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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)