Anglo-Saxon warriors and poets lived in or near the mead hall of their lord. They depended on their lord for their land and their sustenance in return for loyalty in battle and entertainment in the mead hall. The lord showered his followers with gifts and security, and the followers, called...
Anglo-Saxon warriors and poets lived in or near the mead hall of their lord. They depended on their lord for their land and their sustenance in return for loyalty in battle and entertainment in the mead hall. The lord showered his followers with gifts and security, and the followers, called the "comitatus," or the thanes, graciously accepted the gifts and basked in the security. So when something went wrong—when a thane (be he a warrior or a poet) was deprived of his lord by death or exile—that thane's whole world came apart at the seams. He was set adrift in a bleak, hostile world and faced with a lonely, sad existence.
This is exactly what has happened to the wanderer and what he laments. He is an "anhaga," a lone-dweller (line 1), who travels, "modcearig," heart-troubled (line 2), over the "hrimcealde sæ," frost-cold sea (line 3). His beloved kinsmen have fallen in battle; not one is still living. He is deprived of his home and his "goldwine," his gold-friend (line 22), his lord who once showered him with gifts. He no longer has a mead hall to call home or friends to comfort him. He is drifting alone in exile with only his memories for company, and those memories of "selesecges," hall-warriors (line 34), and "sincþege," treasure-receiving, come fast and furious until the wanderer exclaims that all his joy has failed.
The wanderer recalls a time when he once lay his hands and head on his lord's knees as a sign of loyalty, as his "manndryhten," liege-lord (line 41), sat upon the "giefstoles," gift-seat (line 44), but those days are long past. All the wanderer sees now are the fallow waves and seabirds, the frost, and the snow as he grieves for his lost companions and his lost joys.
As the poem continues, the wanderer's lament expands to a more general sorrow about the passing nature of the earth. Everything fades away: people, wealth, dwellings, achievements. Nothing lasts. Everything decays. Men fall in death. Mead halls crumble. Glory departs. The wanderer asks what has become of the horse and the warrior and the treasure-giver and the feasts and the hall-joys he once knew. They are gone, never to return.
Yet not all is lost. The wanderer takes comfort in his Christian faith, trusting in the consolation of God and in the permanence to be found in Him alone.