The Wanderer for Undergrads

            Literary critics credit The Wanderer with illustrating an honest view of Anglo-Saxon culture all contained in one poem.  Characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle, this poem, as described by Martin Green, presents the plight of men “locating their lives in a meaningless present” (506).  Carol Braun Pasternack identifies a main theme simply as “a philosophical lamentation about the disappearance of all that is joyful and dear on this earth,” and the poem as one in which time eventually takes everything (37). 

            The scholarship about  The Wanderer focuses on elements of the poem including the sources with specific attention to the pagan and Christian elements, the dream sequence of the poem, and the number of speakers, especially as related to the structure.  According to Anne L. Klinck, “few scholars would regard the ‘pagan’ and Christian elements in The Wanderer as separable,” as she presents a rather unified reading of the poem (32), less polarized between Christian and pagan perspectives than the readings of other scholars. Klinck also notes the argument made by G.V. Smithers, which makes a complex analysis of the poem into a “four part-allegorical schema” (33). 

Another of the more complicated views, that of Sealy Ann Gilles, attempts to patchwork together the sources of the poem that might be traced to gnomic verses, Old Irish proverbs, and Anglo-Saxon homilies (53, 62-63).  Still another view of  the sources of the poem with reference to Christian and pagan elements suggests we characterize the poem in the genre of a Christian “plaint” or “planctus” (Rosemary Woolf 206).  Robert Hasenfratz presents one of the few potential connections outside the corpus of early literature from the British Isles or Scandinavia, arguing for meaningful connections to the Aeneid in the birds the wanderer sees while coming out of his dream (313).  Still, perhaps the most complex argument consists of Richard North’s calling the poem a direct “contemplation of Boethius and other sources’ (98).  So, clearly, scholars have the ability to present a very complicated understanding of The Wanderer.

            I, however, prefer less complicated argulments that  lend themselves to suggesting that The Wanderer could be understood in a much simpler manner. Paul De Lacy argues for some serious parallels with the themes of Ecclesiastes (128) and for a similarity in form, suggesting that at very least the Anglo-Saxon poem and the Biblical work share at their core “an overwhelming sense of the transitory nature of existence” (129), one of the most important, depressing, and simple themes of The Wanderer.  This notion that the poem is about the “meditative lament” (De Lacy 125) of a depressed guy became absolutely central to my translation and further understanding of the poem.

            The transitory nature of existence also appears in the critics’ discussion of the Wanderer’s dream.  Antoine Harbus asserts, “At the heart of The Wanderer is a dream” (164). The poem’s focus on the dream was especially important to me, because in choosing a poem to translate for my audience I was drawn to The Wanderer for its true rendering of the Anglo-Saxon spirit and dream-like qualities.   According to Andrew Galloway, the poem, like The Seafarer presents “dreams characteristic of the [Anglo-Saxon] worlds that the narrators inhabit” (485). So the poem illustrates the ultimate futility common to the Anglo-Saxon man: loneliness and transience, which become apparent in dreams.  And, as the poem, according to Harbus, involves a story of “mental wandering” (165) in the dream world, this transience becomes very central to the poem. This sense of transience interested me greatly in its link to our experience now, as human beings, because I think many potential readers could very well relate to a poem containing this common idea of a “negative condition,” consisting of “mental and spiritual disorder” (Harbus 178). 

            So finally, after extracting a fairly straightforward theme from the complicated scholarship about  the content of the poem’s meditations, let’s take a look at the piles of pages that consider the identity of the mediation’s speaker.  From the scholarship I gathered, at this point the conclusions are pretty well established, again in favor of the simpler view, but initially, there was considerable discussion about “how many personae speak in the story, whether it may be as many as three or as few as one” (De Lacy 125).  John C. Pope’s argument stated that the poem contained one initial “wanderer” speaker who then appeals to a wise man or even “preacher” at the end of the poem (173), but even Pope eventually admitted he was mistaken on this matter (Cf. W. F. Klein 209).  Furthermore, the refutation of his work with which Pope agreed pointed out how the “two voice” theory made too much of an issue out of considering them as “dramatic voices,” as these voices, Stanley Greenfield pointed out,  “are not characters in a drama” (214-215).  So the condensed version of this argument might be that we can understand the results of some of the speaker scholarship to consider a great deal of the poem as what Gerald Richman describes as “an Old English example of interior monologue” (307). 

The poem is also noted for its assumption that oral communication was very important to Anglo-Saxons. Jeremy Downes notes how the speaker establishes his truth by virtue of being an older man, deeply experienced in discussion, “snottor on mode” (133), instead of establishing truth by a complicated argument.  This element of oral culture combined with the simple and sad interior monologue fits in well with Jeremy Mandel’s argument that The Wanderer is a “completely accessible poem” (11).  Patrick Cook refers to the poem as having a “concrete plot” (127), and Mandel again refers to it as a “coherent Christian poem” (13).  I should note that in disagreement with scholarship that points to a simpler understanding is Carol Braun Pasternack’s argument, wherein she connects the poem’s oral elements to a more complex view of “polyphony” or multiple voices (51-52).  Still, Mandel continues to argue, “The logic of the poem is quite straight forward” (18), leading to “the wanderer’s new vision of man’s dark life” (Mandel 43).  So from the scholarship on The Wanderer, I gather that a rather simple understanding of the poem can be reached, one that would relate to the average undergraduate student perhaps struggling with similar sadness or depression. 

The Wanderer also shows the importance of togetherness in Anglo-Saxon culture and demonstrates that without friends or family, these people were nothing.  Our speaker is a wanderer, lost and lonely, who falls into dreamlike states when he thinks about his long gone kinsmen, who have all been killed.  He misses them so much that he spends his life in the present dreaming about the past.  This guy is depressed. I have latched onto to all of these elements, themes, and feelings or transience and sadness as worth conveying to an audience of undergraduate students. 

In translating The Wanderer, many translators try to beautify its poetic nature and thus, in my view, lose the story.  We are dealing with a sad, depressed, dark poem and can’t expect to retain the story when we make it more wordy and poetic.  A successful translation should be easy to read and understand in contemporary times. 

Michael J. Alexander, well-known translator of Old English texts with a few books under his belt, destroyed the story of The Wanderer when he “tried to create a translation that breathes poetic spirit back into the Wanderer text” (Alexander 9).  Poetic spirit?  I wonder whom he wrote this poem for, because this is the sort of writing that my audience and I would probably find boring!

Alexander loses readers within the first five lines of the poem:

Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,

Maker’s mercy.  Though he must traverse

Tracts of sea, sick at heart,

Trouble with oars ice-cold waters,

The ways of exile—Weird is set fast. (1-5)

This passage might possibly be the easiest part of the poem to understand, and this translation makes it almost incomprehensible.  The use of archaic vocabulary such as “liveth,” “longeth,” I think would turn off or simply not communicate to plenty of modern readers, not to mention the use of “Weird” translated “wyrd,” leaving the reader with a modernized spelling of an Anglo-Saxon word semantically disconnected from the current meaning. Honestly, I could not expect the average undergraduate to connect with the “concrete plot” of The Wanderer when told with such language.

Benjamin Thorpe happens to also have created a translation that produces a similar effect:

                 Oft the lonely one experiences compassion,

                                  the Creator’s kindness; though he with sorrowing mind,

                                 o’er the watery way, must long

                 agitate with his hands the rime-cold sea,

                    go in exile tracks; his fate is full decreed. (1-5)

I would like to ask this translator, how could we make sense of this word choice? I think again, this translation makes no sense of what could be a great story.  Right from the start, the word “Oft” probably for the sake of meter sets the tone that will become increasingly archaic and confusing.   I’m afraid Thorpe’s  fate as a translator has been ‘full decreed’ as unsuccessful in gaining new followers. 

Another example of such unnecessarily complicated re-creating of this poem surfaces in Nancy Varian Berberick’s translation, which she has even called “The Home-Reft,” and leaves most contemporary readers probably uncertain of who or what the poem is about.

And, such archaic language and complicated structure covers the story in Emily H. Hickey’s translation also.  She opens the poem, “’Still the lone one and desolate waits for his Maker’s ruth–/God’s good mercy, albeit so long it tarry, in sooth” (1-2). To me, apart from the words “ruth” and “sooth” which mean just about nothing to most modern readers, I find the syntax potentially confusing.  I could see an undergraduate not “getting” that “God’s good mercy” is the thing actually doing the tarrying, instead of the Wanderer himself.  And so another translation does not meet my criteria.

Don’t worry, reader, if you still don’t ‘get it,’ Kevin Crossley-Holland does a much better job of story-telling:

          The lonely wanderer prays often for compassion

                And for mercy from Lord God; but for a long time

                Destiny decrees that with a heavy heart he must dip

                His oars into icy waters, working his passage over the sea.

                He must follow the paths of exile.  Fate is inexorable! (1-5)

Finally, a translation that almost gets the (simple) point across!  The straightforward structure is apparent even in the first lines: “The lonely wanderer prays often for compassion,” uses the contemporary “often” as opposed to the archaic “oft.”  Crossley-Holland’s translation was one that I liked best, but I still think there needed to be a more straightforward version for my audience, so I am giving them one (lines 1-5):

                      Often a lonely traveler longs for guidance

                          From God.  His heart is sad and sick.

                          Through the frost-cold seas he has paddled,

                          Breaking the ice with his oar along the way.

              He must travel this icy path of exile; his fate is determined.

My purpose in translating Anglo-Saxon poetry is to make the literature accessible to an audience who would look at a class title like “Translating Anglo-Saxon Poetry” and feel perhapsfeeperhaps a little intimidated, or much more likely, bored. I will demonstrate that the translated form of the poetry is not difficult to read, and that it contains entertaining stories relevant to contemporary life.  Anglo-Saxon poetry is fun!  These people centered their lives on drinking with friends and fighting with enemies; that’s not so different from a good college football game, is it? 

I will avoid the exact, literal translation, as it is littered with double negatives and too choppy to hold the attention of many contemporary readers.  I plan to use a contemporary word order, letting the translated poem take on its own rhythm—completely separate from the Anglo-Saxon poetic meter.  My emphasis will be on getting the story across, and not concerned with sounding “Anglo-Saxon.”

When a college sports team loses the ‘big game,’ devoted fans are sure to feel a bit down, too.  Sure, it doesn’t mean the death of loved ones, but there is a sense of loneliness.  As the opposing fans head to the bar to celebrate, there is one sad fan, standing alone in the nose-bleed section—half-eaten chili-dog in hand—picturing how it might have been.

The Wanderer is a great poem to share with modern audiences.  While it relates to emotions we all have, such as sadness, depression, and loneliness, it also reflects Anglo-Saxon culture.  By providing this very ‘Anglo-Saxon’ poem as easy reading, I might be able to create new followers for the genre.  Sparking interest in even the least likely of audiences, gives hope that this literature won’t die.

The students who make up my target audience probably do not want a translation method that involves “beautification” and creates a complicated, archaic sounding story.  These folks really just want a simple story, told in a way so that they would actually appreciate the literature. 

I don’t have to worry about proper syntax, or poetic meter-- keep in mind these people just want to learn.  All right, party-people, crack open a warm bottle of mead, and enjoy! 

Works Cited

Alexander, Michael J.  The Earliest English Poems.  Penguin: New York, 1991.

Berberick, Nancy Varian.  “The Home-Reft.” Winlandes Scir The United States Chapter of Þa

Engliscan Gesiðas. MarySavelli.1997. 10  July 2003.

Cook, Patrick.  Woriað þa Winsalo: The Bonds of Exile in The Wanderer.”  Neophilogus 80.1

(1996): 127-137.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. “The Wanderer.”  The Battle of Maldon and Other Old English Poems.

ed. Bruce Mitchell.  New York: St. Martin’s., 1965.  105-112.

De Lacy, Paul.  “Thematic and Structural Affinities: The Wanderer and Ecclesiastes.”

Neophilogus 82.1 (1998): 125-137.

Downes, Jeremy.  “Or(e)ality: The Nature of Truth in Oral Settings.”  Oral Tradition in The

Middle Ages.  ed. W.F.H. Nicolaisen.  New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. 129-144.

Galloway, Andrew.  “Dream-Theory in The Dream of The Rood and The Wanderer.”  Review of

English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language  45.180 (1994): 475-485.

Gilles, Sealy Ann.  Ne…to sequences in Old English and Old Irish, with Special Attention to

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Green, Martin.  “Man, Time, and Apocolypse In The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf.”

Journal of English and Germanic Philology.  74 (1974): 502-518.

Greenfiel, Stanley B..  “Min, Sylf, and “Dramatic Voices in The Wanderer and The Seafarer.”

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Hasenfratz, Robert.  Wanderer, lines 45-57 and the Birds of Diomede.”  Journal of English and

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Hickey, Emily H..  “The Wanderer.”  Select Translation from Old English Poetry.  ed. Albert S.

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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.

Klinck,  Anne L.. The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992. 30-34.

Mandel, Jerome.  Alternative Readings in Old English Poetry.  New York: Peter Lang, 1987.  11-70.

North, Richard.  “Boethius and The Mercenary in The Wanderer.”  Pagans And Christians: The Interplay Between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe.  ed. T. Hofstra, la.J.R. Houwen and A.A. MacDonald.  Groningan: Egbert Forsten Groningen, 1995. 71-98.

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

Pope, John C.. “Dramatic Voices in The Wanderer and The Seafarer.”  Francipledius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.. ed. Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. and Robert P. Creed.  New York: NY UP, 1965. 164-193.

Richman, Gerald.  “Speaker and Speech Boundaries in The Wanderer.”  Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings.  ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe. New York: Garland, 1994. 303-318.

Thorpe, Benjamin.  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, According to Several Authorities: Original Texts.  London: Periodicals Service Co., 1972.

Woolf, Rosemary. “The Wanderer, The Seafarer and the Genre of Planctus.”  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. 192-207.

Works Consulted

Alexander, Michael J.  Old English Literature.  New York: Shocken, 1987.

Bennett, Helen T.. “Exile and Semiosis of Gender in Old English Elegies.”  Class and Gender In Early English Literature. ed. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1994. 43-48.

Bronsen, Elsie Straffon.  “The Wanderer.”  English Poems.  ed. Walter C. Bronson.  Freeport, New York: Books For Libraries, 1970.  31-32.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin.  The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthropology.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Greentree, Rosemary.  “The Wanderer’s Horizon: A Note on Ofer Waþema Gebind.”

Neophilogus 86.2 (2002): 307-309.

Hait, Elizabeth A.. “The Wanderer’s Lingering regret: A Study of Patterns of Imagery.”

Neophilogus 68.2 (1964): 278-291.

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge University Press,


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


Pope, John C.. “The Existential Mysteries As Treated in Certain Passages of Our Older Poets.”

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Wanderer.” Mod. Lang. Quarterly 19 (1958): 225-230.

Shippey, T.A.. “The Wanderer and The Seafarer as Wisdom Poetry.”  Companion To Old English Poetry.  ed. Henk Aertse and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr..  Amsterdam: VU UP, 1994.  145-158.