Expressions of the Melancholic Angst: A Comparative study of The Wanderer and The Seafarer

Tathagata Das

Assistant Professor in English, Bhangar Mahavidyalaya

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF

Both the elegies The Wanderer and The Seafarer occur in the Exeter book along with the other lyrical poems having a marked elegiac flavour. Many critics have noted that these two poems have certain common themes and use common images, mainly of the sea to express the inherent theme of loss, regret and a deep sense of unhappiness associated with it.

The Wanderer, a poem of about 115 lines, is generally regarded as one of the finest of all the elegies. The poem consists mainly of two parts. The first five lines of the poem consists of the prologue where we may note a distinct Christian influence. Here the speaker hopes to gain “the mercy of the ordaining Lord” during his laborious journey across “the ice-cold sea.” (322) After this short assertion, the poet plunges into the first portion of the poem where he dwells at length on various aspects of his past life-how he came to lose the patronage of his Lord and the friendship of his companions, the futile search for a new liege lord and the immense physical as well as mental trial he has gone through. Thus the speaker lays bare his grief-stricken heart before his readers in the following words :

So I, often wretchedly anxious, separated from my home, far from noble kinsfolk, have had to fasten my heart with fetters ever since, years ago, the darkness of the earth enfolded my generous and loving Lord, and I, despondent, travelled away, oppressed by wintry anxiety, over the ambit of the waves ; full of sorrow I was seeking the hall of a treasure-giving lord …(323)

While undertaking his journey, he has the vision of his former Lord and he is overjoyed to find himself united with him and enjoying his favours. But soon the poor man wakes up from slumber and discovers that he is alone on the sea, with only the seabirds for companions.

The poet is further troubled in his reverie by the appearance of his former friends with whom he tries to converse but they also vanish quickly, leaving him disconsolate with his” weary spirit” (323)

While meditating on his lost joys, the poet moves on to the contemplation of the general lot of human beings, renowned warriors, who have departed from their mead-halls forever. The poet continues to meditate and from line sixty four onwards he lays down certain rules one must follow in order to become wise. Here, clearly the emphasis is on moderation and right behavior which would lead one towards wisdom. After this part of the poem, the poet proceeds to ruminate on the impermanence of all earthly things and how everything will be ruined with the passage of time. This sentiment expressed by the poet is echoed in another Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin where the poet laments  the passing away of an entire civilization.

In the concluding part of The Wanderer, from line ninety two following, we see the use of the ‘ubi sunt’ theme — ‘That which is passed’– found in the Christian homilies. Here, we come across a lamentation for the heroes of bygone days and the lords who had oncerewarded their retainers with expensive gifts :

Where has gone the steed? Where has gone the man? Where has gone the giver of treasure? Where has gone the place of banquets? Where are the pleasures of the hall? (324)

The unfortunate man thinks of the passing away of these heroes and the resultant disintegration of the very social fabric of Anglo-Saxon society. With the destruction of the hall, all splendor is lost and it only emphasizes the essential mutability of this earthly life, the fact that nothing is permanent in this world. This sentiment is poignantly expressed in the following moving lines :

Here wealth is ephemeral; here a friend is ephemeral; here man is ephemeral here kinsman is ephemeral; all this foundation of earth will become desolate.(325)

This realization gradually leads the poet to the final few lines of the poem — the epilogue —  where we again find a strong Christian element. Here the stress is on a person’s intensity of faith and the level of courage to battle against all odds. Thus the final pronouncement, when it comes, is a positive affirmation in the hope of receiving God the Father’s  grace and mercy in heaven:

It will be well for him who seeks grace, consolation from the Father in heaven, where for us all the immutable abides. (325)

The Wanderer then turns to God in order to overcome the transitory nature of all earthly things. The final lines of the poem are thus an exhortation to the readers to opt for a heavenly life where by one could gain all solace.

The Seafarer, a poem of about 124 lines, is a dramatic monologue spoken by a single person, though; some critics have taken it to be a dialogue between two persons. However, in this poem, the influence of Christianity is more pronounced. The poem is divided into two parts. In   the first part the readers read about the speaker’s trials and hardships encountered at sea, while  in the latter, a more religious strain is noticeable. Thus, in this respect, the structure and pattern of The Seafarer has a strong similarity with The Wanderer.

The first part of The Seafarer, lines one to sixty four, portray a very vivid and stark   description of the difficulties and hardships associated with the sea voyages, though the   adventure and excitement mixed with such sea voyages are also presented. This part of the poem shows one of the major characteristics of the Anglo-Saxons, namely, their love for   the sea and sea voyages. From lines sixty four following, the tone of the poem gradually changes. The speaker begins to meditate on the disadvantages of a life on land. Side by side, an elegiac strain begins to pervade the poem. The speaker now starts to reflect on the temporary nature of all earthly attractions. Since man’s tenure on this earth is short, the  speaker feels that it is wise for any man to endeavour to gain the praise of his fellowmen,  and indeed it may rise high into the heavens among the angels so that a man’s good  deeds might merit praise from even ‘the celestial hosts’.(334)

The trials and tribulations endured by the seafarer in this earthly existence are, in  fact, nothing but a kind of preparation for the eternal life in heaven. The worth of this earthly  life will be absolutely nothing if compared with the life hereafter. Thus the seafarer would   like to be well prepared when his time comes, for he is well aware that neither gold nor  the earthly pleasures would stand a chance before “the face of God’s awesomeness.’(334)

The concluding section of the poem (lines hundred three to one twenty four) depicts a firm belief in the permanence and eternity of life beyond this earthly existence. Here the seafarer advises everyone to exercise moderation whether one passes through happy or sad times. Only then a man would hope to attain “everlasting blessedness, where there is life originating in the Lord’s love, and hope, in the heavens.”(335) obviously, it is clear that the final goal of the seafarer is the union with God in heaven. In order to achieve this objective, one must banish from one’s life all kinds of barriers in the form of wealth and other earthly possessions.

A comparative analysis of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, then, would bring out certain dissimilarities as well as similarities. Thus, while in The Wanderer we find a prologue and an epilogue, in The Seafarer these are not to be found. If we consider the themes of the two poems, we would find that The Seafarer is more markedly Christian in spirit than The Wanderer.  While in the latter poem, we notice a certain sense of unhappiness and regret at the loss of the earthly possessions and past joys but the seafarer does not show any such dissatisfaction or mental unrest. In fact, he is more than prepared to undergo all the hardship and suffering in this earthly life as a necessary part of the preparation for the heavenly life. So, in The Seafarer we find a far emphatic stress on the endurance of physical hardships. In the beginning of this poem, we find the description of the inclement weather that the sailor has to face at sea because of the extreme cold and hailstorms.

In The Wanderer, we find a contrast between the past happy days and the present miserable situation that the speaker finds himself in. In The Seafarer, there is the contrast   between the tough life on the sea and the comfortable life led by people on land. Again, while in The Wanderer, there is a sense of acceptance of his fate and an air of resignation, in The Seafarer, there is a pronounced disdain for a life full of luxury and pleasure.

Apart from these dissimilarities, these two poems have certain similarities. Both differ from the other lyrics found in the Exeter book. E. E. Wardale points out that there are many similarities in the vocabulary and in the use of common phrases. Both the poems make use of individual voices and present certain physical ordeals which are quite similar in nature.  In both poems, the inner turmoil in the hearts of the poets has been movingly reflected in   the tumultuous external seascape. The readers are deeply touched by the level and intensity of sufferings described in both these texts.

In conclusion, we may say that these two poems constitute the finest specimens of the Anglo-Saxon elegiac lyrics, voicing forth, as they do, the innermost emotions and feelings of the speakers in very poignant ways, using the theme of exile.


 The Wanderer , Trans. & Ed.. Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everynan, 2010. Print.

 The Seafarer,  Trans. & Ed. Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman, 2010. Print.

Wardale, E. E. Chapters on Old English Literature. Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1965. Print.

  Tathagata Das Assistant Professor in English, Bhangar Mahavidyalaya, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal


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