"The Wanderer" is a poem written in Old English, the language that the people living in England spoke before the Norman Conquest of 1066. After the Conquest, the Latin-based language of the French-speaking conquerors mixed with the Germanic Old English, eventually leading to the weird, wonderful soup of Latin and Germanic features that makes up modern English. What this means for "The Wanderer" is that even though it's technically written in English, it doesn't look anything like the English we speak today. In fact, most people don't even read it in the original; they have to use a translation, which is what we'll do here on Shmoop.
"The Wanderer" has been preserved in the Exeter Book, the biggest manuscript collection of Old English poetry in existence. Scribes copied poems into the Exeter Book some time during the 10th century. That doesn't mean, however, that "The Wanderer" was written in the 10th century. It's more likely that the poem was passed down orally from generation to generation. Bards might have sung or recited it to crowds of warriors as they ate and drank, or gathered for other social occasions. To your average Anglo-Saxon, nothing said "party" like the recitation of a poem like "The Wanderer." Some say you can find traces of the poem's oral composition in the text, like repeated language patterns and themes that might have helped a bard to remember it, or even compose one on the spot.
Most scholars think "The Wanderer" first appeared as a piece of oral poetry during the 5th or 6th century, a time when the Germanic Pagan culture of Anglo-Saxon England was undergoing a conversion to Christianity. It contains traces of both traditional Germanic warrior culture and of a Christian value system. The speaker for much of the poem is a warrior who has had to go into exile after the slaughter of his lord and relatives in battle. Now, he contemplates what the experience of the exile teaches him about life.
For most of the poem, the speaker expresses traditional Germanic beliefs about how a wise man should act, the inevitability of death, and mankind's inability to change his fate. The poem is bookended, though, by the Christian idea of the possibility of God's favor and grace, which the speaker holds up as the only possible refuge from all the misery he witnesses. The relationship between fate – in Old English, wyrd – and God's grace is not clear in the poem; the presence of both might be evidence of "The Wanderer's" position at the meeting point of Christianity and Paganism.
"The Wanderer" is both a lament for all the things the speaker – and people more generally – have lost, and also a reflection on what wise men learn from their life experiences. With this dynamic duo, "The Wanderer" combines parts of two traditional genres of Old English poetry: the elegy, or lament, and the wisdom poem. These two genres aren't unrelated, since Anglo-Saxon poets believed that no one could be truly wise until they had experienced a whole lot of life – including pain and suffering. "The Wanderer" is a variation on the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" theme, the idea your grandfather is trying to get across when he tells you about how he walked to school in four feet of snow as a kid. Even a thousand years ago, people – and particularly our poet – believed in "no pain, no gain"!
By now you've probably figured out that "The Wanderer" is no day at the beach. Instead, it's a day at the wind-wracked, miserably cold and dark precipice overlooking a beach – a rocky one while a storm is raging, where you definitely wouldn't want to lay out your towel. Why the heck would anyone want to spend time here? What's the point of all this misery and complaining?
That's actually the question the speaker of "The Wanderer" tries to answer – the poem's whole reason for being. See, even though he's pretty convinced that it doesn't do any good to whine about his sorrows, he just can't seem to stop himself. But, almost like he's trying to redeem himself from being just a complainer, he steps back to reflect upon what his sad existence – the experience of the exile – teaches him about life more generally.
His conclusions, unfortunately, are just as depressing as his situation… but that's not the point. The point is, he's made the move. He's tried to find meaning in his suffering. With this move, his suffering becomes bigger than just his personal experience to become part of the collective experience of mankind. Big, abstract idea, but bear with us. Because, actually, this kind of move is one that most people make every day.
Haven't you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people? Why innocent people suffer? If you have, then you, too, are trying to find meaning in suffering, and you can probably relate to the speaker of "The Wanderer." We just hope, for your own psychological well-being, that the conclusions you reach are more uplifting than this guy's!