Anglo Saxon Poetry The Wanderer

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The Wanderer is an elegiac piece of poetry preserved in the extant Exeter manuscript which is purports the lament of a solitary man who had once been happy under the protection of his loved lord but after his lord’s death is confronted with bitter frozen waves and winter cold. The thought of his lost happiness makes him miserable as he journeys into his wasteland of exile. There is a remarkable clash between past and present, between remembered glory and the despair of the moment. The tone of reminiscence is strengthened by the effective use of the ‘Ubi Sunt’ theme –


“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.

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This elegy is meditative as well as retrospective in character where memory plays an important role as the speaker tries to recall the legends of battle, bloodshed and wonders. The melancholia of this elegy is greatly derived from the backdrop of journeying in the sea against which “The Wanderer” is set. The emptiness of the Sea and its winter violence are observed as the embodiment of failure of human relationships, loneliness and exile. The transience of earthly joys and helplessness of mortals in the face of the wyrd or divine fate is represented in this elegy with a great lyrical appeal. However the poem ends with the conventional Christian hope of consolation in the thoughts of Heaven. In spite of being a truly personal piece of poetry, “The wanderer” appeals to everyone universally!

The elegiac poems of the Anglo-Saxon Age with their stress on loss, exile and lamentation along with the belief in the impermanence of earthly pleasures, leaves upon us as an impression that is as dismal as the one cast by the Ossianic poems of Macpherson. These elegies are the songs of suffering souls which give them a lyrical and more importantly a universal appeal because “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”.

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