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The Role of Verbal Clues in Distinguishing Variations of the Wanderer Motif in Works by Goethe and the English Romantic Poets

by Julian Scutts

Some people may find that this book devotes an inordinate amount of attention to wandering and the occurrences of words based on the common root of the words wanderer and Wanderer (similar in appearance but usually not in meaning according to dictionary) in English and German poetry.  One justification for this concern is simply this: Words in this circle have been much favoured and employed by great poets, notably Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe and all the German and English Romantic poets. As poets and scholars themselves, William Taylor of Norwich and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translated the titles of two poems by Goethe Der Wanderer and “Wanders Nachtlied” as The Wanderer (which had a powerful influence on Wordsworth’s development in poetry) and “Wanderer’s Night-Songs” respectively. Literary critics in general haven’t shown themselves able to do justice to the phenomenon I have briefly delineated. The apparently vague, diffuse and barrier-surmounting properties of the word defy the basic philosophy of some  critics, particularly those in the tradition of objective criticism, for this philosophy or doctrine postulates a radical division between poetic and non-poetic forms of language and hence ultimately between art and the wellsprings of life in all its forms.

Over sixty years ago Professor L. A. Willoughby tackled   the question as to why the word Wanderer, often in close proximity to Huette,  occurred with insistent frequency throughout Goethe’s body of literary works. In his article “The Image of the ‘Wanderer’  and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry” [2] Willoughby  postulated that the verbal juxta-positons he noted originated in the deep strata of the collective unconscious and reflected the motion of the ever-questing libido for union with the anima. In the book named in the heading of this article I widen the scope of inquiry so as to encompass works by various poets as well as  a study of other combinations of words  etymologically related to Wanderer  with words often  suggestive of biblical themes, such as cross, father or house of bondage .In the first case the connection is sometimes  rooted in the legend of the Wandering Jew, who in terms of the original  narrative derided the crucified Jesus to be  cursed in turn to wander the earth until Judgment Day. Geoffrey Hartman’s  surmise that the Ancient Mariner is a transfiguration of the Wandering  Jew [3] could well be corroborated  by an assessment of the combined effect created by occurrences of cross, whether as a separate word or in crossbow, The word “crossbow” occurs twice. The word’s religious references embrace a cross in the form of a pennant and as a reference to Calvary in the New Testament. Otherwise it occurs twice, either with reference to the flight of the albatross or to a facial expression. In logical terms the disparate meanings of cross are totally unrelated but, according to a theory put forward by Jurij Tynjanov, a leading proponent of the Russian Formalist school of textual criticism, similarities in the formal constitution of a word, such as cross in our present case, reflect the lexical unity of all words of like appearance.[4] In “By the Fire-Side” by Robert Browning cross appears with noticeable frequency and with logically  unrelated meanings with reference to an object of religious devotion or to acts of traversing a bridge, and yet all these occurrences unite in promoting a sense of a mystical experience, that of transcending the limits of physical time and space.

Let us consider other cases in which the manifold associations of wandering are specified by a significant verbal juxtaposition. As the editor of his own story, Robinson Crusoe admits being burdened by  grave feelings of guilt for wandering from his “father’s house” in a clear allusion to the story of the Prodigal Son. I later consider in what way the errant hero can be viewed in this light. In the opening lines of The Prelude the verbal trio uniting references to a “breeze,” “wandering” and a “cloud” in a manner reminiscent of the first line of Wordsworth’s famous description of lake-side daffodils) takes on a  biblical complexion in the 1805 version of The Prelude with the added reference to   “a house of bondage.” The wandering cloud inevitably recalls the pillar of cloud that led the Children of Israel through the wilderness. In all these cases single words point to the sustaining metaphors that suffuse the entire works in which such  verbal clues find their place. We might refer here to the allegorical frame of the poems in question. The ultimate  allegory is perhaps the one John Keats perceived in the very act of writing Endymion  when daunted by the prospect of pursuing the   “uncertain path” the writing of this poem would entail. According Frederick Nims in Western Wind, [5]a students’ introduction  to poetry, an  allegory spontaneously arises when a traveller, hitherto an isolated symbol, takes but one step towards a mountain, likewise a isolated symbol, and unites them in the same story.  Of course the allegorical journey takes different forms, be this a voyage, a mountain ascent, a country walk or the pilgrim’s wandering through life. In that exquisite union of two poems entitled “Wandrers Nachtlied” by Goethe the word ”Wanderer” itself is charged by all these inferences without any reference to a journey at all.


[2] L. A. Willoughby, "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry," Etudes Germaniques, 1951, 3, Autumn 1951.


[3] Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self-Consciousness,"' Romanticism and Consciousness Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1970).

[4] Jurij Tynjanov, ''The Meaning of the Word in Verse,'' Readings in Russian, Poetics Formalist and Structuralist Views (ed. Ladislav Mateijka and Krystina Pomorska). Michigan Slavic Publications: Ann Arbor. 1978. Original Russian Title: ''Znacenie slova v. stixe '' in Problema stixotvornogo jazyke. 1924.


[5]  Frederick Nims, Western Wind / an introduction to poetry, (New York, 1983).