"The Wanderer," like another Anglo-Saxon elegy for a lost world, "The Seafarer," centers on the sadness of a man who has lost his lord, his friends, and his way of life as a pagan. It also depicts the consolation he feels in his new belief system founded on Christianity. In essence, the speaker is moving between two worlds, and he is clearly saddened to lose one but gladdened by the peace offered by the other.
The wanderer, even though he "finds himself grace, the mercy of the Lord" (l. 1a-1b), recounts (as the seafarer does in "The Seafarer") his sorrowful journey through life:
So I, very often wretched and sorrowful, having lost my homeland/ far from noble kinsman, having had to chain my innermost thoughts/. . . and wretched I from there/traveled in sorrow/over the frozen waves/ sought, sad because I have no hall,/ a giver of treasure. . . .(ll. 19a-25b)
Here, the wanderer's mind goes back to his pre-Christian life. He laments his loss of family, friends, and his lord ("giver of treasure"). Perhaps more important, he has no one with whom he can share his sorrow because his thoughts have been chained within him by his isolation.
In perhaps the most powerful elegiac statement in Anglo-Saxon poetry, the wanderer sums up the life he has lost:
Where is the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the treasure-giver?/Where are the feast-benches? . . . Woe for the shining cup! Woe for warrior in his armor! . . . How that time has passed away . . . as if it had never been. (ll. 92a-96b)
All the important aspects of the wanderer's pagan life—powerful warriors, feasts, a generous leader, comrades—have disappeared from the world, and one gets the sense in this lament that the wanderer is the last survivor of a way of life that has not only passed away but also been forgotten by all but the wanderer. (These lines, by the way, appear in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in Chapter 6, in Aragorn's lament for Rohan.)
Even though the wanderer ends his lament with a hopeful thought, part of his new Christian belief system—"consolation from the father in heaven, where all permanence rests for us"—the poem remains a powerful reflection of the sadness created when a world and belief system disappear.
"The Wanderer" is a typical Anglo-Saxon elegy. Elegies are meant to lament the loss of a loved one--providing a reflection of the loss. The scope of the Wanderer's loss is huge. Not only has he lost all that he has loved, he tells of the loss of the all he has known in life--from kings to great walls.
In the first part of the tale, the Wanderer defines how the loss of his homelands (in his exile, a theme common in Anglo-Saxon texts), his friends and family, and his king have forced the Wanderer to reexamine his life. Compounding the loss of the people around him, the Wanderer recognizes the loss of everything he has ever known in life. The poem depicts the "wealth of the world" lying in waste, decaying walls, and the death of both the winners and losers of battles.
Essentially, the scope of the Wanderer's lament is all encompassing. All has been lost to him but one thing: God. While faced with losing everything he has ever known, the Wanderer realizes that one's faith is all that matters in the end. Therefore, while all material things and life may end, one may stand strong in the fact that faith will never end. It is eternal.