The Husband’s Message by Anonymous

‘The Husband’s Message’ is an Old English poem found in the Exeter Book. This poem is a secret message sent by a lord to his wife. The wife was staying in a distant land and her husband offshore. Due to a feud, the husband had to maroon his wife and leave his native land. At the time of writing this secret message to his wife, he was well-established and living a partially happy life in a secret land. Through this poetic-message written on a wooden tablet, the speaker requests the wife to return to her husband and live with him for the rest of her life.

The Husband's Message Old English Poem


Summary of The Husband’s Message

‘The Husband’s Message’ is a husband’s letter to his wife about his loyalty towards her and through this verse he requests his wife to return to him soon.

‘The Husband’s Message’ is a “secret message” written in poetic form. The sender engraved the words on a staff of wood and sent it ashore to his wife. In this Old English verse, the speaker is the wooden tablet and it emphasizes the loyalty of the husband or the sender to his wife. At first, it gives a primary description of itself and how it was made. Thereafter, the wooden tablet discloses its purpose or the sender’s purpose for writing this verse-letter. To be brief, the speaker was happy and prosperous in the foreign land. The feud in his native land surprisingly showed a new world to him. Hence, with all worldly possessions and the loyalty of his liegemen, he only missed his lonely wife. So, he requests his wife to return to him after getting the letter without any delay.


Structure of The Husband’s Message

‘The Husband’s Message’ is an Old English text that consists of four stanzas. The last section of the poem, excluded from the analysis, is in runic alphabets. It contains secret alphabets that need a cipher to be decoded. However, the available text in the modern English version is told from a first-person speaker’s perspective. That’s why it’s a lyric poem. Through this poem, the speaker expresses his love and loyalty for his wife. It gives the poem the quality of a love-lyric. Though, critics say ‘The Husband’s Message’ is an elegy. But, from the text, it doesn’t seem so.


Literary Devices in The Husband’s Message

‘The Husband’s Message’ begins with a personification. The overall poem is told from the perspective of a wooden “stave”. Like a messenger of a lord, the wood on which the letter is engraved, tells the wife what is written on it. Apart from that, there is a metaphor in the “salt-streams”. Here, the speaker refers to the sea. It also contains alliteration. Thereafter, in “brow of the hill” there is a reference to the topmost region of a hill. Thereafter, the writer uses a personal metaphor in “mournful cuckoo”. Moreover, there is an allusion to the Anglo-Saxon heroic code in the line, “That ye together should yet give rings”. The poet also uses several consonances in this poem. However, the poem ends with a climax.


Tone of The Husband’s Message

‘The Husband’s Message’ begins with an uplifting tone. The exclamation in the very first line of the poem reflects a sense of happiness and fulfillment. The speaker’s tone is no doubt glad, fulfilled, and overflowing with love. After a long time, he was writing a letter to his wife staying in a distant land. Thereafter, the tone of the poem reflects the sender’s hardship as well as the wooden staff’s. Both of them had undergone hardships and they were determined to fulfill their goals. The husband aimed to prosper in the foreign land and wood’s purpose was to bring its master’s words to the wife. Moreover, in the last two stanzas, the tone of the poem becomes sad. It lacks the happy sensation of the beginning. From this change of tone and mood, it is clear that the speaker badly wanted to get his wife back.


Analysis of The Husband’s Message

Stanza One

See I bring thee a secret message!

A sapling once in the woods I grew;

I was cut for a stave and covered with writing;

Skilled men cunningly carved upon me

Letters fair, in a faraway land.

Since have I crossed the salt-streams often,

Carried in ships to countries strange;

Sent by my lord, his speech to deliver

In many a towering mead-hall high.

Hither Iâve sped, the swift keep brought me,

Trial to make of thy trust in my master;

Look thou shalt find him loyal and true.

‘The Husband’s Message’ introduces the speaker of the love-lyric in the first stanza. The speaker here is a wooden stave covered with the message of the husband. Like a messenger, the wood introduces itself and refers to its origin. Once, it was a sapling in the woods. When it grew into a full tree, the sender cut it for a stave. At that time, people generally wrote their message on such a wooden tablet by engraving the letters on it. However, the stave says skilled men ingeniously carved the message on it in a faraway land where the husband lived.

Thereafter, it crossed seas and was carried in ships to countries strange to it. From this section, it becomes clear that the husband settled in a land very far from the region where the wife lived. However, the wood tells the wife that the Lord sent it to deliver a message to her. As if the wood was the other self of the husband, it hurried to deliver the message anyhow. It underwent several trials on the way to compensate for the trust the wife had for its master. At last, it requests the wife to look at the letter and it would tell her about her husband’s loyalty and truthfulness.


Stanza Two

He told me to come that carved this letter,

And bid thee recall, in thy costly array,

Ye gave to each other in days of old,

When still in the land ye lived together,

Happily mated, and held in the mead-halls

Your home and abode. A bitter feud

Banished him far. He bids me call thee,

Earnestly urge thee overseas.

When thou hast heard, from the brow of the hill,

The mournful cuckoo call in the wood,

Let no man living delay thy departure,

Hinder thy going, or hold thee at home.

Away to the sea, where the gulls are circling!

Board me a ship thatâs bound from the shore:

Sail away South, to seek thy own husband:

Over the water he waits for thee.

In the second stanza of ‘The Husband’s Message’, the speaker reminds the wife of the old days when they gifted costly arrays to each other. The speaker refers to their lavish lifestyle in the mead-halls where they lived happily. But for a bitter feud, the husband was banished from his country. Thereafter, the speaker urges the wife to visit his husband living overseas. After reading the letter, she shouldn’t delay. The persona wishes that no man should hinder her departure and hold her at home. She might leave at once as it had been a long time since the husband last saw her.

In the last few lines, the husband indirectly urges the wife to board a ship and sail away towards the south. The direction is somehow implicit. There is no direct reference to the place or region where her husband lived. However, the speaker hints to set out in that direction and she will probably find him waiting there.


Stanza Three

No keener joy could come to his heart,

No greater happiness gladden his soul,

Than if God who wieldeth the world, should grant

That ye together should yet give rings,

Treasure of gold to trusty liegemen.

A home he hath found in a foreign land,

Fair abode and followers true,

Hardy heroes, though hence he was driven;

Shoved his boat from the shore in distress,

Steered for the open, sped oâer the ocean,

Weary wave-tossed wanderer he.

In the third stanza of ‘The Husband’s Message’, the narrator talks about his present state. The narrator remarks there are no such things that can make his heart joyous. Even no greater happiness can gladden his soul. The husband only wishes to God to grant his wish of getting his wife back. Then they should give the rings of loyalty together and distribute the treasure of gold to the loyal liegemen. Here, the writer refers to the heroic codes of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Thereafter, in this stanza, the speaker says the husband has been living in a foreign land. It’s far better than his native place. There he found true followers and “hardy heroes” to protect his kingdom. When he was driven from his country, he steered alone in the raging ocean. The wave tossed him and made him exhausted from the journey. Like a “wanderer”, he was lost and at last found that land to set up his new kingdom.


Stanza Four

Past are his woes, he has won through his perils,

He lives in plenty, no pleasure he lacks;

Nor horses nor goods nor gold of the mead-hall;

All the wealth of earls upon earth

Belongs to my lord, he lacks but thee.

In the last stanza of ‘The Husband’s Message’ through the poetic persona, the husband speaks about his prosperity. He says his woes are past and he has won against all perils. Now, he lives in plenty and there are no pleasures that he lacks. He has everything that a lord must have, such as horses, goods, gold, and a luxurious mead-hall. Thereafter, using hyperbole in this line, “All the wealth of earls upon earth/ Belongs to my lord”, the speaker wants to glorify the next part of the last line, “he lacks but thee”. It’s called a climax. Here, the husband describes how precious his wife is. Her worth is incomparable to the worldly possessions. For this reason, all the husband lacks, is her presence.


Historical Context of The Husband’s Message

‘The Husband’s Message’ is an anonymous Old English poem and is found on folio 123 of the Exeter Book. The Exeter Book came into existence in the 10th century. The book consists of over 90 riddles and other poetic works. The manuscript suffered burn damage to the first passage of this poem. Apart from that, in this poem, the writer highlighted the heroic codes of Anglo-Saxon society such as loyalty and gift-giving. Moreover, there is a connection between another anonymous Old English poem, ‘The Wife’s Lament’  with this poem in the discussion. Scholars are of the view that through this poem the husband replies to the speaker of ‘The Wife’s Lament.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘The Husband’s Message’, here is a list of a few poems that similarly present a husband’s love and loyalty for his wife. And, one can find the essence of Old English poetry in The Wanderer.

You can read about Best Love Poems for Her here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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