On of the poems contained within the Exeter book is one called “The Wife’s Lament”. It’s an elegy, a poem that is a melancholy lament on death or other such sorrow, In this particular poem, a wife laments her separation and exile from her husband. It is written in Old English. As the Exeter book dates back to the late 10th century, we know that this poem is at least that old.
I have given you some simple facts about this poem in that first paragraph, but actually some of them are not facts, they are conjecture. Which makes this poem very tricky to write about! Like the Franks Casket, this little poem (53 lines) is subject to many interpretations and much scholarly debate.
Before we get into the general murkiness of the poem’s meaning, I will start with the bare bones of what it is about, in the minds of most scholars. The poem begins with a woman’s general lament over the state of her life. Keeping in mind that Old English is very difficult to translate, and so there are many variations of translations available, here is one fairly easy to understand version of the first stanza:
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.
The poem then gets into the details of her “life’s journey”. She is in exile because she has married into a different tribe/kingdom, and is without friends or family. And a secondary exile seems to take place in the poem, as he husband leaves her, the reason for which is unclear. Perhaps because of a feud, or a crime, we don’t know enough to say. The upshot of this is that the woman leaves as well, to look for her husband. She is thwarted in this by her husband’s kinsmen, and is then commanded to live in a hole in the ground. Which leads her to pen this sorrowful poem. Can’t say I blame her.
There is also a section in the poem that could be about a tryst with another lover (perhaps that’s why she is put in the hole), or could also refer to a betrayal of her love by the husband. Some say that the “hole” is actually a grave, in other words, that the woman has been killed, and this is her ghost speaking. Either way, it’s all gloomy.
So, getting back to the first paragraph of this post, here’s a little more enlightenment on the controversies surrounding this poem:
The title – It is true that the poem is found within the Exeter Book, and is written in Old English. But, like the other elegies and poems in that book, it doesn’t actually have a title in the original manuscript. The poem simply starts with the first line. The first person to name it, Anglo-Saxon scholar Benjamin Thorpe, actually named it “The Exile’s Lament” in 1842. It wasn’t until eight years later that the title was changed to “The Wife’s Lament”. What’s going on, here?
Well, first of all, the Old English equivalent for the word “wife” does not appear in the poem. The poem is clearly meant to be in a woman’s voice, however, because the pronouns and adjectives in the poem are written in the Old English feminine form, rather than masculine. And by the way, this is one of the first pieces of English literature written from a woman’s point of view, which makes it pretty special aside from anything else, don’t you think? This is likely why Benjamin Thorpe did not ascribe it to a woman, because there isn’t much literature from a woman’s point of view that comes from this male-dominated era. Perhaps he was just not expecting to see that, and so he didn’t. And as I said, Old English, especially poetic Old English, is very tricky to translate.
The subject of the poem is of a more domestic nature, as compared to the heroic poems such as “Beowulf”, with its monsters, fighting, and mead-halls. This also makes “The Wife’s Lament” stand out amongst the other poems we have from this era.
Of course, just because it’s in a woman’s “voice” doesn’t mean the creator of the poem was a woman. Don’t forget, very few people could read or write at the time. These poems were meant to be spoken, performed for an audience. It is possible that there were women who created poems, but it is likely that it would only be men who performed them. We only have a few poems from this era that were captured by a scribe at some point and written down. This scribe, however, could have been male or female, as this work was done pretty much exclusively in monasteries or nunneries.
Because of the female voice of the poem’s narrator, she is assumed to be a wife of the “lord” that she is mourning over in the poem. Hence, “The Wife’s Lament”.
The style of poem – although the interpretation of the poem being an elegy is the most common one, some scholars think that this is not an elegy, but is actually a riddle. They believe this because of a lot of complicated textual analysis that I can’t claim understand well enough to write about, so I will take their word for it. The poem ends, Woe to the one who must suffer longing for a loved one. This type of epitaph is typical of Anglo-Saxon riddles, which always end with these bits of what is called “gnomic” wisdom. It is interesting that this poem, along with “The Wanderer “and “The Seafarer”, are found in the Exeter Book, which also contains 92 other riddle poems. So, I suppose it’s possible….
We have comparatively little extant written material from the Early Middle Ages, and so each piece we have is so very important to help us understand the culture and the times in which it was written. “The Wife’s Lament”, in particular, even with it’s difficulties, puts a small spotlight on a woman’s perspective (albeit a very sad one!), and that makes it very special, indeed.
Want more? Here are the posts in my Anglo-Saxon Literature series:
Feature image of the Exeter Book from exeter-cathedral.org