The poem begins with the Wanderer asking the Lord for understanding and compassion during his exile at sea. He cannot avoid going to sea, however, because this life is his fate.
The Wanderer goes on to recall the hardships he has faced in his life, like watching his kinsmen be ruined and even slaughtered. He knows that while he is lonely and isolated, he will think about these things constantly. There is no living person with whom the Wanderer can share what is in his heart. He knows that it is dignified for a man to keep his feelings to himself. He then argues that no matter how hard a man tries to contain his emotions, he can never avoid his fate. An ambitious man can conceal his sorrowful heart, but he cannot escape it.
The Wanderer returns to his own example. His kind lord died of old age and as a result, the Wanderer has been exiled from his country. He left home with the coldness of winter in his heart and sailed the rough waves in search of a new lord. He was friendless, yearning for the comforts and pleasures of a new mead-hall, but found none.
The Wanderer relates his tale to his readers, claiming that those who have experienced exile will understand how cruel loneliness can feel. The Wanderer is freezing cold, remembering the grand halls where he rejoiced, the treasure he was given, and the graciousness of his lord. All of these joys have now disappeared. He claims that any man who stops receiving the wisdom of his lord will be filled with a similar sadness. Even when he sleeps, this lord-less man dreams of happier days when he could lay his hands and head upon his lord's knees. When he awakens, the lonely man will be forced to face his friendless reality, surrounded by the dark waves, frost, and snow. The rich happiness of a man's dreams make his solitude even more miserable. He will imagine the faces of his kinsmen and greet them joyfully with song, but alas, the memories are transient. A seaman's spirit goes through these bouts of agony every time he finds himself alone, which makes his overall sorrow more acute.
The Wanderer then goes on to contemplate how lords are frequently forced out of their halls and away from their kingdoms. He questions why he feels so unhappy when comparatively, the tribulations lords face are usually much more severe. He then realizes that the world is constantly fluctuating and a man's life experiences, good and bad, are ultimately what make him wise. The Wanderer lists the lessons that he has learned; that a wise man must not be hasty in speech, rash or fickle in battle, and he must not be nervous, greedy, or boastful. A wise man must not boast until he is free of doubt. A wise man must accept that riches fade, buildings fall, lords die, and their followers die or disperse. The Wanderer offers a few examples of the latter, citing men who died in battle, men who drowned, one man who who was carried off by a bird, and another who was killed by a wolf.
The Wanderer now expands his ruminations towards the supernatural. He says that the Creator of Men has made the world unpredictable, and that hardships can happen to anyone at any time. Things can go from bad to good in a moment. The Wanderer hypothesizes that the Creator of Men, who created human civilization and conflict, is also wise. Even He has memories of battles, remembering one certain horse or man. He, like the Wanderer, also must lament the loss of treasure, festivities, and glorious leaders. The Wanderer contemplates the way that all these things disappear in time, leaving behind nothing but darkness.
The Wanderer's former kingdom rots behind a wall covered in the carcasses of serpents. There is no longer any music, or powerful weaponry. Winter brings violent snowstorms and longer nightfall, leaving men frightened and helpless. However, the Wanderer concludes, life is difficult at times. Everything is subject to fate. Wealth fades, friends leave, and kingdoms fall. The Wanderer now ascribes these words to a wise man, or a sage, in meditation. He describes this man as someone who is steady in his faith and, when something bad happens, he does not panic, but rather, stays calm until he can figure out a solution. In conclusion, the Wanderer advises all men to look to God for comfort, since He is the one who is responsible for the fate of mankind.
"The Wanderer" is arguably the most famous and critically-debated Anglo-Saxon poem, and there are multiple interpretations of it. The poem is admittedly difficult to decipher for several reasons. First of all, there could be more than one narrator, as the poem fluctuates between personal experience and general advice. Additionally, there is a hidden layer of metaphor alluding to the relationship between Pagan and Christian themes. "The Wanderer" is an elegy composed of alliterative metre that focuses on the Wanderer's loss of his lord, his subsequent grief, and his search for wisdom. "The Wanderer" is often coupled with "The Seafarer" in academic settings, and many critical studies focus on these poems as a pair. This is likely because the two pieces have a lot in common, like their solitary speakers, the theme of the decaying material world, a melancholy tone, and idea of finding security through religious faith. "The Wanderer" is also commonly read in conjunction with the poetry of Boethius.
The narrative arc of of the poem follows the Wanderer, a former warrior whose lord has recently died. He remembers the fealty he paid to his lord, the revelry of his hall, and his relationships with his kinsmen. He endeavored to find a new lord but was unsuccessful, and now he wanders alone, trying to gain wisdom from his melancholy thoughts. He describes his solitary journey through a wintry world as a stark contrast to the warmth and comfort of his lord's hall. He identifies with all lonely wanderers. In the second part of the poem, he starts contemplating more general themes about humanity. He ponders the impermanence of things while describing ruins and the destruction of other manmade artifacts. He uses his observations to segue into the characteristics that define a wise man. In his experience, a wise man should not possess anxiety, braggadocio, or irresoluteness. At the end of the poem, The Wanderer explains that he has gained wisdom from the experience of living through many winters. Finally, he exhorts his readers to look to God for security on this journey of life.
Scholars disagree about the number of speakers represented in the poem, with some contending that there is only one and others believing that in the shift from personal tales to general advice, a new narrator has taken over the poem. Scholars commonly claim that the first seven lines of the poem are an introduction, the Wanderer's monologue begins in line 8, and a new monologue begins in line 92. The second monologue could either be a wise man delivering a new speech by a second speech by the Wanderer himself, who has evolved into a wise man.
In his article on "The Wanderer", John L. Selzer examines the elegy through the lens of the meditative tradition stemming from the work of St. Augustine, which the Anglo-Saxon audience would have been very familiar with. Selzer observes that the Wanderer begins his tale with an evocation of memory by recalling his past actions, lost friends, and an older way of life. His description of how he looked for another lord is also in the past tense, signifying that he is no longer looking for one. Instead, the Wanderer is now suffering at sea and dreaming of happier times. Sadly, "in the midst of physical and mental exhaustion, he lapse[s] into deeper memories, even hallucinations, in his interior quest for his lord, so that the memory of his kinsmen mingle[s] with the real seabirds to produce the illusion that the birds [are] his kinsmen."
The Wanderer finishes his meditation and then ventures to apply his wisdom to his recollections. In the analytical section of the poem, the narrator shifts to the present tense, reinforcing that this section represents immediate thoughts instead of fading memories. In Selzer's interpretation, the Wanderer eventually comes to the conclusion that "experiencing the trials of the world is not simply a hardship; if hardships are approached with the right attitude, they can be a means of gaining higher knowledge." That knowledge is actually the understanding that faith in God provides security well beyond earthly trials. This conclusion is represents the result of The Wanderer's meditation.
Many scholars debate the relationship between Pagan and Christian themes in "The Wanderer". The mention of God at the end of the poem suggests that it is a Christian poem, but this conclusion may be too simple. The Christian viewpoint, as I.L. Gordon points out, is usually more admonitory in tone. The transience of life is a recurring theme in the poem that has affiliations to Christianity, but it is actually rooted in earlier poetic traditions. Gordon suggests that it is too simplistic to view the lonely wanderer as a Christian figure, explaining that "the identification is superficial: the figure remains the melancholy exile of secular elegy, bemoaning his lot." Vivian Salmon believes that the poet of "The Wanderer" was influenced by Old Icelandic literature and heathen folklore, because of the idea of the external soul. Salmon explains that the Icelandic writers believed that "the soul was... a separate entity enclosed by a wall of flesh" and that it could take on an animal shape. This explanation also supports the interpretation that the seabirds are interchangeable with the Wanderer's fallen comrades.