Old English Poetry "WANDERER" and "SEAFARER": Key Points to Remember

Old English lyrics are so difficult that most students treat them as prose. This article is specifically meant for beginners who want to have a basic knowledge of the language and understand the basic English scriptures. It is not meant for scholars or those who want to pursue higher studies in this language. To be accurate, clear, and simple, with the purpose of understanding the four books of Old English poetry existing still today seem to have been written about the year 1000.

  • Junius Manuscript contains stories from the Old Testament turned into Old English poetry: Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel.
  • The Vercelli Book, which turned up, rather mysteriously, in a small town in northern Italy, contains Christian poems based on themes from the New Testament or lives of saints; the best known of these is the “Dream of the Rood,” spoken bythe cross on which Jesus was crucified.
  • The Exeter Book is a kind of anthology of different short poems; it contains “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament.” In addition to religious compositions, Old English poets produced a number of more or less lyrical poems of shorter length, which do not contain specific Christian doctrine and which evoke the Anglo-Saxon sense of the harshness of circumstance and the sadness of the human lot. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are among the most beautiful of this group of Old English poems.
  • The Cotton Manuscript, or, more formally, MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv), contains Beowulf. This manuscript was badly burned in 1731; today it is carefully preserved in the British Museum, in London, but its edges keep flaking off, making it harder and harder to read. 

Important Notes:

  • “The Wanderer” is the lament of a frost-covered exile brooding about the way everything in the world gets worse and worse. Old English Poem from the times Anglo-Saxons are turning into Christians. Wanderer is a warrior who loses his lord. Poem tells us how it was important at that time relationship between lord and his men. “The Wanderer” (Anglo-Saxon poem), Anglo-Saxon elegy from the 8th century. “The Wanderer” is contained in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century poetry manuscript preserved in the library of Exeter Cathedral.
  • In patriarchal or sub-patriarchal times social life was still confined within the family pale; and the man who belonged to no household was a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth. Through invasion or war or other accidents a man who had been the honoured member of a well-found home might live to see that home broken up or pass into strange hands, and he might be thus like a plant uprooted when he was too old to get planted in a fresh connection. His only chance of any share in social life was to wander from house to house, getting perhaps a brief lodging in each; and such a homeless condition might be well expressed by the compound eardstapa, one who tramps (stapa) from one habitation (eard) to another. In such an outcast plight the speaker in this piece went to sea, and there he often thought of the old happy days that were gone. He would dream of the pleasure of his old access to the giefstol of his lord, whom he saluted with kiss and head on knee, and then he would wake a friendless man in the wintry ocean, and his grief would be the sorer at his heart for the recollections of lost kindred that the dream had revived. Such a lot is in ready sympathy with old-world ruins, of which there were many in England at that time, and they raise the anticipation of a time when a like ruin will be the end of all! “It becomes a wise man to know how awful it will be when all this world’s wealth 144 stands waste, as now up and down in the world there are wind-buffeted walls standing in mouldering decay”Cut off from his comrades, his liege lord (knight to whom he owes feudal loyalty) dead, the Wanderer falls asleep on the deck of a ship that carries him from home and dreams of the past and his old friends. Waking with a start to the desolation of the stormy sea about him and recognizing his own loneliness, the poet concludes: “All this life is labor and sorrow/Doom of destiny darkens o'er earth.”
  • The elegiac note, so characteristic of Old English poetry, finds its most eloquent expression in “The Wanderer,” with its fatalism and profound sense of the impermanence of earth and its joys.The end of the “Wanderers” makes this point explicitly: if all the world is transitory we can only find stability with “the Father in heaven.”
Important Notes:
  • Old English Poem with the theme ‘Life is shaped by fate’. In addition to these religious compositions, Old English poets produced a number of more or less lyrical poems of shorter length, which do not contain specific Christian doctrine and which evoke the Anglo-Saxon sense of the harshness of circumstance and the sadness of the human lot.

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