Essentially a monologue set within a frame, this poem of 115 lines creates two personae--the anonymous author who gives a brief introduction and conclusion, and the Wanderer, an aging warrior who roams the world seeking shelter and aid. The Wanderer’s monologue divides into two distinct parts, the first being a lament for his exile and the loss of kin, friends, home, and the generosity of his king. In nature he finds no comfort, for he has set sail on the wintry sea. Poignantly the speaker dreams that he is among his companions and embracing his king, only to awaken facing the gray winter sea and snowfall mingled with hail.
In the monologue’s second portion, the Wanderer reflects more generally on man’s fate, urging resignation and control of emotion as ways of meeting adversity. From the ruined walls and cities he encounters on his travels, he witnesses the destruction that has befallen societies other than his own. This portion of the poem introduces the ubi sunt theme, as the Wanderer questions what has become of the things he has known and realizes that many have vanished and all else is fleeting.
The poem, like much other Anglo-Saxon poetry, links pagan and Christian values in an uneasy combination. The authorial voice begins and concludes the poem, referring to God and stressing the importance of faith, themes absent from the Wanderer’s speech. The Wanderer’s lament, even in the voice of an outcast, upholds Anglo-Saxon tribal values, notably loyalty, generosity, courage, and physical strength. It reflects an overriding concern with the grim and somber aspects of nature and with the power of fate, against which an aged man can pit only resignation and inner restraint. Written in unrhymed Old English alliterative verse, the poem is most readily accessible in modern prose translations.