The Wanderer

Manuscript: The Exeter Book (preserved in the library of Exeter Cathedral). Editions: Krapp, George Philip, and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. ASPR 3. New York: Columbia UP, 1936; Dunning, T. P., and A. J. Bliss, eds. The Wanderer. Methuen’s Old English Library. New York: Appleton, 1969; Pope, John C., ed. Seven Old English Poems. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1981.

Hyperlinks to annotations are added in-line in the text, in bolded brackets. See also my notes on The Wanderer.


Often the lone-dweller waits [ 1 ] for favor,
mercy of the Measurer, [ 2 ] though he unhappy
across the seaways long time must
stir with his hands the rime-cold sea,
tread exile-tracks. Fate is established!5

So the earth-stepper spoke, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin:
Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my care. Among the living
none now remains to whom I dare10
my inmost thought clearly reveal.
I know it for truth: it is in a warrior
noble strength to bind fast his spirit,
guard his wealth-chamber, think what he will.
Weary mind never withstands fate,15
nor does troubled thought bring help.
Therefore, glory-seekers [ 3 ] oft bind fast
in breast-chamber a dreary mind.
So must I my heart –
often wretched with cares, deprived of homeland,20
far from kin – fasten with fetters,
since long ago earth covered
my lord in darkness, and I, wretched,
thence, mad and desolate as winter,
over the wave’s binding sought, hall-dreary, [ 4 ]25
a giver of treasure, where far or near
I might find one who in mead-hall
might accept my affection, or on me, friendless,
might wish consolation, offer me joy.
He knows who tries it how cruel is sorrow,30
a bitter companion, to the one who has few
concealers of secrets, beloved friends. [ 5 ]
The exile-track claims him, not twisted gold,
his soul-chamber frozen, not fold’s [ 6 ] renown.
He remembers hall-warriors and treasure-taking, [ 7 ]35
how among youth [ 8 ] his gold-friend
received him at the feast. Joy has all perished!
So he knows, who must of his lord-friend,
of loved one, lore-sayings long time forgo.

When sorrow and sleep at once together40
a wretched lone-dweller often bind,
it seems in his mind that he his man-lord
clasps and kisses, and on knee lays
hands and head, as when sometimes before
in yore-days he received gifts from the gift-throne. [ 9 ]45
When the friendless man awakens again,
he sees before him fallow waves,
sea-birds bathing, wings spreading,
rime and snow falling mingled with hail.
Then are the heart’s wounds ever more heavy,50
sore after sweet – sorrow is renewed –
when memory of kin turns through the mind;
he greets with glee-staves, eagerly surveys
companions of men. Again they swim away!
Spirits of seafarers bring but seldom55
known speech and song. Care is renewed
to the one who frequently sends
over the wave’s binding, weary, his thought.

Therefore, I know not, throughout this world,
why thought in my mind does not grow dark60
when the life of men I fully think through,
how they suddenly abandoned the hall,
headstrong retainers. This Middle-Earth [ 10 ]
each of all days so fails and falls
that a man gains no wisdom before he is dealt65
his winters in the world. [ 11 ] The wise man is patient,
not too hot-hearted, nor too quick tongued,
nor a warrior too weak, nor too foolhardy,
neither frightened nor fain, nor yet too wealth-greedy,
nor ever of boasts too eager, before he knows enough.70
A warrior should wait when he speaks a vow,
until, bold in mind, he clearly knows
whither mind’s thought after will turn. [ 12 ]
A wise man perceives how ghastly [ 13 ] it will be
when all this world’s weal desolate stands,75
as now here and there across this Middle-Earth
blown on by wind walls stand
covered with rime, the buildings storm-shaken.
The wine-halls molder, the wielder lies down
deprived of rejoicing, warband all fallen,80
proud by the wall. Some war took utterly,
carried on forth-way; one a bird bore off
over the high holm [ 14 ]; one the hoar wolf
dealt over to death, one a warrior,
drear-faced, hid in an earth-cave.85
Thus the Shaper of men destroyed this earth-yard,
until, lacking the cries, the revels of men,
old giants’ work stood worthless.

When he with wise mind this wall-stone
and this dark life deeply thinks through,90
the wise one in mind oft remembers afar
many a carnage, and this word he speaks:
Where is the horse? Where the young warrior? Where now the gift-giver?
Where are the feast-seats? Where all the hall-joys?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas byrnied warrior!95
Alas the lord’s glory! How this time hastens,
grows dark under night-helm, as it were not!
Stands now behind the dear warband
a wondrous high wall, varied with snake-shapes,
warriors fortaken by might of the ash-spears,100
corpse-hungry weapons – famous that fate –
and this stone-cliff storms dash on;
snowstorm, attacking, binds all the ground,
tumult of winter, when the dark one comes,
night-shadow blackens, sends from the north105
rough hailstorm in anger toward men.
All is the earth-realm laden with hardship,
fate of creation [ 15 ] turns [ 16 ] world under heaven.
Here goldhoard passes, [ 17 ] here friendship passes,
here mankind passes, here kinsman passes:110
all does this earth-frame turn worthless! [ 18 ]
So said the one wise in mind, at secret conclaves sat him apart.
Good, he who keeps faith, nor too quickly his grief
from his breast makes known, except he, noble, knows how beforehand
to do cure with courage. [ 19 ] Well will it be115
to him who seeks favor, refuge and comfort, [ 20 ]
from the Father in heaven, where all fastness stands.

Translation copyright © 1982, Jonathan A. Glenn. All rights reserved.


[ 1 ] waits. The usual translation for gebideð here is ‘experiences.’ The poem, I think, justifies my translation. [Return to text.]

[ 2 ] Measurer. OE metod ‘fate,’ one of the several words used to refer to God in his various aspects; the actual meaning of the words, of course, frequently shifted somewhat with the coming of Christianity. [Return to text.]

[ 3 ] glory-seekers. OE domgeorne ‘ones eager for renoun.’ [Return to text.]

[ 4 ] hall-dreary. OE seledreorig. The translation is literal. [Return to text.]

[ 5 ] concealers … friends. I have here expanded the OE leofre geholena ‘beloved ________.’ The second word is not altogether clear. [Return to text.]

[ 6 ] fold’s. OE folde ‘earth,’ retained in dialectal usage. Cf. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase “fold, fallow, and plough” (“Pied Beauty”). [Return to text.]

[ 7 ] treasure-taking. OE sincþege, perhaps more clearly, but less euphoneously, rendered ‘treasure-receiving’; this refers to the giving of treasure (especially arm-rings and weapons) by a lord to his retainers. [Return to text.]

[ 8 ] youth. OE geoguð may refer to the age of a person or to the troop of young warriors, as opposed to the duguð ‘seasoned warband, nobles.’ [Return to text.]

[ 9 ] gifts … gift-throne. OE giefstolas breac, whose literal rendering, ’enjoyed gift-thrones,’ is vague. [Return to text.]

[ 10 ] Middle-Earth. OE middangeard ‘earth, the place between heaven and hell,’ made familiar by J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the term in his fiction. [Return to text.]

[ 11 ] that man … world. A more literal translation would be “before he owns [or “has”] his portion [dæl ‘deal’] of winters in the world” – i.e., before he grows old. [Return to text.]

[ 12 ] nor ever … turn. Cf. Deuteronomy 23.21-23: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what has passed your lips.…” The speaker in The Wanderer repeatedly argues for such prudence. [Return to text.]

[ 13 ] ghastly. OE gastlic is etymon of both NE ghostly and NE ghastly. It carried both significances in OE. [Return to text.]

[ 14 ] holm. ‘Ocean, sea.’ [Return to text.]

[ 15 ] fate of creation. OE wyrda gesceaft ‘the beginning/origin of fates/events.’ [Return to text.]

[ 16 ] turns. OE onwendeð ‘changes.’ [Return to text.]

[ 17 ] passes. OE bið . . . læne ‘is fleeting/transitory.’ [Return to text.]

[ 18 ] turns worthless. OE idel weorþeð ‘becomes idle, empty, worthless.’ [Return to text.]

[ 19 ] except he … with courage. A conflation of two clauses in the OE: “nemþe he ær þa bote cunne, / eorl mid elne gefremman,” which may be rendered roughly, “unless he earlier knows the remedy, earl [how] to act courageously.” [Return to text.]

[ 20 ] refuge and comfort. OE frofor can have either of these overlapping senses; I have used both to fill out the half-line. The OE of lines 115b-17, literally rendered, reads thus: “Well will it be [or “it is”] to him who favor seeks, refuge from [OE to] (the) father in (the) heavens, where for us all that stability [OE fæstnung] stands.” [Return to text.]