Tim Benjamin

composer, writer, storyteller

The Wanderer

2024

The Wanderer is an Anglo-Saxon poem (in Old English) preserved only in The Exeter Book. While the manuscript dates back to the 10th century, it is believed that the poem is older (perhaps 9th century).

The Wanderer describes, in the first person, the thoughts of a lone exile as he remembers his past happiness, contrasting with his present hard existence. His past, with his lord, involved feasting, song, and celebration; however they were all lost - except for the Wanderer himself, who was driven into exile - when defending their homeland.

My setting of the poem known as The Wanderer attempts to capture the melancholy and sense of the original poetry, while presenting the language in modern English. While working closely on the poem and becoming absorbed within it, I found that – despite the ten or more centuries dividing us! – I could somehow strongly relate to the anonymous writer. I feel that there is something distinctively "male" about his approach to his grief and loss that I find in myself and in other men ("a man his thoughts fast bind, hiding his mind-hoard..."). Moreover, he relates his sense of loss to the world at large, that the world itself is fleeting, and for me I found myself melancholic or nostalgic for the world as it was in my younger days - and then extending to an imagined or collective kind of melancholic nostalgia for the world as it was in earlier decades or centuries, which I feel is a reaction to a world that seems today to change or spin out of control and become less and less familiar the more one sees of it. It's a strange sensation and one that I feel The Wanderer captures in an extraordinary way.

My starting point with the text was A.S. Kline's excellent abridged translation; I made several changes to better communicate the sense through music. Most obviously, this translation omits a final short section which takes a view on the Wanderer's meditation and seems to have been added later.

Musically I have made great use of a Gregorian psalm tone, the tonus peregrinus. It is commonly associated with Psalm 114 (or 113) describing the Exodus (i.e. exile) of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and in which the reciting tone also "wanders", such that the tone does not fit any of the standard eight church modes.

The text contains a famous "ubi sunt" section – Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? that appears (in very similar form) in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers), as Aragorn sings an old Rohan song: "Where now the horse and the rider?". This forms the peak of the dramatic arc in my setting of The Wanderer.

Recording: Paths of Exile

The Wanderer is available on the recording Paths of Exile performed by Kantos with an immersive audio soundtrack, alongside the related poem The Seafarer (also set by Tim Benjamin).

The Wanderer

Translated by A.S. Kline and further adapted by Tim Benjamin

1

Oft I alone must utter my sadness each day before dawn.

Living there’s none, no man,
to whom I’d clearly speak my innermost mind.

I know among men the custom truly is noble,
That a man his thoughts fast bind,
Hiding his mind-hoard,
Whatever he thinks.

For weary spirit may not withstand fate’s ways,
Nor does a sad heart offer men aid.

Thus oft the glory-bound bind fast their dark thoughts In their own soul.

2

So I, wandering, bereft of my homeland,
Far from my kinsmen, oft in wretchedness,
My innermost feelings am forced to fetter,
Over these long years since my lord I buried
Deep in the dark earth.

I, from there, went with winter-sorrow over the icy waves,
Seeking, hall-bereft, some giver of treasure,
Where I, far or near, might find one in mead-hall,
Who knew my clan, or might console me,
I, the friendless one, win with his welcome.

3

He who suffers it knows how sorrow
Makes cruel companion to one who goes light
Of all loving friends.

Wandering wreathes him not the winding gold,
A frozen spirit, now, not the fruits of earth.

Halls of the warriors he recalls, gold-giving:
How in youth his lord, ever treasure’s friend,
Won him to wine.

Dead now all joyfulness!

Thus he suffers it,
Who the true counsel of his own dear lord has long time forgone:
Then sleep and sorrow working together oft will bind the lonely one.

He thinks there in mind,
That he his own lord clasps there and kisses,
And to his knees presses hand and head,
As when once before,
In times gone by,
He held the throne.

4

Then he awakens, a friendless man,
Seas before him, the barren waves,
Sea-birds bathing, preening their feathers,
In rime, in snow-fall, and hail there mingling.

Then are they heavier wounds of heart laden with longing;
Sorrow succeeds when memories of kinsmen his mind’s-eye sees:
He greets them gladly, each, eagerly,
A man’s companions swimming ever away,
Seafaring spirits,
Mouths moving,
Speaking silence.

Heart-ache anew of he who must send, time after time,
His weary heart over the binding of the waves.

Truly I know not why my spirit fails to darken
Seeing the whole earthly life of men, all the world over,
How swiftly they flee the stage,
The proud nobles.

5

So this middle-earth day by day decays and falls:
So no man can call himself wise, ere many winters aged in this world.

The wise must be patient,
Not too swift of deed,
Not too hasty of word,
Nor too weak a warrior,
Nor too recklessly wild,
Nor too fearful, too hopeful,
Nor too greedy for gifts,
Nor too ready to boast,
Before he sees clear.

A man must hold before he speaks oaths,
Until proud-hearted he sees clearly
Where the intent of his heart will tend.

The wise man must see the ghost of the world
When all its wealth lies wasted,
As now here and there over this middle-earth,
Wind-beaten the walls stand rime be-frosted,
Dwellings storm-swept.

6

The wine-halls are ruined,
Their rulers dream-bereft:
Fallen the throng,
Proud by the wall.

Some war wasted, with the ferry-man forth;
Him the bird took beyond the deep seas;
Him the grey wolf shared with death;
Him a sorrowful man hid in an earthly grave.

7

So he who made men has laid waste to the land,
Till barren of sound, its people silent,
The old work of giants stood empty.

One who in wisdom looks upon this,
And of this dark life thinks deeply,
Ancient in spirit,
Remembers countless conflicts, war, long ago,
Speaks these words:

Where is the horse now?
Where is the rider?
Where is the gold-giver?
Where is the seat at the gathering?
Where now are the songs in the halls?

Alas for the bright cup!
Alas the mailèd warrior!
Alas for the glory of the prince!

8

How that age has passed,
Dark under night-helm as though it never were!

Now there stands at last,
Where were the dear host,
A wall wondrous high wound with serpents.

The warriors were taken by the spear’s glory,
Weapons ripe for kill, fame of the fated;
These cliffs of stone storms batter,
Falling frost Earth fetters,
Promise of winter;

Then comes darkness,
Night-shadows deepen,
From the north descends fierce hail in malice ‘gainst men.

9

All is sorrow in this earthly realm,
The wheel of fate alters world under heav’n.

Here be gold fleeting,
Here be friend fleeting,
Here be man fleeting,
Here be kin fleeting;

All that the Earth had is gone.

Duration

20 minutes

Instrumentation

Male voices

First performance

Kantos, 2024

Listen

"Paths of Exile" by Tim Benjamin, performed by Kantos Chamber Choir

Request a score / parts

If you would like to see a score and/or require a set of parts for this music, please contact me.