For starters, Old English has a very unique sound. It's guttural and percussive, and very distinctive. Just listen to this reading of "The Wife's Lament," and you'll see what we mean.
Old English poetry is also quite unique. Alliteration, a staple of Old English poetry, features heavily in "The Wife's Lament." Alliterative phrases like "wineleas wræcca" (11), "feorres folclondes" (47), "micle modceare (51), and "wynlicran wic" (52), pepper the original text, contributing to the distinctive rhythm and flow typical of the style.
Every once in a while you can even pick out an Old English word that survived the transition to modern English. "Under" and "storme" (48) are just a couple. Say, that reminds us… it's time for a quick linguistic lesson!
Let's take the word "frynd" (33), the Old English word for, well, you know: "friend." The Latin word for friend, however, is "amicum." You'll recognize that root if you speak any Spanish (amigo), French (ami), or Italian (amico). As a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans popped over the channel and knocked out the Old English-speaking Anglo-Saxons, Old English would develop into a new, more modern form of English with a distinct Romance influence. Some of these more guttural-sounding Germanic-rooted Old English words, like "friend," survived, but many were quickly replaced by their Franco-Latin equivalents. In a nutshell, that's pretty much how modern English was born. That's also why the English we speak today looks and soundly only vaguely like the language here in "The Wife's Lament."
The title here sets the table for the poem. It gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect in the poem and clues us in to both the speaker and her tone. All of this is pretty much confirmed in the opening few lines—wait, or is it?
See, no title actually appears anywhere in the original text. The poem simply begins, like the rest of the texts in the Exeter Book, with its first line. The words "wife's lament" don't appear anywhere, in fact. Weirder still, there's actually no mention of the Old English word for "wife" ("wif"), or "husband" ("ceorl"). The speaker's gender can be inferred from pronoun usage, as we point out in the Detailed Summary, so we can tell, at least, that the poem is from the woman's perspective. But how can we even tell that this poem is written from the perspective of a wife to her husband? The Old English term "hlaford" most closely translates to "lord," though within the context of the poem and surrounding pronouns, it likely means husband. Probably. Maybe. The critics are in dispute.
One such critic, Benjamin Thorpe, one of the first great scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature, first titled the poem "The Exile's Lament" way back in 1842. Eight years later, the poem's title was changed to the gendered "Wife's Lament." How might our reading of the poem change if it was still called "The Exile's Lament?" Does the current title limit our understanding the poem? Is a title even necessary? These are questions to think about when reading any poem. Given this poem's textual ambiguity and murky history, however, they are especially important to consider here.
We know that the Exeter Book dates back to somewhere between 960 and 990 CE. And we know "The Wife's Lament," as a poem found within this text, must be at least that old. This chronology gives us some idea of the poem's setting. "The Wife's Lament" is a window into tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, a time when the mead flowed like wine, and giant monsters roamed the earth. At least that's what Beowulf would have us believe.
As for the descriptions of physical setting scattered throughout the poem, we find striking similarities with a couple other contemporary poems, especially Exeter Book cohabitants "The Wanderer") and "The Seafarer." Thematically, these poems are very similar. They are all elegies, and deal with themes of sorrow and isolation. It is no coincidence then, that we see familiar settings in each. The storm-chilled stone cliffs surrounded by water (48-49) are certainly reminiscent of the nautical setting of "The Seafarer," while exile in a distant, foreign land (6-7, 46-47) certainly calls to mind the setting and wide wanderings of the aptly titled "Wanderer."
We are first clued into the identity of the speaker from the title. But we can infer her gender from pronoun usage and syntax within the first several lines. By line 5 we know the cause of her sorrow: exile. These introductory lines drip with lament, preparing for the emotional ride down the dark, cavernous rabbit hole of sorrow that will ensue for the rest of the poem.
Though the emotions are clear, however, the plot is anything but. Scholars today still struggle with the Old English original, and no two translations are alike. When reading the poem today, we lose much of the historical context that might have helped us make better sense of the story. But while the ambiguity in the narrative continues to yield a wide array of interpretations and theories, the tone is unmistakable. Without a doubt, the most striking aspect of "The Wife's Lament" is its elegiac voice; the speaker's heartache, expressed through lovely, plaintive language, is what we remember.
Tone and narrative aside, there's one more question on everyone's mind: who wrote the poem? There's tremendous speculation over this question. Some parties believe it was a man, possibly a monk, writing in a woman's voice, while others believe it was actually a woman. The fact of the matter is that there's no concrete evidence either way. You'll have to decide for yourself.
This is no walk on the beach. The plot doesn't make sense. The diction is weird. And yeah, it's written in a dead language. Of course, in order to get the most out of the poem, you must delve into the Old English original. The modern English translation simply cannot capture all the depth and nuance of the original. Without at least some understanding of the language and rhythm of the Old English original, the translated poem loses much of its intended oomph.
What's cool, though, is that, because the poem is so ambiguous, and because there are so many wide-ranging theories and interpretations, you have license to create your own. In examining the original and translated versions of the poem side by side, you can develop your own theories and interpretations. In short, you get to be a scholar of Old English—without all the grad school.
Gee, that Anonymous person sure writes a lot—very prolific, indeed. Okay, all kidding aside, we don't actually know who wrote "The Wife's Lament." But we can recognize a similar poetic style present in other Exeter Book texts like "The Wanderer,") "The Seafarer," and especially "Wulf and Eadwacer".
Also written from the perspective of a woman, "Wulf and Eadwacer" has faced similar speculation over its categorization as either a riddle or elegy. And, like "The Wife's Lament," "Wulf and Eadwacer" tells a sorrowful tale of heartbreak and abandonment—in this case, concerning a lover who has died.
It's possible that two, or three, or all four of these texts were written by the same author. In each we see parallel themes of grief, loneliness, and exile, couched within ambiguous, often confusing narratives. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure. Nowadays, these four poems are most commonly classified as elegies—but the gnomic and riddle-like quality of each cannot be overlooked.
When translating any poem from one language to another, it is very difficult to preserve both meaning and form. This situation is not helped by the fact that the original language here is the insanely-dense, super-convoluted, guttural gobbledygook that is Old English.
In its original language, "The Wife's Lament," like many poems in the Old English tradition, is unrhymed, with irregular meter. Its most noteworthy metric element is the use of caesura, a heavy pause that divides each line in half. The caesura is denoted in the text with a large gap. Take a look at the first five lines below:
Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt ic yrmþa gebad, siþþan ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu.
A ic wite wonn minra wræcsiþa. (1-5)
As you can see, there is a natural pause breaking every line in two. Because each line is roughly the same length, about four to six syllables on either side of the caesura, there is a distinct rhythmic pacing to the poem. This irregular meter holds through the entirety of the poem.
Also contributing to the poem's steady, almost hypnotic pacing is the use of trochees. Come again? A trochee is a type of metrical foot made up of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Imagine you just finished a test, and you are going from stressed to unstressed. This is basically the same thing, and it sounds like "DA dum." Let's take two representative lines out of those first five:
minre sylfre sið. Ic þæt secgan mæg (2)
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu (4)
The first half of each line consists entirely of trochees. This heavy, chanting rhythm sets up the second half of the line, in which nearly every syllable is stressed. The caesuras and trochees combine for a slow, deliberate pacing, percussive rather than melodic.
As you've probably noticed, there are no stanzas in the poem. It's basically just a massive block of super-dense text. In some ways, the modern English translation is even denser, without the caesuras and heavy trochaic accents to establish some sort of rhythm. Most translations of "The Wife's Lament" focus on content, rather than poetic quality. Thus, this attention to rhythm and pacing, present in the Old English original, necessarily gets lost in translation to modern English.
The translation we are working with here is completely unrhymed, completely unmetered, and lacks much of the poetic quality of its Old English counterpart. What is impressive, though, is the translator's effort to make each line in the translation correspond with the original Old English line. The translation is exactly the same length as the original, 53 lines, and each line of the poem matches up with its equivalent in the original text. This is no small feat, and makes our lives quite a bit easier. So, yeah, we applaud him for that.
Within the context of the poem, the Old English word "hlaford," literally "lord," translates best to "husband." But what if that's not entirely accurate? There's a theory among scholars that the "hlaford" of the "Wife's Lament" actually symbolizes another more well-known lord—the Lord—none other than Jesus Christ. In this sense, the poem may not be an elegy at all, but rather a riddle. Let's examine the poem in this divine light.
The lord in this poem, then, might actually represent Jesus—kinsmen plotting to kill him, banished to a far-away land after death—while he commands her to live the life of an ascetic in a cave, where she pines for him like many Christian ascetics of the day. Trippy, right?
You know that time just before dawn when you lie awake worrying? We've all been there. This Old English word captures the tone of the poem quite beautifully. Of course, because there is no single modern English word that communicates this thought, much of the rich meaning and cultural context of "uhtceare" is lost. Let's take a look at the two places in the "Wife's Lament" when this word appears. With the Old English in mind, the poem only becomes more powerful.
We've mentioned that around the time this poem was written, caves were often used as sanctuaries for Christian ascetics. Now it's time to get into the symbolic significance of the cave. This image of the cave, in which the speaker takes up her abode, as well as its surroundings, can be seen as an outward manifestation of her psychological state. Or, to put it more succinctly, the cave is gloomy and she is, too. Let's do some spelunking.
Our speaker has been deprived of her loved one. At "uhtceare," she feels the consequences of this deprivation acutely. Now, we wonder, did her husband die? Or is she just sexually frustrated, in the absence of her lover? You be the judge. Either way, the sexual implications are there.
Later on in the Exeter Book there's another poem called "The Husbands Message." This poem is written from the perspective from a husband to his wife or betrothed, who is far away in another land. It deals with the same themes of sorrow and isolation present in "The Wife's Lament." Could "The Husband's Message" be a response to "The Wife's Lament"? There is no conclusive evidence to link the two together, so we're limited only to speculation. But our imaginations are running wild.
Also, a not uncommon opinion amongst scholars is that the poem is, in fact, one giant shout out. We can't fully make sense of the poem, the theory goes, because it is part of, or at least makes reference to, another narrative that would have been familiar to contemporary readers. Ambiguous passages, like the part about the husband's kinsmen (11), or the reason why the speaker was exiled in the first place (5, 15, 28), would be clear within the context of this other story, and thus wouldn't need to be explained in depth.
So while the story seems pretty dang unclear to us modern readers, contemporary readers would fill in the gaps based on their knowledge of the other narrative. We guess we just missed the punchline.