A good number of the visitors who come to this page by searching evidently have an interest in the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, which contributes to the title of this blog, and to which I refer elsewhere. Not wishing to disappoint you (if you belong to that group, or even if you are merely interested to know more), I am including below a short essay from my days as an undergraduate at Leicester University. Apart from a little tidying up for editing purposes, it demonstrates all the limitations and weaknesses you would expect from such a piece, but – for what it is worth – here it is. Hopefully, it goes some way to explaining why I think the substance is worth hinting at. (The painting, by the way, is entirely anachronistic, being a piece called “The Wanderer” from 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich – but it captures something of the spirit of the poem.)
Discuss the treatment of the theme of isolation in The Wanderer.
The theme of isolation dominates The Wanderer completely. The bulk of the poem grants an insight into the mind of a man who is physically and spiritually an outsider. The misery attendant on such a state is a subject much dwelt on in Old English poetry and The Wanderer demonstrates this sorrow simply and purely. The peculiar sadness of this situation derives from the Germanic heroic tradition. In other cultures the plight of the Wanderer might not be felt so deeply, but the poem itself is introduced and concluded in a decidedly Christian fashion and it is possible that there might be some conflict between these two approaches. Both the physical and the spiritual nature of the Wanderer’s isolation are considered in the course of the poem and in the latter realm at least there exists a multiplicity – though not necessarily a disparity – of approaches to the theme.
The physical aspects of isolation are raised in two ways: by the skilful and emotive use of winter, sea and storm imagery and by the detailed and evocative rendering of the Wanderer’s material discomforts, his distance (in a number of ways) from his home, his lord and his companions. Indeed, Professor Charles Kennedy sees in elegies such as The Wanderer an “artistic interweaving of themes of exile, wintry weather, and elegiac sadness.” Winter in the northern cultures provides a wealth of literary material because its inhospitability, combined with its recognition as the closing season of the year, makes it an ideal medium for thoughts of loss, bitterness, cold, ending and sadness. The very first lines of the poem bring this to attention: the “anhaga,” the “solitary man,” is described as
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ
wadan wræclastas (4-5a)
Again, when the Wanderer wakes from his woeful reverie of past companionship he
gesihð him biforan fealwe wegas,
baþian brimfuglas brædan feþra,
hreosan hrim ond snaw hagle gemened (46-8)
These are images which, even to the modern mind, summon up an intense feeling of loneliness: the keening of the gulls over dark waves as winter spits its inhospitability at the world. Although The Seafarer evokes the loneliness of the trackless sea even more forcibly, The Wanderer poet gives more than enough information for the sensitive reader to feel the full weight of the entire canon of such imagery.
The other ‘winter’ of which the poet speaks is, in a sense, the winter of the Wanderer’s home and culture. In the same way as one speaks of the dawn of a new age, so the imagery of winter is again ideal for the representation of a passing time and place, the twilight of an age. It is in the treatment of this physical aspect that the essence of the Wanderer’s spiritual tragedy can be seen. The Wanderer poet tells us that
swa nu missenlice geond þisne middangeard
winde biwaune weallas stondaþ,
hrime bihrorene, hryðge þa ederas (75-7)
and goes on to bemoan the decay of the mead-halls, the defeat of kings and the death of warriors. The bleak and bitter picture of “duguþ eal gecrong, / wlonc bi wealle” (78b-79a) and the realistic and cruel methods of their despatch are again something which cannot fail to appeal to the emotions of reader or hearer of the poem.
These sentiments, together with the admission that, when “sorg and slæp” have fettered him, he
þinced him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyppe and cysse ond on cneo lecge
honda ond heafod (41-43a)
reveal a heartfelt pain the true depth of which may remain alien to the modern hearer or reader. The isolation of the Wanderer is not merely loneliness: Kennedy informs us that, although the life of the exile “has a relative validity in any age,” the fate of the exile or homeless traveller had far more meaning “in a society which had not yet achieved the concepts of nationalism and citizenship.” In Anglo-Saxon society personal loyalty was of paramount importance and the reciprocal relationship between a man and his lord was what gave social existence meaning. If one’s lord died in battle then to survive the fight would be an admission of failure in a warrior’s responsibility to defend his lord, and thus a great dishonour. Thus the man with no clan and no patron (and it is not impossible to posit, from the context of the poem, that the Wanderer might have either survived or missed a battle he was honour-bound to die in) is truly an outcast, a wanderer with no home, no place in society and no rights.
It is in exactly this situation that the differing treatments of the theme of isolation are most interwoven. In the light of the importance of lord, clan and fellowship, one might expect the Wanderer to muse on or search out some way to find solace through battle or retribution and so satisfy the obligations of the heroic tradition. Instead, there is a strong thread of Christian feeling that runs through The Wanderer and this provides an extra and perhaps not altogether comfortable perspective on the theme of isolation.
The Wanderer is more complex than poems such as The Ruin precisely because of its incorporation of “Christian attitudes and values,” although there are suggestions that “the Christian element is not an integral portion of the original poem.” Nonetheless, both Greenfield and Kennedy concur that “the Christian passages [follow] with complete consistency from the elegiac passages”. It is most definitely possible to see a clear and unwavering logic as the poet progresses from his deliberations on the passing joys and treasures of the world to the eternal consolation of God and the everlasting treasures of Heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20, NKJV).
The Wanderer, having contemplated the ruins of the social unit of which he was part, moves to a deliberation on the “remorselessness of fate.” He asks
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas? (92-3)
sadly acknowledging that the time of the “beorht bune,” “byrnwiga” and “þeodnes þrym” has gone, grown dark “under nihthelm” (94-96a). He again returns to the theme of winter and darkness, concluding that
Eall is eaforðlic eorþan rice (106)
He finally claims that “feoh,” “freond,” “mon” and “mæg” are all ephemeral pleasures and things and that the world is inescapably burdened with sorrows and troubles.
It is at this lowest point, when the Wanderer can only declare that
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð (110)
that the “consolatory Christian answer to the misfortunes of individual fate and to the degeneration of the world” is invoked with no necessary leap from one tone or set of principles to the other. The poet can provide an answer to the emptiness of the fleeting world, so deeply felt by the Wanderer, providing for the outcast “a new ‘patron’ (God, of course)” and promising that
Wel bið þam þe him are seceð
fofre to Fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð (114b-115)
This is a wholly and traditionally Christian answer to the isolation of the Wanderer and neither the poet nor the reader or hearer do or should see any incongruity in the leap from the plight of man to the offer or provision of eternal patronage. The Wanderer is exhorted to leave behind the things and cares of the world (as the poem leaves behind the older, more deeply entrenched view of the world) and find eternal solace in the things of God (as the poem, along with its subject, undergoes some sort of ‘cultural conversion’).
Although isolation is the dominant theme of The Wanderer, its treatment is not entirely simple though it is undoubtedly direct and effective. Physically, the Wanderer is separated by distance and death from the mead-hall, his companions and his lord. This material loss and separation is strongly reinforced by the consistent and highly effective imagery of winter and the sea, as well as the bleak rendering of the proud death of a company of seasoned warriors. Though this strikes a sorrowful chord in the consciousness of the modern reader it is vitally important to recognise that, to the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, this separation was a spiritual as well as a physical issue. The Wanderer is a man entirely alone, a traveller who cannot and doubtless will not ever find an earthly home: it is from this that the work derives its poetic force. Co-existing with this deep-running cultural theme is a different though complimentary emphasis – the depth of feeling summoned up by the Anglo-Saxon tradition gives the Christian message of The Wanderer much of its impact. In this shift and progression the poem “offers the most powerful argument for the Christian faith in a transient world – all else is vain.”
In its treatment of isolation as a physical phenomenon the Wanderer is a relatively typical if extraordinarily powerful example of Old English poetry. In its approach to the spiritual aspects of isolation it skilfully and effectively blends the power of the heroic tradition with a clear Christian message: the former contributes to the force and feeling of the poem while the latter provides an answer to the isolation of the Wanderer and, by extension, to others whose feelings are a reflection of his. It is an extremely potent combination which enables the theme of isolation to transcend the constraints of culture and time and appeal to a far wider and more diverse audience than can have been originally intended.
- Bolton, W.F., ed. The Penguin History of Literature I: The Middle Ages. London: Penguin, 1993
- Bradley, S.A.J., trans. and ed. Anglo Saxon Poetry. London: Everyman, 1982
- Kennedy, Charles W., The Earliest English Poetry. London: OUP, 1943
- Greenfield, Stanley B., A Critical History of Old English Literature. London: University of London Press, 1965
- Mitchell, Bruce and Robinson, Fred C., A Guide to Old English. Fifth edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994 (OE text of The Wanderer taken from this edition)
Charles W. Kennedy, The Earliest English Poetry (London: OUP, 1943) p.105
Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (London: University of London Press, 1965) p.215
Kennedy, op. cit., p.108
Greenfield, op. cit., p.217
J.E.Cross, “The Old English Period”, The Penguin History of Literature I: The Middle Ages, ed. W.F.Bolton (London: Penguin, 1993) p.59