Study Guide

The Wife's Lament Quotes

  • Exile

    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.

    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. (2-5)

    We learn by line 5 that the speaker's profound grief and suffering is due to "wræcsiþa," or exile. Of all the bad stuff that has happened to her in her life, this exile has been by far the worst. That's an intense thought. We will have to read on to learn more about what this means...

    ærest min hlaford gewat heonan of leodum
    ofer yþa gelac;

    First my lord left his people
    for the tumbling waves; (6-7)

    It is the husband's departure that sets the story in motion. We don't know why he leaves, or where exactly he goes. All we have is this image of "yþa gelac" ("tumbling waves"), so it's likely he traveled across the sea to some distant country. There is a distinct possibility that he himself was exiled.

    ða ic me feran gewat folgað secan,
    wineleas wræcca, for minre weaþearfe.
    Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes magas hycgan
    þurh dyrne geþoht, þæt hy todælden unc,
    þæt wit gewidost in woruldrice

    When I set off to join and serve my lord,
    A friendless exile in my sorry plight,
    My husband's kinsmen plotted secretly
    How they might separate us from each other
    That we might live in wretchedness apart (9-13)

    When the speaker decides to leave in search of her husband, her plans are thwarted by those conniving kinsmen. They conspire to keep the lovers apart, isolated not only in physical exile, but also in emotional exile.


    Heht mec mon wunian on wuda bearwe,
    under actreo in þam eorðscræfe.
    Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad,

    So in this forest grove they made me dwell,
    Under the oak-tree, in this earthy barrow.
    Old is this earth-cave, all I do is yearn. (27-29)

    Now officially exiled to a gloomy cave, separated from love, community, and her homeland, we witness the speaker's sorrow as she wallows in both emotional and literal exile. The dark, melancholy imagery of her earthly abode clearly parallels her emotional state.

    Frynd sind on eorþan,
    leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
    þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
    under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
    þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
    þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,

    There are friends on earth,
    lovers living who lie in their bed,
    while I walk alone in the light of dawn
    under the oak-tree and through this earth-cave,
    where I must sit the summer-long day;
    there I can weep for all my exiles, (33-38)

    While the speaker dreams of love and companionship, she stays in her cave—alone and weeping—she explains, "for all my exiles." This is an interesting usage of the Old English word "wræcsiþas," which most closely translates to "miseries." But given its same root as the word for "exiles"—"wræcca"—the parallel between the two terms is clear.

    […] sy ful wide fah
    feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
    under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
    wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
    on dreorsele.

    […] let him be outlawed
    in a far distant land, so that my friend sits
    under stone cliffs chilled by storms,
    weary-minded, surrounded by water
    in a sad dreary hall! (46-50)

    Here, the conversation changes from one of the speaker's own exile, to a description of her husband's exile. This seaside location sounds pretty gloomy too, and goes to show that the husband is just as physically and psychically isolated as his exiled wife. Life without love and community will do that to you.

  • Love

    ða ic me ful gemæcne monnan funde,
    heardsæligne, hygegeomorne,
    mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne.
    Bliþe gebæro ful oft wit beotedan
    þæt unc ne gedælde nemne deað ana
    owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen,

    Then I found that my most fitting man
    was unfortunate, filled with grief,
    concealing his mind, plotting murder
    with a smiling face. So often we swore
    that only death could ever divide us,
    nothing else—all that is changed now; (18-23)

    In this oft-debated section of the text, the narrator speaks of a man with whom a relationship went very sour. It's unclear if she's referring to her husband in the past tense, or another man whom she met during her husband's absence. What is clear is the heartbreak and anguish suffered by the speaker when this man betrays her trust. Even the most suitable of suitors, or "gemæcne," can go on to break your heart. You shouldn't have to go live in a cave afterwards, though.

    Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat
    fromsiþ frean. Frynd sind on eorþan,
    leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
    þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge

    Here my lord's leaving
    often fiercely seized me. There are friends on earth,
    lovers living who lie in their bed,
    while I walk alone in the light of dawn (32-35)

    While living in the solitude of the cave, the speaker imagines lovers lying together in their beds. It is clear that she laments a loss of romantic companionship, as loneliness takes hold. The use of the Old English term "uhtan" (check out "Symbols: Uhtceare") implies feelings of sexual deprivation and longing. The connotations of romantic love are clear: the speaker walks alone by the light of dawn, missing the company of her lover.

    A scyle geong mon wesan geomormod,
    heard heortan geþoht, swylce habban sceal
    bliþe gebæro, eac þon breostceare,
    sinsorgna gedreag,

    May the young man be sad-minded
    with hard heart-thoughts, yet let him have
    a smiling face along with his heartache,
    a crowd of constant sorrows. (42-45)

    It's unclear whom the speaker addresses with this thought, whether it's directed at her husband, or intended as a general word of advice to heartbroken young men. The message itself, however, is clear. You must hide your heartbreak in the world and keep smiling, even when the world has got you down. We're not sure if the speaker would make the best love advice columnist, but that seems to be the gist of her sentiment.

    […] Wa bið þam þe sceal
    of langoþe leofes abidan.

    Woe to the one
    who must suffer longing for a loved one. (52-53)

    The poem concludes with this gnomic couplet, encapsulating more or less the entire poem. Woe is certainly to the speaker, whose longing for her lost loved one consumes her entire existence. Everyone deals with breakups in their own way, and we know she's been banished and everything, but we really think she should move away from that cave.

  • Sadness

    Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,

    I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing (1)

    From line 1, we know this poem will be an emotional rollercoaster. With "ful geomorre," which translates roughly to absolute sadness, we can basically say goodbye to any chance of seeing sunshine and rainbows.

    sindon dena dimme, duna uphea,
    bitre burgtunas, brerum beweaxne,
    wic wynna leas.

    the dales are dark, the hills too high,
    harsh hedges overhung with briars,
    a home without joy. (30-32)

    The alliteration-filled Old English creates a vivid picture of the harsh setting for the speaker's exile. These physical descriptions represent clearly her emotional state. Given her deep sorrow in isolation, this truly is a place without joy.

    […] sy ful wide fah
    feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
    under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
    wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
    on dreorsele. Dreogeð se min wine
    micle modceare;

    […] let him be outlawed
    in a far distant land, so that my friend sits
    under stone cliffs chilled by storms,
    weary-minded, surrounded by water
    in a sad dreary hall! My beloved will suffer
    the cares of a sorrowful mind; (46-51)

    Apparently the speaker isn't the only one who feels sad. Again, the alliterative Old English paints a portrait of an unwelcoming landscape, frigid and dreary. This time, it reflects the emotional state of the exiled husband. We mean, really, where else are you going to live if your entire existence is sadness?

  • Women and Femininity

    Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
    minre sylfre sið.

    I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,
    my own life's journey. (1-2)

    From the opening lines, we know who will be telling the story. This may be a very sad story, and it will be difficult to tell, but the story belongs to the speaker; it is her song. Many scholars see the very telling of such a story as a profound act of agency, and we tend to agree.

    […] hæfde ic uhtceare
    hwær min leodfruma londes wære.

    […] I worried at dawn
    where on earth my leader of men might be. (7-8)

    You're probably tired of hearing us talk about "uhtceare" (if you're not, though, check out "Symbols: Uhtceare"). But in a feminist reading of the poem, the term carries even more significance. If we take "uhtceare" to imply a certain degree of sexual frustration, we can infer that the speaker's sorrow comes at least in part from a yearning for… well, you know. This is quite an insight—especially in a time when women were not supposed to enjoy sex.

    […] Frynd sind on eorþan,
    leofe lifgende, leger weardiað,
    þonne ic on uhtan ana gonge
    under actreo geond þas eorðscrafu.
    þær ic sittan mot sumorlangne dæg,
    þær ic wepan mæg mine wræcsiþas,
    earfoþa fela; forþon ic æfre ne mæg
    þære modceare minre gerestan,
    ne ealles þæs longaþes þe mec on þissum life begeat.

    […] There are friends on earth,
    lovers living who lie in their bed,
    while I walk alone in the light of dawn
    under the oak-tree and through this earth-cave,
    where I must sit the summer-long day;
    there I can weep for all my exiles,
    my many troubles; and so I may never
    escape from the cares of my sorrowful mind,
    nor all the longings that have seized my life. (33-41)

    We're sorry to drop such a large block of text on you, but we feel pretty strongly that this is the most powerful passage in the poem. The speaker's vivid emotions are captured eloquently in the rich images told here. We can truly feel the depth of emotion in these lines, as we can the coldness of the cave, and the distant glimmer of a summer day outside. It is because of supremely emotive, lyrical lines like these, that the poem has come to be classified by some critics as a frauenlied, or "woman's song."

    […] sy æt him sylfum gelong
    eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah
    feorres folclondes, þæt min freond siteð
    under stanhliþe storme behrimed,
    wine werigmod, wætre beflowen
    on dreorsele.

    […] Let to himself
    all his worldly joys belong! let him be outlawed
    in a far distant land, so that my friend sits
    under stone cliffs chilled by storms,
    weary-minded, surrounded by water
    in a sad dreary hall! (45-50)

    Some critics interpret these lines as a curse upon the speaker's husband, having betrayed her and sent her into exile. The language here sounds pretty authoritative to us, and the speaker does not exactly envision the Bahamas as the locale of her husband's exile. In light of this reading, this section could be another instance of the speaker exercising what power she has, using her voice to call out the traitorous lame-o who wronged her.