We’ve been writing this song for a long time.

Often the solitary one
finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord,
Although he, sorry-hearted,
must for a long time
row by long strokes
along the waterways,
along the ice-cold sea,
tread the paths of exile.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m just a-going over Jordan
I’m just a-going over home

the path of exile holds him,
not at all twisted gold,
a frozen spirit,
not the bounty of the earth.
He remembers hall-warriors
and the giving of treasure
How in youth his gold-giving friend
accustomed him
to the feasting.
All the joy has died!

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet golden fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep
I’m going there to see my father
He said he’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I want to wear a crown of glory
When I get home to that good land
I want to shout salvation’s story
In concert with the blood-washed band

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

I’m going there to meet my Saviour
To sing his praise forever more
I’m just a-going over Jordan
I’m just a-going over home

Good is he who keeps his faith,
And a warrior must never speak
his grief of his breast too quickly,
unless he already knows the remedy –
a hero must act with courage.
It is better for the one that seeks mercy,
consolation from the father in the heavens,
where, for us, all permanence rests.

Verses from Wayfaring Stranger, a traditional American folksong, written in the 19th century, and The Wanderer, an Anglo-Saxon poem written around the 9th or 10th century.

I’ve been fascinated with emotion and sadness of The Wanderer since college, when I translated the poem in my Old English class (thank you, Dr. Sommer!). It wasn’t until I moved to Austin and became interested in American folk music and the modern singer-songwriter genre that I became aware of Wayfaring Stranger, and was likewise captivated by the familiar themes. How is it that a song written barely two centuries ago echoes the same themes and emotional heaviness of a poem written a thousand years before?
Both songs drip with sorrow in a way that transcends the superficial differences. They are both clearly influenced by Christianity, even as the ethos of the Anglo-Saxon warrior class comes through in The Wanderer. Even Beowulf is a Christian poem; it’s written about the Geats and Danes from a pagan era, but the poem itself has Christian elements. So like Beowulf, the Wanderer is a poem written about a past people through a cultural lens that incorporates Norse and Christian elements. Essentially, historical fiction.
I am partial to Emmylou Harris’s version of Wayfaring Stranger; Johnny Cash’s is a close second. I can only imagine what he could have done with a recitation of The Wanderer.
I love that the narrator in The Wanderer is remembering the halls of glory of his past, while in Wayfaring Stranger, the narrator takes joy in know that the kingdom of heaven awaits him or her. Yet even though The Wanderer is remembering past glory and his past king (gold-giver), he is still convinced that heaven awaits him.
There’s a lot more to The Wanderer than I’ve put here. Some of the most beautifully evocative lines describe an apocalyptic end:

A wise hero must realize
how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

This is the end of the world as destroyed by God and the giants. This is a beautiful amalgam of the Christian and the pagan, and it makes me wonder: Who is this Wayfarer? What happened to his lord, who he says he buried? What happened to his fellow thanes, and the community he was bound to? He rows along by himself — and we can see him on the water, his hands calloused by the oars, barely making headway against the waves that crash on the shore. The seabirds croak harshly above him, and he is the most sorrowful of men — a man whose identity depended on his relationship to his lord and his lord is dead. And the end of his city — I wonder what happened?

The Wayfaring Stranger knows that he or she will be reunited his father, his mother, and his Savior, when he goes to heaven. The Wanderer only knows that he can seek consolation and mercy, but he may not find it.


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