The Husband's Message
The identity of the speaker in "The Husband's Message" is actually kind of a literary mystery. The poem is written in a manuscript called The Exeter Book, and it comes right after 60 riddles – short poems in which an inanimate object or animal describes itself and asks the reader to "say what I am." So when we get to this poem, we're prepared for another riddle. Right away the speaker seems to fulfill this expectation, promising to reveal the "kind of wood" he grew up from. A speaking object made of wood? Definitely. But what exactly is it?
Well, since it carries a message for the lady, and it's "engraved" (13) – covered in mysterious pictograms called "runes" – a lot of people think it's a "rune-stave." A rune-stave was a small piece of wood with pictograms scratched into its surface, used to transmit a message between two people. Giving someone a rune-stave was the Anglo-Saxon version of sending an email.
This explanation of our speaker's identity makes a lot of sense; after all, he is concerned with transmitting a message from a lord to his lady. But midway through the poem, the speaker refers to "this" wood (12). What's going on here? Is the rune-stave now speaking of itself in the third person? Or have we actually had a shift in speaker from the piece of wood to the person carrying it?
It's hard to say, but whether we have one speaker or two, his goal remains constant throughout the poem: he wants to convince the lady to reunite with her lord. To do that, he makes his lord look really good, flatters and guilt-trips the lady, and, finally, speaks the runes that he bears. He works hard to accomplish his lord's mission, making him a loyal and effective messenger.
The speaker is delivering the lord's message (and claims to be delivering it word for word), so we thought we'd talk a bit about the lord too.
The lord who sends his messenger across the sea to ask his lady to travel in search of him has fallen on hard times. Although we don't know all the details, it seems he's been forced to leave his home because of a feud. He may have killed someone and now has to flee that person's angry relatives.
His goal is to convince his lover to reunite with him. And this is not as simple as a quick, "Hey baby, meet me in a week. Later." Nope, the messenger pulls out all the stops – from guilt-trips reminding the lady of her vows to laundry lists of her potential lord's bling. Let's face it: a rough sea-journey to reunite with a guy who, last she heard, was a homeless outlaw probably isn't on the top of the lady's to-do list. For that reason, the message the lord sends is calculated to make him look good and reassure the lady that he's rolling in dough.
Even the messenger's description of the lord's flight into exile casts him as a hero who singlehandedly "urged his ship out" onto the waves to contend with quick-moving sea-currents, and then overcame all his troubles (41-45). Now he's got plenty of "noble treasures," horses, and booze: all that's missing to complete this picture of domestic bliss is the lady herself – at least according to the messenger (44-48). The lord's fondest wish – having his lady by his side to distribute treasure to their subjects – suggests that he's not just looking for a lover. He wants a public and legitimate wife, someone whose presence will solidify his position as a proper lord.