This is the poem made famous by its inclusion in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – several motifs are used both in the book and the movie, of which the best-known one is this speech, loosely inspired by a part of The Wanderer:
The poem is the complaint of the warrior who lost everything: his king, his comrades, his mead-hall and his family. He is like a ronin, if you excuse a comparison from a different culture – an outcast, without a lord, roaming the world in search of a new one. The lack of a liege-lord is something we perhaps cannot very easily relate to in our individualistic culture (think of the cliche “I want to be my own boss”), but in Germanic culture it meant not only economic deprivation but also the status of a social outcast. The Wanderer complains that he has nobody to turn for advice to and he has to keep his feelings hidden “in his heart’s coffer”. The need to keep one’s emotions to oneself (a harbinger of the famous “stiff upper lip”?) is emphasized several time throughout the poem.
The warrior sails through a cold winter sea, sees the ruins left by “giants” (perhaps Roman ruins) and they give him the only comfort he has – all things must pass and everything eventually falls into decay. Cold comfort indeed. This is an old trope, referred to in literary studies by its Latin name “ubi sunt?”, meaning literally “where are they?” We can see it recurring throughout the medieval literature, most notably several centuries later in Francois Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”.