The poem "The Wanderer" exhibits a melancholy tone that characterizes much Anglo-Saxon poetry. The poem is pervaded by a perception of nature as hostile, by a sense of loss and longing, by loneliness and by a generally pessimistic view of the world. Much Anglo-Saxon poetry owes its uniquely haunting beauty to its grim acceptance of a harsh world and an ineluctable fate. Such a tone was highly characteristic of the northern cultures that produced this literature.
Nature as Harsh and Dangerous
"The Wanderer" conveys a perception of nature as harsh and cold, dangerous and inhospitable to human beings. The characteristic setting of Anglo-Saxon poetry is that of the cold, dark, European north of the middle ages, where winter was long and harsh, summer short and fickle and sunlight rare. Storms, cold, disease, war, violence and wild animals menaced the communities who lived there. Thus, in most Anglo-Saxon poetry the imagery of the natural world creates a mood of dread and gloom, rather than peace or joy. The narrator of "The Wanderer" speaks of the sea, in particular, as "ice cold," with "frozen waves." He also mentions frost, snow and hail. The picture emerges of a shivering, solitary figure, huddled against the cold and guiding his fragile boat through the damp, bitter chill and driving sleet of the northern sea.
The words "ubi sunt" mean "where are" in Latin. Scholars say a work of literature has an "ubi sunt" quality when it is pervaded by a mood of longing for the better times of the past. Such an "ubi sunt" quality is characteristic of much Anglo-Saxon poetry, which often looks back to Roman rule in Britain as a distant golden age. With the departure of Rome from Britain and the descent of the "dark ages," cities decayed, travel became difficult and dangerous, and existence in isolated villages and hamlets became poor and precarious. Thus, against the backdrop of a larger ethnic and cultural sense of loss, Anglo-Saxon literature often portrays tales of individual loss and misfortune. "The Wanderer" is a classic example of such a lament for the loss of past joys, as its narrator remembers how he once had security and safety, a happy home, friends, a family and somewhere he belonged. His past seems warm and bright, and his future bleak and cold.
Loneliness is a dominant theme of "The Wanderer," and it intensifies the sorrowful tone that characterizes the poem. The narrator has lost his family, his friends, his lord, his home and his place in society. Now, he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life as a solitary exile. His experience is that of many Anglo-Saxon warriors whose liege-lords were killed in battle. In a society organized around the bond between a lord and his sworn liegemen, all economic and geographic security, all personal and social identity, all safety, and all economic advancement came through the connection to the lord and to the meadhall where he and his men would meet to celebrate together. Having lost these, the wanderer has also lost his family, friends and home, probably in the battle which killed his lord.
Anglo-Saxon culture and religion before the coming of Christianity were distinctively grim and pessimistic. A famous tale by the Venerable Bede recounts one king's description of human life as similar to the flight of a sparrow out of a stormy night, through the light and warmth of a hall, and out again into the blizzard. Human life, then, is brief, fragile and ultimately doomed. "The Wanderer" reflects how Christian elements incorporated into the poem offset this sense of fate, offering the hope of heaven as the reward of resignation. The general sense of the world as a dark and hostile place persists, however -- permanence is only in heaven, and all joys are fleeting in this life.