What are three different ways in which the Old English lyric poem "The Wanderer" reflects the subject matter and rhetoric of the Old English epic poem Beowulf?
The Old English lyric poem titled “The Wanderer” resembles, both in rhetoric and in themes, the Old English epic poem titled Beowulf in a wide variety of instances. Three of those instances include the following:
- Early in “The Wanderer,” the title character remembers (in the translation by E. T. Donaldson), “hardships, fierce war-slaughters – the fall of dear kinsmen.” Such phrasing is similar, both in theme and in rhetoric, to various passages in Beowulf. For example, after the first attack by Grendel, the Danish king Hrothgar is described as follows (in the Seamus Heaney translation):
Their mighty prince,
the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless,
humiliated by the loss of his guard,
bewildered and stunned, staring aghast
at the demon’s trail, in deep distress. (129-33)
In both passages, good and wise men lament the suffering they have endured, including losses due to attacks upon persons dear to them.
- About half-way through “The Wanderer,” the wanderer remarks that
“Wine halls totter, the lord lies bereft of joy, all the company have fallen, bold men beside the wall.”
One might compare this passage to the passage in Beowulf describing the surprise attack by Grendel on Hrothgar’s hall and people (an attack in which thirty men are killed [115-25]) and/or to the passage describing the twelve years during which Grendel controls the hall (144-63).
- Finally, near the end of “The Wanderer,” the speaker describes the destruction of an entire kingdom because of war. It is hard to read this passage and not think of the passage near the end of Beowulf in which Beowulf’s people, now that their leader is dead, anticipate a destructive attack by their ancient enemies, the Swedes:
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. (3150-55)
“The Wanderer” and Beowulf resemble each other not only in the topics they deal with but also in the ways they are phrased. The latter fact is not surprising, since Old English poetry was often composed from traditional “formulas” or common phrases, and thus many works of Old English poetry are often very similar not only in what they say but in how they say it.
Both poems emphasize the need for personal strength; both stress that all real strength comes from God; and both stress the mutability and ephemerality of all earthly power and ultimately of all earthly existence. Beowulf, perhaps, is the more cheerful of the two poems, especially in its first two thirds, which focus on the hero's triumphs. Both poem poems show a very great awareness of the need to trust in God rather than in anything or anyone on earth.