Study Guide

The Wife's Lament Themes

  • Exile

    A common trope in the literature of the day, as found in other Exeter Book poems like "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament" takes on the lighthearted theme of exile. Okay, so maybe it's not so lighthearted. In fact, it's a deep, dark cave—literally in this poem. It is revealed to us early on that exile, or in Old English, "wræcca," is the cause of the speaker's sorrow. And as the driving metaphor in "The Wife's Lament," we come to discover both the psychic and physical extent of the speaker's exile.

    Questions About Exile

    1. What literary devices does the author use to capture ideas of both literal and figurative exile within the text?
    2. Who do you think exiles the speaker, and why did they do so?
    3. What is similar, or different, about the places in which the wife and husband are exiled?

    Chew on This

    Two ways to travel— the speaker arrives in her sorrowful state through psychological, as well as physical, exile.

    The speaker's heartbreak results more from her loss of community than anything her husband specifically did.

  • Love

    No matter how you interpret "The Wife's Lament," it's hard to ignore the themes of love, and love lost, that appear throughout the poem. Let's be real: it's a poem about heartbreak. So, whether you believe that the husband abandons his wife voluntarily, or is forced to leave his love and homeland behind, love inevitably factors into the equation. Folks in Anglo-Saxon England could be heartbroken just like the rest of us. Though, you'd think they would have had more protection with their chainmail armor and massive shields.

    Questions About Love

    1. Who is the person described in lines 18-26? Is it her husband, or another man? Why do you think so?
    2. Why might the speaker suggest that a young heartbroken man should always hide his sorrow?
    3. What is happening for the speaker at "uhtceare," this period of intense loneliness just before dawn? Is it sexual desire, or something else?

    Chew on This

    The whole poem is really an allegorical riddle, in which the object of the speaker's love is actually—wait for it—Jesus Christ.

    The husband was exiled involuntarily, and thus his love for his wife is still strong.

  • Sadness

    Take a look at the Old English word, "geomor." It means "sad." Get ready, because you'll be seeing that word a lot. Most critics classify "The Wife's Lament" as an elegy, a popular genre of poetry in Anglo-Saxon England, defined by its melancholy, mournful, and otherwise super-depressing tone. While the plot of the poem itself is anything but clear, the power of the speaker's voice, in her ability to express such profoundly difficult emotions, makes us forget about these inconsistencies. Take note, young Shmoopers—this is how you communicate sadness.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why do most critics classify "The Wife's Lament" as an elegy?
    2. How does the author use descriptive imagery to communicate the speaker's sadness?
    3. Does the husband actually share in his wife's sorrow? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Spoiler alert: the husband is actually dead. Thus the poem is an elegy in the traditional sense, in which the speaker laments the death of a loved one.

    It was the husband who intentionally abandons his wife (the jerkface), commanding her into exile.

  • Women and Femininity

    Though we can't be sure about the gender of the writer, we know for sure that the speaker in "The Wife's Lament" is a woman. The fact that this poem is written from a woman's perspective is extremely significant, regardless of authorship. In fact, it is one of the first known examples of a female-voiced narrative in British literature.

    The reality is that we really don't know a whole lot about gender roles in Anglo-Saxon English culture; a great deal of our historical knowledge of the period we receive from the writings of monks, who didn't exactly get out much. But this text gives us some amount of insight, demonstrating that women could be storytellers, active players in society, and certainly not pushovers.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Would you consider "The Wife's Lament" a feminist text? Why or why not?
    2. How might we read the poem differently if we knew for sure the gender of the author?
    3. Do you think the speaker's sexuality (and lack of outlets for expressing it) factors into her sorrow?

    Chew on This

    The very telling of this tale is an act of agency by the speaker; she has the power to voice her plight.

    The final section of this poem is a curse against the speaker's husband. (Take that, dude.)