The Wanderer: Grief and Stoicism

The Wanderer has long been a controversial poem.  Its disjointed nature and multiple themes have led to a great deal of speculation regarding the exact nature of the poem and its composition.  According to Carol Braun Pasternack, “one crux concerns whether the first lines are utterances of the wander or are framing remarks made in the author’s own voice” (37).  The frequently shifting tones of the speaker, from stoic to mournful to even more mournful to contemplative and deeply religious, as well as the different titles of the speaker (eardstapa becoming snottor), have led scholars to draw wildly differing conclusions about the nature of the piece.  Rumble says that “they have held that it is a self-contained poem, having its own special kind of organic unity, or that it shows a definite lack of unity; they have seen it as a dialogue between a wanderer and a wise man, or simply as the monologue of a wanderer, which is in turn set forth and commented on by the poet; they have concluded that it is, after all, little more than an extremely primitive elegy, or that it is essentially a kind of lament-and-conclusion poetic exemplum” (225).  Pasternack has defined this disjunction of themes and voices as a characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, commenting that,

as is conventional in Old English verse, the sequence we now call The Wanderer

consists of discrete movements, one added on to another.  Their separateness derives from their diverse rhetorical and syntactic patterns and ways of defining the theme that runs throughout, that of human isolation (36-7).

Rumble points out that “though the distinction may be a fine one, it is probably best to regard the poem simply as a soliloquy rather than as a dramatic monologue; and we may therefore attribute all of the lines to a single speaker – the anhaga of the first line, who refers to himself variously, in first person and third, as ic,  eardstapa, eorl, and snottor on mode” (229).   While many scholars do feel this work to be the result of more than one poet, I felt, while studying their works, that most of these critics are of the same mindset: the mindset which says that Homer could not possibly have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey, as the poems are far too different to have been written by the same author.  My feeling, shared by many of the critics, is that The Wanderer is a poem in which we see a man gradually learning how to deal with grief and passing through various moods and modes of speech in that learning process.

Another difficult question has been what, exactly, the wanderer has been learning.  Bradley, not surprisingly, views The Wanderer solely as a Christian poem, explaining that:

hearers of this poem, led vicariously through the experiencing of this rational

process, are thus tutored – as Bede says Cędmon’s audience was tutored by his

didactic poetry (HE, Bk. IV, ch.24) – to share in its insights and so perhaps gain for themselves that gift of grace for which the exile prays in Rsg, for which Conscience cries at the end of Piers Plowman when he resolves to be a pilgrim, and in faithful reference to which Wan opens and closes (322). 

But not every scholar has seen this poem as simply Christian sermonizing, the product of a thoroughly Christianized culture.  W.W. Lawrence has argued against the separation of the poem into Christian and Pagan elements, believing that the poem was the work of a recently converted people: “Does it not seem equally probable that men of this character might well have given their work, as it was produced, such Christian coloring as this by way of making a concession to the new religion?  Such concessions would naturally seem incongruous” (Lawrence, qtd. in Pasternack, 34-5).  Many scholars, however, feel that the poem, instead of having a predominately religious bent, whether Christian or Pagan, is simply about the values held by Anglo-Saxon culture, values that went beyond literal or specific religious experience.  Tom Shippey says that “strength of mind” is a persistent concern in AS poetry (qtd. in Klein, 66), and The Wanderer certainly addresses the issue of how to stay resolute in the face of tragedy.  Thomas D. Hill points out that the values expressed in the poem do not have to be considered as strictly Christian or as strictly Pagan, pointing out that “both Anglo-Saxon Christian thought and traditional Germanic culture, which informed the ideas of the warrior elite, were profoundly influenced by what we may loosely call “stoicism”: either Greco-Roman stoicism as it was transmitted directly or modified by the Church fathers on the one hand, or on the other hand by a Germanic stoicism whose origins are hard to discern, but which is clearly recognizable as a local expression of stoic ethical ideas” (86).  As Kevin Crossley-Holland puts it, “it is now generally held that the poem is authentically Christian, in a literal rather than an allegorical way, but that the values of pagan society still exert a powerful pull in it” (Longman, 150).

            I was drawn to this poem because of the speaker’s struggle between his beliefs and his feelings, between his stoicism and faith in God and the intense grief he feels at the loss of everything he holds dear.  I’m fascinated, reading the wanderer tell of how a man must “his mind-stronghold fast bind, hold his heart-coffer, think as he will” (13-14), but then abandon his own declaration of stoicism as he is overwhelmed by the intensity of his loss.  This tension exists in much of Anglo-Saxon literature, a tension between bewailing the pain and suffering that were all around and the knowledge that people had to keep it all inside, just to get by.

This tension is vital to a true understanding and appreciation of Anglo-Saxon literature.  A good translation should draw readers in, helping them to become immersed in the culture and feel what the original audience might have felt.  In any piece of literature, cultural context is vital.  Hugo’s Les Miserables is less meaningful without an understanding of the life of the French peasantry in the time of the Revolution, and Anglo-Saxon poetry is no different.  The writing is informed by the culture of the poet and the characters, and a translation is incomplete without the cultural nuances that help an audience experience the life that the characters in the poem might have done.  A truly superb translation, in my opinion, is one which allows the audience, during the performance or reading of the work, to “become” Anglo-Saxon, experiencing the poem from the standpoint of an audience informed by the cultural values and nuances which are central to the poem’s literary and emotional integrity.                     

The content of a translation should be as faithful thematically as it is literally, with just as much emphasis placed upon the deeper meanings of the words as on their literal translations.  Words change in their meanings, and what a word says to us today may not be the same as what it would have said to an Anglo-Saxon audience in the 800’s.  The translator, in choosing between the many possible definitions and phrasings for a word or line, should choose the ones that most thoroughly reflect the cultural nuances of the words, even if this means deviating slightly from the literal to the figurative.  In essence, a translation should be accurate, but not slavishly so, if literal accuracy would compromise the true intention of the text.  As with any poem, the meaning of the work goes beyond the literal, and imagery and cultural implications should not be lost.

The techniques used should bring the poem as close to the original work in sound as possible, preserving alliteration, syntax, and meter.  Obviously, it's impossible to maintain perfectly the original poetry, but the translation should sound, in its modern English equivalent, as consistent with the music of the original work as possible.  An essential part of any poem is the way it feels when read or listened to, and poetic style is an important part of Anglo-Saxon culture.  To maintain this style, the poet should again make word and phrasing choices which reflect the intent of the original work, and not merely what a dictionary says the words should mean.  After reading a poem, a student should be able to say what an Anglo-Saxon poem in general would or would not sound like, as the unique cultural flavor of the text is allowed to come through.  If the Anglo-Saxon poem sounds no different to the students than a modern piece of poetry or short fiction, then I feel that the translator has failed to properly convey the original artistry of the culture.

            In the course of my research, I looked at the translations of both S.A.J. Bradley and Kevin Crossley-Holland.  I didn’t like Bradley’s very much.  I found his translation to be stilted and dull: “Often, when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man…” (39) is too wordy for my tastes, and lacks the simple directness which I feel Anglo-Saxon poetry ought to have.  Bradley’s frequent use of Latinate words – “preoccupy” rather than “hold,” “extinction” rather than “death,” “fall,” or “ruin,” “ephemeral” rather than Crossley-Holland’s (and everyone else’s) “fleeting,” and “immutable” rather than “security” distract the reader, removing the poem from its Anglo-Saxon roots, and taking away immediacy and poetry.  His translation of “eald enta geweorc” (87) as “ancient gigantic structures” is boring and completely uninspiring; it makes me think of steel skyscrapers, or something out of a sci-fi film.  Crossley-Holland, on the other hand, translates that as “the ancient works of the giants,” which sounds much more mysterious and as if something really dreadful must have befallen the land to make even the works of giants empty and ruinous.  Bradley’s translation, “Where has gone the steed?  Where has gone the man?  Where has gone the giver of treasure?” while literally accurate, is halting and uninteresting, and is one of the few times where Bradley left the text exactly as it is (and why start here, of all places?).   And when Bradley does add elements to the text, they rarely make sense.  In lines 26-27, Bradley translates, “whether far or near, I might find the one who would acknowledge my love in the mead-hall.”  In addition to sounding like he’s on the verge of writing a campy musical, Bradley makes this line up for inexplicable reasons.  In their A Guide to Old English, Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson explain that  “Only if a lord has prior knowledge of the man’s tribal affiliations will he be willing to accept the wanderer into his retinue” (271) . Kevin Crossley-Holland translates this line as “a man who would welcome me into his mead-hall” (Longman, 151)  -- a more logical translation as well as a less cheesy one -- whereas I have gone with the more straightforward “he that in mead-hall/of me knows,” for the wanderer would need to find a place where they knew of him and of his connections. 

            I liked Crossley-Holland’s translation a great deal.  He manages to

explain cultural allusions while preserving the feel of the text, and subtly  adds the explanation his readers need.  For example, in lines 27-28, he gives an explanation of the importance of finding a lord in his friendless state without making this explanation laborious, speaking of looking for “a man who would welcome me into his mead-hall/give me good cheer (for I boasted no friends)” (Longman, 151).  Including the explanation that the wanderer boasts no friends allows the reader to make the connection between his outcast status and the need to find a new lord.  However, despite the excellent balance in this translation between accessibility and flow, I found it a bit too modern overall.  Since one of the purposes of a translation is to allow the reader to experience Anglo-Saxon culture, and since AS poetic techniques are part of that culture, I consider it important to preserve as much of the original style of the work as possible.  Crossley-Holland, while he translates the work well with regards both to literal meaning and cultural implication, preserves less of the Anglo-Saxon-ness of the work, particularly in regards to syntax.  For example, he translates lines 37-38 as, “A man who lacks advice for a long while/from his loved lord understands this” (Longman, 151).  While this is a faithful translation, and quite easy to read and understand, I feel that, with a little more attention to archaic syntax, these lines could be made just as comprehensible, but older and more Anglo-Saxon-sounding, which is why I have translated those lines as, “Therefore understands he who must     his beloved lord’s/dear counsel     long do without.”  I feel that this different word order sounds older, and “long do without” is, I feel, an improvement on “lacks...for a long while.”  In addition, Crossley-Holland’s vocabulary choices, while overall quite acceptable, are occasionally jarring and more Latinate than I feel is suitable for a translation, so long as other words are available.  In line 5, he writes that “Fate is inflexible” (Longman, 151).  This is an accurate translation of the phrase ful aręd, but it lacks a certain punch, failing to convey the truly irresistible nature of Wyrd.  One’s mother is inflexible about whether or not one eats one’s vegetables; Fate, on the other hand, has a definite goal in mind and will bring it about. Inflexible is a rather weak term, as well as being very un-Anglo-Saxon.  For this line, I chose to say rather that “Fate is full resolute,” which I think says much more effectively that Fate is a powerful force which cannot be thwarted, as well as sounding less cold and logical; Fate, rather than being merely some impersonal tendency of the universe, is much more imposing if it has a will and a purpose.  Crossley-Holland’s translation is very good in most ways, but I feel it could be improved upon by closer attention to the feel of the poetry itself, enforcing the cultural references and faithful translational choices he makes.  His translation, while suitable for a beginning class, could be made just as suitable, and somewhat more poetic, by somewhat more Germanic word choice and an older grammar than the one he sometimes uses.

Works Cited

Klein, W. F.. “Purpose and “Poetics” of The Wanderer and  The Seafarer.”  Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation For John C. McGalliard.  ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame: U Notre Dame P, 1975. 208-223.

Pasternack, Carol Braun.  The Textuality of Old English Poetry.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 33-59.

Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Mass: Blackwell, 2002.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin.  “The Wanderer.”  The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol. 1A, 2nd Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc, 2003, 150-3.








Works Consulted

Green, Martin.  “Man, Time, and Apocalypse In The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and BeowulfOld English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe. Garland Publishing, 1994

Harbus, Antonina.  “Deceptive Dreams in The Wanderer.”  Studies in Philology 93.2 (1996): 164-179.

Johnson, William C, Jr. “ ‘Deep Structure and Old English Poetry’.” In Geardagum: Essays on Old English Language and Literature. ed. Loren C. Gruber and Dean Loganbill. The Society for New Language Study, 1974: 12-17.

Rumble, Thomas C. “From Eaerdstapa to Snottor on Mode: the Structural Principle of The WandererMod. Lang. Quarterly 19 (1958): 225-230.

Clark Hall, J.R..  A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: 4th Edition.  Toronto: Cambridge University Press, 1960   







The Wanderer


The Wand


The Wanderer


Oft him anhaga     are gebideš,


metudes miltse,     žeah že he modcearig


geond lagulade     longe sceolde


hreran mid hondum     hrimcealde sę


wadan wręclastas.     Wyrd biš ful aręd!





Swa cwęš eardstapa,     earfeža gemyndig,


wražra węlsleahta,     winemęga hryre:





Oft ic sceolde ana     uhtna gehwylce


mine ceare cwižan.     Nis nu cwicra nan


že ic him modsefan     minne durre


sweotule asecgan.     Ic to sože wat


žęt biž in eorle     indryhten žeaw,


žęt he his feršlocan     fęste binde,


healde his hordcofan,     hycge swa he wille.


Ne męg werig mod     wyrde wišstondan,


ne se hreo hyge     helpe gefremman.


Foršon domgeorne     dreorigne oft


in hyra breostcofan     bindaš fęste;


swa ic modsefan     minne sceolde,


oft earmcearig,     ešle bidęled,


freomęgum feor     feterum sęlan,


sižžan geara iu     goldwine minne


hrusan heolstre biwrah,     ond ic hean žonan


wod wintercearig     ofer wažema gebind,


sohte seledreorig     sinces bryttan,


hwęr ic feor ožže neah     findan meahte


žone že in meoduhealle     mine wisse,


ožže mec freondleasne     frefran wolde,


wenian mid wynnum.     Wat se že cunnaš


hu sližen biš     sorg to geferan


žam že him lyt hafaš     leofra geholena:


waraš hine wręclast,     nales wunden gold,


feršloca freorig,     nalęs foldan blęd.


Gemon he selesecgas     ond sincžege,


hu hine on geoguše     his goldwine


wenede to wiste.     Wyn eal gedreas!





Foržon wat se že sceal     his winedryhtnes


leofes larcwidum     longe foržolian:


šonne sorg ond slęš     somod ętgędre


earmne anhogan     oft gebindaš.


žinceš him on mode     žęt he his mondryhten


clyppe ond cysse,     ond on cneo lecge


honda ond heafod,     swa he hwilum ęr


in geardagum     giefstolas breac.


Šonne onwęcneš eft     wineleas guma,


gesihš him biforan     fealwe wegas,


bažian brimfuglas,     brędan fežra,


hreosan hrim ond snaw     hagle gemenged.





Žonne beoš žy hefigran     heortan benne,


sare ęfter swęsne.     Sorg biš geniwad


žonne maga gemynd     mod geondhweorfeš;


greteš gliwstafum,     georne geondsceawaš


secga geseldan;     swimmaš oft on weg


fleotendra ferš     no žęr fela bringeš


cušra cwidegiedda.     Cearo biš geniwad


žam že sendan sceal     swiže geneahhe


ofer wažema gebind     werigne sefan.





Foržon ic gežencan ne męg     geond žas woruld


for hwan modsefa     min ne gesweorce


žonne ic eorla lif     eal geondžence,


hu hi fęrlice     flet ofgeafon,


modge magužegnas.     Swa žes middangeard


ealra dogra gehwam     dreoseš ond fealleš;


foržon ne męg weoržan wis     wer, ęr he age


wintra dęl in woruldrice.     Wita sceal gežyldig,


ne sceal no to hatheort     ne to hrędwyrde,


ne to wac wiga     ne to wanhydig,


ne to forht ne to fęgen,     ne to feohgifre


ne nęfre gielpes to georn,     ęr he geare cunne.


Beorn sceal gebidan,     žonne he beot spriceš,


ožžęt collenferš     cunne gearwe


hwider hrežra gehygd     hweorfan wille.


Ongietan sceal gleaw hęle     hu gęstlic biš,


žonne ealre žisse worulde wela     weste stondeš,


swa nu missenlice     geond žisne middangeard


winde biwaune     weallas stondaž,


hrime bihrorene,     hryšge ža ederas.


Woriaš ža winsalo,     waldend licgaš


dreame bidrorene,     duguž eal gecrong,


wlonc bi wealle.     Sume wig fornom,


ferede in foršwege,     sumne fugel ožbęr


ofer heanne holm,     sumne se hara wulf


deaše gedęlde,     sumne dreorighleor


in eoršscręfe     eorl gehydde.


Yžde swa žisne eardgeard     ęlda scyppend


ožžęt burgwara     breahtma lease


eald enta geweorc     idlu stodon.





Se žonne žisne wealsteal     wise gežohte


ond žis deorce lif     deope geondženceš,


frod in ferše,     feor oft gemon


węlsleahta worn,     ond žas word acwiš:





Hwęr cwom mearg? Hwęr cwom mago?  Hwęr cwom mažžumgyfa?


Hwęr cwom symbla gesetu?     Hwęr sindon seledreamas?


Eala beorht bune!     Eala byrnwiga!


Eala žeodnes žrym!     Hu seo žrag gewat,


genap under nihthelm,     swa heo no węre.


Stondeš nu on laste     leofre duguže


weal wundrum heah,     wyrmlicum fah.


Eorlas fornoman     asca žryže,


wępen węlgifru,     wyrd seo męre,


ond žas stanhleožu     stormas cnyssaš,


hriš hreosende     hrusan bindeš,


wintres woma,     žonne won cymeš,


nipeš nihtscua,     noržan onsendeš


hreo hęglfare     hęležum on andan.


Eall is earfošlic     eoržan rice,


onwendeš wyrda gesceaft     weoruld under heofonum.


Her biš feoh lęne,     her biš freond lęne,


her biš mon lęne,     her biš męg lęne,


eal žis eoržan gesteal     idel weoržeš!





Swa cwęš snottor on mode,     gesęt him sundor ęt rune.


Til biž se že his treowe gehealdež,     ne sceal nęfre his torn to rycene


beorn of his breostum acyžan,     nemže he ęr ža bote cunne,


eorl mid elne gefremman.     Wel biš žam že him are seceš,


frofre to Fęder on heofonum,     žęr us eal seo fęstnung stondeš.

My translation

1                      Often the lonely one     mercy awaits,

the creator’s favor,     although, mind-anxious,

he through sea-ways     long must

stir with his hands     the rime-cold sea,

5          travel a path of exile.     Fate is full resolute!             

            So spoke the wanderer,     mindful of hardship,

of cruel slaughter,     beloved kinsmen’s fall:

“Oft I must lonely     each dawn

my cares lament.     There is now living none

10        to whom I might     my heart dare

to clearly tell.     I for truth know

that it is in a man     a very noble practice

that he his mind-stronghold       binds fast,

holds his heart-coffer,     think as he will.

15        Nor may the weary heart     Fate withstand,

nor the troubled heart     help provide.

So, doom-eager,     sorrow he often

in his breast-coffer     binds full fast;

so I my spirit     also must bind,

20        oft wretched and troubled,     of homeland deprived,

from noble kinsmen far,      with fetters bound,

since years ago     my gold-friend

the earth in darkness covered,                 and I wretched thence

traveled winter-grieved     over waves’ binding,

25        sought, loss-wearied,     treasure’s bestower,

where I far or near     might find

he that in mead-hall     of me knows,

or me, friendless,     would comfort,

treat me with kindness.     Knows he who has seen it

30        how cruel is     sorrow to meet with

when he few     beloved friends has:

the path of exile held him,     not at all wound gold;

a frozen heart,     not at all this world’s glory.

Remembers he hall-warriors     and receipt of treasure,

35        how he in his youth     his gold-friend

used to know.     Joy is all perished!

Therefore understands he who must     his beloved lord’s

dear counsel     long do without:

when sorrow and sleep     together

40        the wretched exile     oft hold fast,

thinks he in his mind     that he his liege lord

embraces and kisses     and on his knee lays

hands and head,     as he sometimes before

in days gone by     the throne had enjoyed.

45        Then wakes again     the friendless man,

sees before him     dark paths,

bathing seabirds,     spreading feathers,

frost and snow falling,     in hail mingled.

            Then is the heavier     the heart-wound,

50        grieving after the beloved.     Sorrow is renewed.

When remembrance of kin     passes through mind,

he greets it joyfully,     eagerly looks upon

the companions of men;     they again float away.

The seafarer’s spirit     cannot bring there

55        a familiar song.     Care is renewed

when he often     must send

over waves’ fetter     his weary heart.

                        And so I cannot think     throughout this world

why my spirit     does not grow dark

60        when I a warrior’s life     meditate upon,

how he suddenly     the hall abandoned,

the bold young thane.     So this middle-earth           

through each of all days     fails and falls;

therefore a man cannot become wise,     ere he have

65        his portion of winters in this world-kingdom.   


 A wise man shall be patient,

nor by no means too impulsive,     nor too hasty of speech,

nor too weak a warrior,     nor too reckless,

nor too afraid nor too happy,     nor too greedy,

nor never boasting too eagerly,     ere he clearly knows.

70        A man shall wait,     when he speaks boastfully,

until, stout-hearted,     he fully knows

whither his heart’s thought     will turn.

The wise man shall see     how ghastly it is,

when all this world’s riches     deserted stand,

75        as now in many places     throughout this middle-earth

walls stand,     blown by the wind,

rime-covered,     the snow-swept buildings.

Moldered is the wine-hall,     rulers lie dead,

of delight deprived,     troops all perished,

80        proud by the wall.  One war took,

brought into the forth-way,     one a bird bore off

over the wretched sea;     one the hoary wolf

brought to death;     one a dreary-faced warrior

in the earth-cave     that nobleman hid.

85       And so destroyed the hearth-place of men    man’s creator,

until devoid of the noise     of the city-dwellers

the old works of giants     empty stand idle.

                        He then this ruin,     this way considers,

and this dark life     deeply ponders,

90        wise in spirit,     remembers

the slaughter of many,     and this word speaks:


“Where now the horse? Where now the man? Where now the giver of treasure?

Where now the throne? And where now the hall-joys?

O for the bright cup, for the mailed warrior!

95        O for the glory of the prince!     How that time has now passed away,

darkened under night’s helm,     as though it had never been.

Instead of beloved troops,     there now stands a wall,

wondrously high,     with worm-likeness stained.

Men were lost     through force of the ash-spear,

100      that weapon greedy for slaughter --     a noble fate.

And now this stone cliff     by storms is battered;

snowstorms fall,     binding earth

in winter’s tumult     when darkness comes,  

when looms the night-shadow,     hail-storms fierce,

105      sent from the North     with malice towards men.”

All is fraught with hardship     in this world-kingdom,

and Fate unbinds all     this world under heaven.

Here wealth is fleeting,     here friends are fleeting,

here man is fleeing,     here woman is fleeting,

110      and all this world’s joys     soon become desolate!”


                        So spoke the wise man in his heart,     sitting apart at secret counsel.

Good is he that holds to his faith,     nor shall he grieve too quickly,

make his heart known to men,     unless he first knows the remedy,

the courageous nobleman.     And well be it for him who mercy seeks,

115     consolation from the Father in heaven,     where all our fastness lies.