The Wanderer is an Old English poem preserved only in an anthology known as the Exeter Book, a manuscript dating from the late 10th century. It counts 115 lines of alliterative verse. As is often the case in Anglo-Saxon verse, the composer and compiler are anonymous, and within the manuscript the poem is untitled.
The metre of the poem is of four-stress lines, divided between the second and third stresses by a caesura. Each caesura is indicated in the manuscript by a subtle increase in character spacing and with full stops, but modern print editions render them in a more obvious fashion. Like most Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative metre.
The Wanderer conveys the meditations of a solitary exile on his past happiness as a member of his lord’s band of retainers, his present hardships and the values of forbearance and faith in the heavenly Lord. The warrior is identified as eardstapa (line 6a), usually translated as “wanderer” (from eard meaning ‘earth’ or ‘land’, and steppan, meaning ‘to step’), who roams the cold seas and walks “paths of exile” (wræclastas). He remembers the days when, as a young man, he served his lord, feasted together with comrades, and received precious gifts from the lord. Yet fate (wyrd) turned against him when he lost his lord, kinsmen and comrades in battle—they were defending their homeland against an attack—and he was driven into exile. Some readings of the poem see the wanderer as progressing through three phases; first as the anhoga (solitary man) who dwells on the deaths of other warriors and the funeral of his lord, then as the modcearig man (man troubled in mind) who meditates on past hardships and on the fact that mass killings have been innumerable in history, and finally as the snottor on mode (man wise in mind) who has come to understand that life is full of hardships and impermanence and suffering and everything is governed by God. Other readings accept the general statement that the exile does come to understand human history, his own included, in philosophical terms, but would point out that the poem has elements in common with “The Battle of Maldon,” another poem about an Anglo-Saxon defeat.
However, the speaker reflects upon life while spending years in exile, and to some extent has gone beyond his personal sorrow. In this respect, the poem is a “wisdom poem.” The degeneration of “earthly glory” is presented as inevitable in the poem, contrasting with the theme of salvation through faith in God.