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 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, usually translated as “wanderer” (from eard meaning “earth” or “land”, and steppan, meaning “to step”), 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 the heart) 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.
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 of the past, and concludes with an admonition to put faith in God, “in whom all stability dwells”.