patrick W. “The Old English Elegy: A Historicization.” Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Ed. David Johnson and Elaine Treharne. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 30-45.
Conner finds the sentiments in The Seafarer to be “an exact counterpart to the Guild-statutes’ requirements that members sponsor masses or psalters to be said at the death of a fellow member, constituting one of the monastery’s most lucrative functions” (37).
Pope, John C. Seven Old English Poems. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1981. 28-32.
The Wanderer. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. I. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986. 78-81.