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Boethian Ideas in “The Wanderer”

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Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy and the Old English poem “The Wanderer” are both testament to the enduring quality of literature. Writing in the sixth century A.D., Boethius discusses such varied topics as happiness, the existence of evil, and the path to God while locked in a cell with the goddess Philosophy. In contrast, “The Wanderer,” an elegy originally written in Old English, is a poem told from the point of view of an exile mourning his despondent existence away from the community. Though it was written almost five centuries later, it reflects many of the philosophical tenets outlined in Boethius’s account. It expresses life as a merely transient existence, arguing that happiness can only be found in God and that fate is an integral part of the human experience.

Both texts agree on the transient nature of human existence. For example, to the narrator in “The Wanderer,” wealth is but a temporary means of happiness that is ultimately transitory and will eventually be destroyed along with the rest of the world. This sentiment is evoked when he writes that “wealth is fleeting” (108), and in another line predicts that “all the wealth of this world stands waste” (74) until the universe will “stand empty” (109). This belief mirrors the teachings of Boethius’s Consolation in many ways. First, both works hold that one shouldn’t be attached to wealth because it serves no purpose in the end. Boethius’s Fortune explains that she holds the power to “withdraw [her] gifts” (21) whenever she wants to and condemns humans for the desire to be “enhanced by external adornment” (29). Although the narrator of “The Wanderer” doesn’t explicitly say that God eventually strips us from our material possessions, his belief in our ultimate destruction likens his “Father in heaven” (117) to the role of Fortune in the sense that what is provided to us can just as easily be taken away. Secondly, both suggest that the only remedy for this desire is a spiritual relationship with God, one that will outlive the material world.

The pursuit of happiness also assumes an ephemeral presence in both “The Wanderer” and Consolation. Both narrators find themselves in exile, only able to seek consolation through poetic expression that finds their surroundings meaningless and temporary. Philosophy outlines three pursuits that ultimately lead nowhere: wealth, respect, and fame. But all of these ventures cause nothing but detriment. Wealth brings worry (46), power brings disdain (48), and fame is nothing but false celebration (49). These vacuous enterprises render men into animals who fail to establish a spiritual connection in this transitory life. Although the narrator in “The Wanderer” doesn’t seem to lament a moral forfeiture like Philosophy, his displeasure is simply because those things aren’t eternal. Those “eager for fame often bind fast… a sorrowing soul” (17). His “memory of kinsmen” (51) brings temporary solace, but “they always swim away” (53), and in the end, “rulers lie deprived of all joys” (99) “as if it had never been” (96). The world of “The Wanderer” is only temporary and describes aspects of civilization as a whole being “wrecked” (85) by “The Creator” (84). In the last few lines, the only hope for redemption is for those who “seek mercy” (116) in God.

Since the world is empty, the only path to true happiness is through virtue. Philosophy asserts that all earthly attempts toward happiness are simply inadequate since humans by nature exist outside of God. The realm of humans is grounded on possessions and material things, and the pursuits previously discussed. But the realm of God is “the true and perfect good” (55), and intersects with the worldly realm through the pursuit of intellect, spirituality, and virtue. As mentioned before, Boethius concludes that happiness is not found in material things. But since power and wealth are the only standards we use to measure happiness, then the true measure lies outside of ourselves, in God. That realm is bridged by virtue. The character in “The Wanderer” outlines the makings of a wise man:

<BLOCKQUOTE>A wise man must be patient, / neither too hot-hearted nor too hasty with words, / nor too weak in war nor too unwise in thoughts / neither fretting nor fawning nor greedy for wealth, / never eager for boasting before he truly understands; / a man must wait, when he makes a boast, / until the brave spirit understands truly / whither the thoughts of his heart will turn. (65-72)</BLOCKQUOTE>

At the midpoint in the narrator’s journey, his definitions of virtuosity seem more secular and grounded in social mores than spiritual. Just like Boethius, who at first judges happiness by secular standards but later gains spiritual insight, here we don’t see the narrator’s assumption of true virtue just yet. In the final stanza he concludes, “He is good who keeps his word” (112) — or in other words, he who keeps faith and trusts in God. The narrative ends on a spiritual note, praising godly insight when he says, “It will be well for one who seeks mercy, consolation from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability stands” (115-120). The line “all stability” contrasts with his descriptions of earth as “dark” (59), “empty” (86), and “toilsome” (106), giving the sense that redemption is possible only through God.

Both works seem to promote the sense that hardship gives perspective to achieve virtue as well. In “The Wanderer,” we find the narrator “alone” (1) and “troubled in mind” (2) on the “path of exile” (33). His reminiscing of a past epoch alongside family and friends brings “great joy” (52), highlighting his desire for company. He acknowledges that “a man cannot become wise, before he has weathered his share of winters in this world” (63-65), giving a sense of ambivalence to his exile. He mourns the loss of companionship but praises it as a necessary factor in the path towards wisdom. That thinking mirrors Boethius, whose outside perspective of the world allowed him solace through deep introspection with Philosophy.

Perhaps the most similar factor in the two works is the role of fate, or “wyrd.” In Boethian terms, there are two distinguishing roles: Providence and fate. God’s plan “when envisaged in the total clarity of the divine intelligence” (87) is called Providence. Fate pans out on a smaller scale, “to the things which that intelligence moves and orders” (87). Philosophy then goes on to describe Providence as God’s plan in the long run, which, since it takes place outside of the constraints of time and space, humans will never fully comprehend. Fate, however, is the agent of Providence, acting in tangible ways in the course of man’s actions. The role of wyrd in “The Wanderer” mirrors the former less than the latter. The concept first appears in the beginning with the narrator exclaiming that “wyrd is fully fixed!” (5). It appears again in the line, “a storm of spears took away the warriors, bloodthirsty weapons, wyrd the mighty, and storms batter these stone walls” (99-101). These two examples are instances of fate having a direct, tangible effect on people. In line 5, the narrator seems to admit his wyrd being the cause of his exile, and in line 100, wyrd is attributed as the cause of the soldier’s downfall. Boethius shows that Providence is outside of human understanding. The fact that the narrator in “The Wanderer” is able to comprehend wyrd shows that it’s a reflection of Boethian fate. It’s an agent of God’s supreme will being enacted through the minutae, actions that affect humans directly. This idea is sealed when he writes “the working of wyrd changes the world under heaven” (107). In previous lines he predicts that a storm will kill all of the warriors, destroy the walls, frost will bind the earth, and darkness will take over. The fact that wyrd changes the world tangibly shows how it is fated because humans will directly experience it as an agent of God’s infinite will.

In conclusion, although the two works were written almost 500 years apart, they contain many of the same philosophical principles. “The Wanderer” reflects Boethian themes about material goods, emphasizing that nothing material in this life is worth pursuing because in the end it will be meaningless. Virtue cannot be obtained in the human realm, so man must seek a relationship with God in order to complete his existence in life. Fate, although sometimes punishing, is merely the agent of Providence, and in the long run, God’s will for man.

Works Cited

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. 2nd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Unknown, “The Wanderer.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period. Comp. Joseph Black. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

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