Back in my final high school years, many decades ago, an English Language teacher gave the class a general assignment to explore any style of poetry we liked. For the first time at this school, an English assignment excited me. I chose the heroic narrative style: epic poetry. For the project’s examples, I chose The Song of Eärendil, (a mini-epic contained within the Lord of the Rings) and passages of translations from Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Song of Roland, and Beowulf. It was while researching Beowulf that I came across two other Anglo-Saxon poems that engaged me.
The list of surviving Anglo-Saxon works is short, so it’s not surprising that The Seafarer and The Wanderer came to my attention. Both explore the themes of exile and loneliness, which in those years of teenage angst, spoke to me, having recently resettled in Canada with the family after years of wandering in South Africa. Of course, our lives as a family were nothing like the forsaken wanderer in the poem, but to an isolated Christian teen, the opening lines became wedged in my memory: Oft to the Wanderer, weary of exile, cometh God’s pity, compassionate love….
Oft to the wanderer, weary of exile,
Cometh God’s pity, compassionate love,
Though woefully toiling on wintry seas
With churning oar in the icy wave,
Homeless and helpless, he fled from fate.
In later years, I gave up my religious faith. However, in a certain way, the words of comfort remain. It is the lot of humanity: we strive on, alone, yet not alone, in loneliness.
The lament, as translated by Charles W. Kennedy, continues below. I have emphasized the second verse and omitted the last five lines to give an impression of how I think this may have resonated in pre-Christian times.
Thus saith the wanderer mindful of misery,
Grievous disasters, and death of kin:
“Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left,
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
Is keeping his counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will! For, woe of heart
Withstandeth not fate: a falling spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in the breast.“
So have I also, often in wretchedness
Fettered my feelings, far from my kin,
Homeless and hapless, since days of old,
When the dark earth covered my dear lord’s face,
And I sailed away with sorrowful heart,
Over wintry seas, seeking a gold-lord,
If far or near lived one to befriend me
With gift in the mead-hall and comfort for grief.
Who bears it, knows what a bitter companion,
Shoulder to shoulder, sorrow can be,
When friends are no more. His fortune is exile,
Not gifts of fine gold; a heart that is frozen,
Earth’s winsomeness dead. And he dreams of the hall-men,
The dealing of treasure, the days of his youth,
When his lord bade welcome to wassall and feast.
But gone is that gladness, and never again
Shall come the loved counsel of comrade and king.
Even in slumber his sorrow assaileth,
And, dreaming he claspeth his dear lord again,
Head on knee, hand on knee, loyally laying.
Pledging his liege as in days long past.
Then from his slumber he starts lonely-hearted.
Beholding gray stretches of tossing sea,
Sea-birds bathing. with wings outspread.
While hailstorms darken, and driving snow.
Bitterer then is the bane of his wretchedness,
The longing for loved one: his grief is renewed.
The forms of his kinsmen take shape in the silence;
In rapture he greets them; in gladness he scans
Old comrades remembered. But they melt into air
With no word of greeting to gladden his heart.
Then again surges his sorrow upon him;
And grimly he spurs his weary soul
Once more to the toil of the tossing sea.
He who shall muse on these moldering ruins,
And deeply ponder this darkling life,
Must brood on old legends of battle and bloodshed,
And heavy the mood that troubles his heart:
“Where now is the warrior? Where is the war horse?
Bestowal of treasure, and sharing of feast?
Alas! the bright ale-cup, the byrny-clad warrior,
The prince in his splendor – those days are long sped
In the night of the past, as if they never had been!
And now remains only, for warriors’ memorial,
A wall wondrous high with serpent shapes carved.
Wretchedness fills the realm of earth,
And fate’s decrees transform the world.
Here wealth is fleeting, friends are fleeting,
Man is fleeting, maid is fleeting;
All the foundation of earth shall fail!”
Thus spake the sage in solitude pondering.
(as translated by Charles W. Kennedy, in his 1936 book, Old English Elegies)
Even today, many of these evocative lines have a powerful ring of truth. It is the voice of experience. I find peace and solace through solitude, but I realize there is a fine line between living in society and becoming estranged from it. When the social fabric is already thin and worn, it takes little — ill health, depression, an overlong absence, ill-chosen words — to sever more of the strands. A sound social structure with supportive family and genuine friends is a safety net that should not be neglected.
But some do not have that social structure. Friendships can be frail. Family ties fracture and fade. Death slowly picks off those we care about. Faith can fail, and for some, there is no faith to fall back on. Society expects conformity: today ostracism lives on in cancel culture. Loneliness and depression can result.
Physically, I am a wanderer no more. I have been in place for over 35 years. But the mind wanders on. We enter the world alone and we die alone, but self-imposed isolation should not make the journey more painful. Without solid relationships, even the mundane trials of life can be much harder to bear. If possible, guard your network of mentors, family, and friends well.
(This is an adaptation from a personal article, first published in 2019 in the short-lived blog, Like a River)