‘The Wife’s Lament,’ like many of the best pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry, comes from The Exeter Book. The book was written in Old English, and the version of the poem analyzed below was translated by R.M. Liuzza. It was written sometime during the 10th century AD in what is now England. It is one of the most important poems of the period. Although the various translations of the poem are far easier to read than the original Old English versions, there is still a great deal that scholars disagree about within the text. There are several contested sections in this fifty-three line poem.
Explore The Wife's Lament
Depending on how one interprets the poem, that departure might refer to his death, his betrayal of her, or his travels to another country. There is evidence for all of these possible solutions to her vaguely defined grief. As the poem progresses, the speaker explains how deeply depressed she is by her circumstances. She’s alone, without friends or family, and eventually forced to live in a hole or cave in the ground.
“They,” likely the husband’s kinsmen, are trying to keep her from finding her husband, whatever that means depending on the interpretation. Now, she has to spend the rest of her days with nothing but unhappiness on her mind. In the last lines, it appears that she’s wishing the same sorrow on her husband.
Throughout ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ the speaker focuses on themes of sorrow/depression and loneliness/solitude. No matter what the wife is talking about in the fifty-three lines, she’s alone. When she’s mourning her husband’s departure, she does so alone. When at the end she’s in her hole in the ground, she wishes sorrow on her husband by herself. She states quite clearly in the middle of the poem that there’s no one in her home to whom she can go to for comfort. She’s completely alone.
Structure and Form
‘The Wife’s Lament’ by Anonymous is a 53-line poem contain within one stanza of text. It is considered an elegy and written in what is known as the alliterative meter. Besides this, there is no standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. A close reader might take note of the use of trochees in ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ though. These are sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed, and the second is unstressed.
Although this poem is a translation, readers can still find several interesting literary devices at work within the lines. These include but are not limited to, examples of enjambment, caesura, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important literary devices that a poet, no matter when they lived, can employ. With successful images, a reader is able to more accurately image the experiences of the speaker. This is particularly useful for this poem as the speaker is filled with sorrow throughout. Without feeling that sorrow, a reader will leave the poem unaffected. For example, lines twenty-seven through twenty-nine: “They forced me to live in a forest grove, / under an oak tree in an earthen cave. / This earth-hall is old, and I ache with longing.”
There are also good examples of enjambment in this piece. Enjambment occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. A sentence or phrase is left unresolved, and the reader has to move down to the next line to find out what happens next. For example, the transition between lines two and three, as well as lines seven and eight. These are only two of many examples in ‘The Wife’s Lament.’
As a piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry, there are unusually formal features that a reader will come across. Often, these writers, whoever they were, chose to insert strong pauses in the middle of lines. These provide readers with great examples of caesurae. For instance, line twenty-three which reads: “nothing else – all that is changed now; it is now,” and line thirty-three, which reads: “often fiercely seized me. There are friends on earth.”
I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
my own life’s journey. I am able to tell
all the hardships I’ve suffered since I grew up,
but new or old, never worse than now –
ever I suffer the torment of my exile.
In the first lines of ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ the speaker begins by addressing the reader and telling them that she wrote this song of herself. It’s filled with sorrow over her life and everything she’s suffered since she “grew up.” It’s clear that this speaker, whoever they are, struggled throughout their adult life. They’ve come to a point where they’re ready to share everything that happened to them in these fifty-three lines.
She’s been exiled, she reveals, in the fifth line. It’s not clear what she means by this, and she doesn’t get back to it till the end of the poem.
First my lord left his people
for the tumbling waves; I worried at dawn
where on earth my leader of men might be.
When I set out myself in my sorrow,
a friendless exile, to find his retainers,
that man’s kinsmen began to think
in secret that they would separate us,
so we would live far apart in the world,
most miserably, and longing seized me.
In the next lines, she describes the first terrible thing that happened to her. Her “lord” left his people “for the tumbling waves.” The lord might be her husband or could be a leader of her people, or possibly both. She worried throughout the following days about this man and where “on earth [her] leader of men might be.” It’s clear she felt betrayed by his departure and worry about what would become of her and her people without him.
She decides the only thing she can do is search for him herself. She’s going to leave home as he did. But it’s not quite that easy. The next sorrow that befalls her is her husband’s kinsmen trying to keep them apart. They’ve decided that the two should remain as separate as possible. It’s not obvious why they made this decision, suggesting perhaps that the speaker herself doesn’t understand.
My lord commanded me to live with him here;
I had few loved ones or loyal friends
in this country, which causes me grief.
Then I found that my most fitting man
was unfortunate, filled with grief,
concealing his mind, plotting murder
with a smiling face. So often we swore
that only death could ever divide us,
nothing else – all that is changed now; it is now
as if it had never been,
our friendship. Far and near, I must
endure the hatred of my dearest one.
She describes her sorrow more fully in the next lines, expressing her depression over the fact that she’s been forced to live somewhere she doesn’t want to. She has no friends or family there. Readers have to infer exactly what the speaker means. Depending on the translation there are several possible interpretations. Her grief developed to the levels that it’s at because of her residence in this hostile-seeming place.
The following lines make the entire narrative even more confusing. She describes a man, perhaps her husband, or perhaps another male figure, who is evil in some fundamental way. He was “plotting murder / with a smiling face.” Obviously, this is something that would bring one a great deal of grief. The next lines feature a betrayal. Either the husband died or left the speaker. Everything is changed now from when they first got married. From now on, she has to suffer from the hatred of the one she loved, something she never wanted to deal with. The twenty-fifth line of the poem contains a great example of a caesural pause.
They forced me to live in a forest grove,
under an oak tree in an earthen cave.
This earth-hall is old, and I ache with longing;
the dales are dark, the hills too high,
harsh hedges overhung with briars,
a home without joy. Here my lord’s leaving
often fiercely seized me. There are friends on earth,
lovers living who lie in their bed,
while I walk alone in the light of dawn
under the oak-tree and through this earth-cave,
where I must sit the summer-long day;
there I can weep for all my exiles,
my many troubles; and so I may never
escape from the cares of my sorrowful mind,
nor all the longings that have seized my life.
The next lines make the poem even darker and more confusing than it already is. The speaker describes “They,” likely her husband’s kinsmen, who made her live in a “forest grove, / under an oak tree in an earthen cave.” These lines are meant literally. She was forced to go live in a hole or cave in the ground. Readers should also take note of the change of style in these lines. The first lines were mostly descriptive, but these are filled with images that help the reader imagine the speaker’s situation. There are also some great examples of alliteration, a skillful choice on the part of the translator.
She compares herself to “lovers living who lie in their bed,” they have something that she longs for. Depending on which theory one subscribes to, the husband’s betrayal, departure, or death has led her to a new life she never wanted. She has to sit in her cave and weep for days, for her loss, and for her exiles. Her many troubles are overwhelming. She knows that she’s never going to escape from her “longings” that have “seized” her life.
May the young man be sad-minded
with hard heart-thoughts, yet let him have
a smiling face along with his heartache,
a crowd of constant sorrows. Let to himself
all his worldly joys belong! let him be outlawed
in a far distant land, so that my friend sits
under stone cliffs chilled by storms,
weary-minded, surrounded by water
in a sad dreary hall! My beloved will suffer
the cares of a sorrowful mind; he will remember
too often a happier home. Woe to the one
who must suffer longing for a loved one.
The final lines of the poem are often translated in different ways and debated among the experts. The speaker addresses a metaphorical young man who must “smile” in a “crowd of constant sorrows.” This could be interpreted as an aphorism, a curse on her husband, or simply meant as speculation in regards to what her husband is experiencing in whatever new place he went to. The following lines suggest that the speaker wants to worst for her husband, to reside in a gloomy land surrounded by “water / in a sad, dreary hall.”
Perhaps she hopes or worries that he’ll look back on the past and realize what he’s lost. He will “suffer / the cares of a sorrowful mind.” Just as he suffers, or will suffer, so too does she. Perhaps the speaker is hoping to will her husband into a similar state to her own so that he too might experience the same grief.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Wife’s Lament’ should also seek out other Anglo-Saxon poems. For example, Ezra Pound’s translation of ‘The Seafarer,’ one of the best-known Old English poems. Some other pieces from this period are ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Beowulf.’ The latter is the most famous poem of the period. It tells the story of a hero, Beowulf, and his battles against Grendel and Grendel’s mother. ‘The Wanderer’ is another 10th-century poem that is also found in the Exeter Book and focuses on solitude, as ‘The Sea-Farer’ does as well.