The waters of this life are unsteady, shifting, tumultuous; they provide no sure footing, no solid ground on which to stand (compare John’s use of “sea” and “waters” throughout the book of Revelation). The description is therefore less about the Wanderer’s mode of transportation, and more about his physical isolation and his unsettled emotions (James 5:1-8). Later, the poet reiterates this same sense of solitude, once more drawing on the image of the sea:
Sorrow is renewed
Like the waves of the sea, which fall here and rise there, and leave us helpless and alone, the memories of friends swim away and sink into the depths of our mind.
Darkness is also mentioned frequently by the poet, not only in its literal sense but also to reveal the quality and depth of the sailor’s despair. In the third stanza, the Wanderer states that, “Often I had alone / to speak of my trouble / each morning before dawn” (8-9a). Before the sun brightens the eastern skies, he is awake and reflecting on his troubles (compare Psalm 63:1, 6). Darkness is also used to describe the root of his sorrow: the loss of his earthly lord, “Since long ago / I hid my lord / in the darkness of the earth” (22-23a). His longing therefore points back to better days, and forward to the common fate of all mankind:
Indeed I cannot think
When he looks around him, he sees why the wise have so long “pondered deeply / on this dark life” and how the “wise in spirit, / remembered often from afar / many conflicts” (89-91a). The world, and his life in it, is a dark one, devoid of the happiness he once enjoyed with his master. Indeed, “All the joy has died” (36b; see Ecclesiastes 2:12-17)!
Time, and especially the poet’s conception of fate, is the final aspect of setting of which we will take note. Note the sense of helplessness and despair in his words, reflected once more in the natural world:
Now there stands in the trace
Brotherhood, refuge, boldness, and strength may spur us on for a moment, but we can never control “the turn of events” that inhere this life. Like Solomon before him the sailor cries out, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). And therefore fate “changes / the world under the heavens” and reminds us of life’s fleeting vapor. Truly, “The weary spirit cannot / withstand fate, / nor does a rough or sorrowful mind / perform anything helpful” (15-16; see James 1:9-11; 4:13-16).
In his sojourning, the Wanderer discovers that no matter where he now finds himself, companionship, strength, and stability are but fleeting pleasures of his temporal existence; earthly emotions the poet paints through the setting of the work itself. Neither despair nor heroics, however, is the solution. Instead he seeks a spiritual solace, knowing the Only One to which this world answers. For, “It is better for the one that seeks mercy, / consolation from the Father in the heavens, / where, for us, all permanence rests” (114b-115; see James 1:16-17; Psalm 51).