Study Guide

The Husband's Message Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Anonymous

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Sea Journeying

Both the speaker of "The Husband's Message" and the lord who sent him have undergone rough sea-journeys – the lord as he fled from feud violence, and the speaker after the lord sent him as a messenger to his lady. The messenger tries to convince the lady to follow in their footsteps and jump on a boat. The messenger describes his lord's sea-voyage to make him look like a courageous, strong sailor, while for the lady the sea-journey is simply a path to her lord.

  • Lines 5-9: The piece of wood uses alliteration to describe how it has traveled over the "salty seas" to get here, arriving on the deck of a boat.
  • Line 21: The messenger relays the lord's request for the lady to "stir up the water," a very figurative way of asking her to make a sea-journey that emphasizes the physical closeness to the sea that such a journey entails.
  • Line 26: The messenger tells the lady to start heading for the ocean, which he calls the "native land of seagulls." This description of the ocean suggests that it's a hospitable place for animals but not necessarily for people.
  • Line 28: The messenger calls the sea the "ocean-path," emphasizing the sea's role as a road to the lord.
  • Line 41: The messenger describes how his lord "urged his ship out" upon the waves and stirred up the sea-currents. This description paints the lord as a heroic, strong traveler who contends with the powerful forces of nature.

Communication (vows, writing, speech)

"The Husband's Message" is all about communication and how it happens. Obviously the poem is the transmission of a message. But it's also concerned with the lovers' vows. A vow or an oath doesn't just communicate a promise; it also creates a new relationship. For example, a marriage vow makes the two people saying the vow husband and wife. The personification of the piece of wood that transmits the lord's message to his lady, as well as the runes carved upon it, emphasize how writing "speaks" for those whose message it transmits.

  • Line 1: The speaker promises to reveal his origin "in private." But the word for "in private," onsundran, can also mean "apart," establishing the focus of the poem on communication between two people who are separated.
  • Line 2: The speaker reveals himself to be a piece of wood. That makes the whole poem an extended personification, since it's spoken by an inanimate object.
  • Line 13: The speaker refers to his lord as "he who engraved this wood," establishing the lord as the author of the mysterious runes at the end of the poem, and of the message they transmit.
  • Lines 13-15: The speaker tells the lady that the lord wants her to remember the "vows that you two often spoke in former days."
  • Line 21: The speaker characterizes his communication as instruction, placing himself (and the lord) in a position of authority over the lady he addresses.
  • Lines 50-51: The speaker personifies the runes by saying that he hears five runes join together to "declare a pledge."

Sumptuary Culture (gold, jewelry, decoration, luxury items)

Part of the messenger's strategy for convincing the lady to return to the lord is to assure her of his great prosperity. To this end, he uses lots of detailed descriptions of the lord's possessions, often using understatement to hint at their extent. The messenger's hidden agenda is to reassure the lady that, despite her lord's exile, he can still offer her financial security and a queenly lifestyle. He caps off his description of his lord's treasure trove by urging the lady to become a part of it, in effect objectifying her as just another possession.

  • Line 14: The messenger uses imagery to flatter the lady, describing her as "adorned with jewels." This description also connects the lady to the piece of wood from line 13, which was described as "engraved" – since engraving was an Anglo-Saxon way of decorating.
  • Line 18: Speaking to better times in the past, the messenger refers to the lady as occupying a home in the "cities where mead was drunk." Both the city and the honeyed wine (mead) are common symbols in Anglo-Saxon poetry for luxury and material comforts. Maybe today the lord would be mentioning his Lamborghini, Tahiti vacation home, and horizon pool.
  • Lines 34-35: In further imagery, the messenger conveys the lord's wish to have his lady join him in distributing "studded circlets" to their subjects. In other words, he's talking about doling out treasures and jewelry to his warriors.
  • Lines 35-36: The messenger uses understatement to emphasize his lord's wealth, saying he has "enough decorated gold" when what he really means is that he has more than enough to go around.
  • Lines 45-46: More understatement describes the lord as having "no lack of joy, horses, or treasures." Again, what the messenger is really saying is that his lord has a lot of joy, horses, and treasures.
  • Line 46: The "pleasures of mead" may be a synecdoche for the mead-hall in which these pleasures would occur, meant to convey the fact that the lord is wealthy enough to have his own mead-hall.
  • Line 47: The speaker objectifies the lady by saying that the lord lacks "none of the noble treasures upon earth" if he can just possess her, essentially turning her into just another of the lord's possessions.