Here at Shmoop, we speak student. This poem, however, is in Old English. We are aware that most students do not speak, or read, or… well, even hum Old English. Fortunately for you, Shmoopers, we do speak a little Old English. Wes hāl. See? That means hello. Anyway, we are here to help translate.
So, putting on our translation caps, we get a few things from this poem. Exile. Isolation. Sadness. Sexual Frustration. Puppies. No wait—scratch that last one. The rest are just a few of the themes you will encounter in the melancholy world of "The Wife's Lament." Written some time during the tenth century AD in present day England, "The Wife's Lament" is considered to be one of the most significant poems in the Old English language.
Now, you're probably wondering, what on earth is Old English? A better question, though, would be when on earth is Old English. See, Old English was the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, a people who inhabited Britain from the fifth to eleventh centuries AD. When the French-speaking Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, Old English began its evolution into Middle English, which sounds a lot more like the English we know today.
Before their untimely demise, the Anglo-Saxons produced some terrific literature in Old English; several largely intact volumes survive from this period. Chief among these texts is the Exeter Book. Dated back to somewhere between 960 and 990 AD, this codex consists of 131 leaves worth of poems and riddles, including "The Wanderer,") "The Seafarer," and, you guessed it, "The Wife's Lament." No one knows for sure who wrote these poems. It's possible they were even written by the same person—or people. What we do know is they all share quite a bit of overlap in terms of style and tone. "The Wife's Lament," like "The Wanderer," and "The Seafarer," is considered an elegy, a popular poetic genre in Anglo-Saxon literature dealing with themes of loss and grief.
"The Wife's Lament" is especially noteworthy amongst these elegies because, well, it's really emotional—like, "ready the tissues and let the band play on because we're going down with the ship" kind of emotional. The language brims with anguish, and we can't help but suffer alongside the speaker as she recounts her many sorrows.
If you end up scratching your head over the actual events of the story, though, you're not alone. Stuff gets lost when translating Old English. That's just what happens when you're working with a language that's deader than disco. It's virtually impossible to keep all the information intact when translating for poetic value. And when you do translate, much of the information is lost. It's a paradox that Old English scholars have been wrestling with for a long time. And that struggle has never been realer than in "The Wife's Lament." The poem is notoriously ambiguous, and each critical interpretation is different than the last. This means that we have to take each translation with a grain of salt, and understand that there aren't any clear answers to the questions we might have.
Here we will be working with Old English scholar R.M. Liuzza's translation, featured in his anthology of Old English literature. We're not going to lie. It's denser than a loaf of English brown bread—that's now a fossil because it was baked in 975 CE. But with some effort, a lot of patience, and maybe a little mead, "The Wife's Lament" is sure to take you on quite the ride. Now grab your battle-axe; let's get into the fray.
Ah, to be heartbroken. We've all been there. Everyone remembers a time when the one you loved just peaced out across the sea, presumably to raid and pillage another tribe without you. Old English problems, are we right? And of course, we've all had moments when we've felt alone, when we've felt isolated, without community or loved ones to keep us company. We're going to take a wild guess, however, and assume that you've never been physically and psychically exiled from any and all semblance of community or love. The speaker in "The Wife's Lament" certainly has, and it does not sound fun.
Our narrator has had some seriously not chill stuff happen in her life, stuff that puts even our worst heartbreak, let alone our worst living situation, to shame. Yes, after reading this poem, everything will be right back in perspective in no time.
So, how could a poem written 1,000 years ago hold up better than most of today's romantic tragedies? Last time we checked, Leonardo Dicaprio doesn't even make a cameo.
Well, for starters, our heroine has enough star power and flare for the dramatic to make Transformers 2 look like Romeo and Juliet. This is all the more impressive considering "The Wife's Lament" is one of the first pieces of British literature to actually feature a female speaker. Some critics even view it as an early feminist work; the very telling of the story is an act of agency, a powerful reclaiming of voice by a woman who has suffered the kind of heartbreak that would make Rose's time on the Titanic look like a pleasure cruise aboard the HMS Eternal Bliss.
This poem has it all, Shmoopers: heartbreak, feminist star-power, and history. Really, what more could you ask for?
The Wife's Lament: Translated a Bunch of Times
We know you're wondering about other translations of the poem. Here are a few more to peruse, so you can see just how different each version turns out.
One Stop Lament-Shop
Check out Oxford University's comprehensive resource on the poem.
Here's an… interesting video interpretation of the poem.
Origins of Old English
Dying to know where Old English came from? This video's got answers.
"The Wife's Lament" Aloud
For your listening pleasure, here is some guy on YouTube reading the poem out loud in Old English.
Eavan Boland's Version
And now listen to poet Eavan Boland give her reading of the poem.
The Exeter Book
Here's the original text.
"The Wife's Lament," Part 1
Check out the script of the first half of the original poem.
"The Wife's Lament," Part 2
Now check out the second half.
"Murdering the Narrator of The Wife's Lament"
Is our speaker actually dead? Read more on that theory here.
"The Wife's Lament: Possibly the Most Perfect Anglo Saxon Riddle Ever Written"
Mysteries abound… as explained in this article.