"The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer," both of which have distinct thematic similarities—the exile of the speaker and longing for what has passed into oblivion—are very different in their focus but end in a similar place. One is a firsthand account, and the second is a retelling by a second party of what he has heard.
First, in "The Seafarer," the speaker begins the poem with his personal experience:
I can make a true song
about me myself,
tell my travels,
how I often endured
days of struggle,
how I have suffered
grim sorrow at heart
have known in the ship
The speaker's account is intensely personal, obviously based on first-person experience, and leading toward a sorrowful experience centered on his life at sea. The speaker in "The Wanderer," on the other hand, is introduced by an omniscient observer:
Often the solitary one finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord
Although he, sorry-hearted,
must for a long time move by hand
along the waterways, along the ice-cold sea
tread the paths of exile. Events go as they must.
Even though the two poems recount the experience of exile and loss of their relationships to other men, the focus of their experience is very different. One, the wanderer, finds salvation in his experience of exile immediately, while the seafarer searches throughout the poem for his salvation—in both poems, the exiles find resolution, but the wanderer, despite his early discovery of "grace," finds his resolution slightly more problematic as he explores what he has left behind.
The seafarer focuses on the hardships of his exile from his fellow men, an exile obviously tied to the sea:
This [the hardships of exile at sea] the man [those who are at home on land] does not know
the warrior lucky in worldly things what some endure then,
those who tread most widely the paths of exile.
The seafarer speaks most eloquently about exile at sea—he is "fettered by cold" and "bound by frost"—and even though he experiences some pleasurable moments (e.g., "the gannet's noise and the voice of the curlew"), he misses the life of comradeship and the warmth of the hearth. His discomfort seems centered on physical rather than on mental deprivations.
The wanderer, on the other hand, focuses on his inner being, his ability to reach out to his fellow men and unburden himself through conversation:
So I, often wretched and sorrowful,
bereft of my homeland, far from noble kinsmen,
have had to bind in fetters my inmost thoughts...
The consequence of his exile, unlike the seafarer's, is not just physical hardship but also mental hardship—his exile has imposed a kind of mental imprisonment, like the seafarer's being "bound by frost," that binds him "in fetters" because he cannot share his experience with others.
Both men, however, share the same sense of a world gone by, one that both look back on as a better world which was not permanent. The seafarer makes this point starkly when he says,
I do not believe
that the riches of the world will stand forever.
Always and invariably, one of three things
will turn to uncertainty before this fated hour
disease or old age, or the sword's hatred
will tear out the life from those doomed to die.
The seafarer has identified the three most common causes of death in the Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon world—disease, old age, and warfare—that are the only permanent elements in the world of the seafarer. He follows this observation with "all that old guard is gone, and the revels are over," a clear statement of the impermanence of mankind and the world he misses more than any other.
The wanderer, in perhaps the most memorable lament for the impermanence of man and after having recounted the number of ways men die, asks,
Where is the horse gone? Where is the rider?
Where the giver of treasure? Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall? Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
If the first two lines sound familiar, you might have read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings—he uses these lines in the Rohan episode to express the loss of power once wielded by men. The wanderer is not lamenting the loss of his present world; he is recalling, with sadness, the world that pre-dates the Christian world.
Both poems end with very conventional and doctrinally correct praises for the new belief system, Christianity, but, considering the passion with which the speakers lament the passing of their former lives, one cannot help but conclude that these men are looking back rather than forward.
In the final analysis, both The Seafarer and The Wanderer, with slightly different points of view based on the speakers' experiences, explore the loss of what was and the replacement by what is: the loss of a pagan world in which loyalty, military power, individual honor, and gold are the measure of a good life and the new Christian belief system that they now follow, perhaps not with any enthusiasm.