I am someone who will defend the continued relevance of classical texts until I am blue in the face, but even I will still admit that some texts allow for a readier defense than others. When it comes to characters like Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, and various figures from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it is relatively easy to draw comparisons between the universal struggles of mankind past and present., But then come the texts, either fragmented or highly specific, that don’t speak their truth as readily as others. Enter “The Wanderer,” not a classic in a Greco-Roman sense, but still one of those ancient works of poetry that provides insight into an otherwise forgotten era, and, upon a close reading, the human condition.
Anglo-Saxon poetry has its own distinct flair—the battle poetry manages to make the rush of violence eloquent in a way that 1980s rock ballads could only hope to capture, and the heroes are usually either engaged in the delight of battle or the delight of recounting battles won. Little room is left for the somewhat philosophical self-reflection of their Greco-Roman counterparts. Yet, one piece stands out among Anglo-Saxon battle poetry as one that differs: a monologue from a warrior not glorying in his prowess, but mourning his survival.
“Always the one alone longs for mercy, the Maker’s mildness, though, troubled in mind, across the ocean-ways he has long been forced to stir with his hands the frost-cold sea and walk in exile’s paths,” the Wanderer begins, before launching into the details of his tale as the sole survivor of his band of warriors. The work is one of grief, of loss, of remembrance, and, perhaps the most overlooked meaning, one of simple loneliness.
One of the most tragic and least articulated pains of humanity is that of loneliness. Whether it is the struggle to adjust to a new job or school, the feeling of disconnect when in the presence of those who are close, or the global isolation that was an unrecorded symptom of the recent pandemic, all have felt the pain of loneliness. Most do not find themselves in the exact situation of the Wanderer, but all have been wanderers in their own way. All have, at some point, resonated with the words “’Often alone…I have sung my lament. There is none living to whom I would dare to reveal clearly my heart’s thoughts…the troubled heart can offer no help.” All understand the wrenching pain of desperately seeking “someone…who would want to comfort me, friendless…He who has come to know how cruel a companion is sorrow for one with few dear friends, will understand.” You don’t have to have any former experience with Anglo-Saxon weaponry to feel the sting of the wounds that the Wanderer describes: wounds of the mind, of the heart.
So what is there to do? What lessons can the modern reader take from “The Wanderer?” Nothing esoteric – only the acknowledgement that as the poem has endured, so has its speaker. Wanderers still exist and all wander at some point, from social butterflies to the most reserved.. Knowing that the problem of loneliness has lasted for so long should give readers of “The Wanderer” a new motivation for combating it. It is a problem both created and remedied by the amount of attention and kindness each individual decides to show others. The cure is simple, yet it remains one that most neglect, and it is because of this fact that countless wanderers remain lost. So I am calling for two things: a new reading of a truly extraordinary poem, and renewed commitment to radical kindness from its readers. Allow me to frame my proposed solution in terms a warrior would resonate with: in choosing kindness, in choosing to look at the overlooked, we combat a faceless and ageless enemy. If we are able to vanquish the problem of loneliness, we will have defeated a foe that has ruthlessly haunted both warrior and neighbor for far too long.