There is a lot to say about how these poems overlap, but how are they different? “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” contain similar moods and themes, and use similar motifs to evoke a sense of isolation from human society, but in each poem the reason for this isolation is unique.
How does the poets’ use of natural setting and imagery differ between the two poems? Are there any ways in which these differences highlight the context of (and reason for) the narrators’ isolation?
Both of these poems are about the woes of wandering. However, the two differ in some ways. The most obvious of these is that the seafarer is a sailor, while the other is a nomad across land. The second difference is that the Wanderer seems to emphasize loneliness, while the seafarer emphasizes the distance between family, women, and children they could have or have had. Finally, the most important difference is the Wanderer uses the concept of “wyrd” or fate to explain his sorrow. However, the seafarer attributes “fate” with God the only time(s) he uses the term. Instead of using “wyrd,” he speaks about the power of God. Perhaps, he is using the two as synonyms, but either way, he is closely tying fate to God, whereas the Wanderer seems to not do this as much.
Nature in “the Wanderer” takes on a sense of companionship for the man. He is exiled from other men, so his solace lies in the company of nature. This is in quite a contrast to “the Seafarer” where the narrator is (although voluntarily) separated/exiled from other humans by nature itself. Here the narrator describes nature as a harsh and deadly force because it acts as the barrier between him and other humans. The wanderer has been betrayed by other humans, so he takes solace in nature and we get an almost ambivalent description of nature. However, the Seafarer is still close to his kin and humanity, so he views nature as the “other” which is getting in his way.
As Brooke says, both of these poems emphasize the isolation of wandering and being cut off from the rest of society; the two poems even use the same language at times, both speakers referring to “the paths of exile” in multiple places. But the two speakers’ settings definitely distinguish their situations; for the Wanderer, he speaks mainly of the earth and the Seafarer, obviously, speaks mainly of the sea. This is significant for their respective contexts. The wanderer speaks of the earth mainly in relation to the loss of his Lord and his people; the most potent images are those of laying his lord to rest [“I hid my gold-giving friend / in the darkness of the earth” (l.22-3).] and of searching for or remembering meadhalls—there’s an iconic moment of this remembering in lines 93-6, in which all of the images are those of the earth (horse, rider, givers of gold, etc.). All of this reflects the wanderer’s specific situation of losing his lord, his home, and now is wandering alone, searching for others. By contrast, the Seafarer speaks of his isolation through the setting of the sea and of sailing alone. My favorite moment is in lines 58-64, when he imagines his thoughts flying out from him and traveling, much like himself, alone over the sea. He says specifically that it is this that “incites [his] heart irresistibly to the whale’s path / over the open sea,” suggesting that the Seafarer’s loneliness differs from the Wanderer’s in that this situation is largely of his own making.
In the Wanderer, the speaker has been exiled but uses nature to his advantage. It becomes his confidant in which he places all of his thoughts and feelings, thus he is not wholly alone. For the Seafarer, does not seem to have the luxury of nature as his friend, due to harsh, cold weather. Rather than becoming complacent like the Wanderer, the Seafarer only experiences anxiety and wishes to reach heaven.