The Wife’s Lament, a 53-line poem found in the late tenth-century Exeter Book, is considered one of the most enigmatic poems in Old English. It is so ambiguous that even a simple summary of its tone and action presents problems of interpretation. Tentatively, one can say that the poem, spoken by a woman, describes the departure of the speaker’s husband, perhaps because of involvement in a crime or feud. She followed him into exile abroad, but his relatives schemed to separate them; ordered to leave him, she was confined to some kind of barrow or sanctuary, depending on the translation. Now, alone and isolated, she laments various forms of exile: separated from home, love, and family, she longs for her husband and her past happiness, and speculates about the nature of his exile abroad. Depending on the editorial approach used to interpret it, the poem ends either with the speaker cursing her husband or, more philosophically, ruing their linked fate.
Despite much scholarly effort, doubts remain regarding what narrative action is described in the first half of the poem. There are also doubts about the nature of the speaker’s location; whether the speaker laments the actions of one or two men; and even whether the speaker is a woman or a man. These uncertainties have inspired much speculation, reiterated by editors each time the text is presented: the poem is spoken by a revenant; the speaker is an abandoned soldier condemning his former lord; the speaker is a pagan deity cursing a converted priest. All the theories are ingenious and none is definitive. The ambiguity seems integral to the poem and unlikely to be resolved, given the linguistic, literary, and historical distance between the moment of its composition and the present. Thus, this article does not seek to present a new interpretation of the poem as a whole. Rather, by analyzing the ways in which the last lines of The Wife’s Lament repeat and differ from earlier points in the text, the aim is to show that the poem is a more complex literary construct than has previously been seen. It is the careful use of repetition and variation which paints an acute and haunting psychological portrait of a woman in exile, exploring and mimicking the complexity of her conflicted frame of mind over the man who brought her to this state. Whereas much previous scholarship concentrated on finding the simplest, clearest explanation of the difficult passages, I argue that the complexity is integral. It is the way in which The Wife’s Lament paints a sophisticated portrait of the convoluted psychological state of the exile, while at the same time discouraging any simple or one-sided psychological reading. In contrast to previous readings, I wish to concentrate on the poem as a poem—whether one reads the speaker as cursing or philosophical, the poem is a complex artifact; we are drawn into the speaker’s state even as we are prevented from saying exactly what it is.
Doubling and Exile
It is in the puzzling closing movement of the poem, which describe the situation of the husband, that elements are repeated from the section describing the wife’s situation, with subtle changes. These doublings create a heightened intensity of psychological depth while allowing the poem to remain open to varied readings. Alaric Hall describes lines 42-53, in which the speaker either curses her husband or laments his fate, as a break from what has come before: “they comprise a shift from the speaker’s (indicative) description of her own present situation, to some kind of (partly subjunctive) portrayal of geong mon, mīn frēond, [the young man, my friend/love] enveloped by two gnomes.” Simply put, a portrait of the speaker’s beloved is placed in-between two philosophical maxims. Other critics also find a transition in these lines. Sung-Il Lee argues, imaginatively but unpersuasively, that line 42 marks a fresh twang of the lyre as the minstrel begins to speak in his own voice, abandoning a metaphorically female persona. Anne Klinck understands them as part of the poem’s movement forward in time and outward from the self.
However, while these concluding lines signal a shift, they also echo what has come before. In the closing movement, the poem repeats for the second time an extended description of a character in an unfortunate natural or semi-natural setting; in both cases, the description of place reflects something essential about the character within it. The husband’s place of exile has received less attention from scholars than the speaker’s setting; yet it seems almost equally strange and dream-like, and it recalls the earlier description of her place of banishment in interesting ways.
The wife was commanded to enter a grove or sanctuary in line 15; in line 27, someone — the general mon is used, interpreted as “husband” by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson — commanded her to dwell in a grove of trees, under an oak, in an “earth-grave” [earðscræfe], which is variously a hole, grave, cave-dwelling, or earthy-barrow, depending on the translation. Then, in line 29 there is an odd juxtaposition: the speaker states, “Eald is þes eorðsele, eal ic eom oflongad” [The earth-grave is old, and I am all seized with longing]. She breaks into the landscape description as if to say that the bleak setting is not incidental: her feelings, rather, are as fixed and lamentable as this environment. It seems that the speaker is not completely sure the audience will make the connection between her state of mind and the dark valleys, high hills and overgrown briars that enclose her at lines 30-32: sindon dena dimme, dūna ūphēa/ bitre burgtūnas, brērum beweaxne/ wīc wynna lēas [the valleys are dark, the hills high/ the sharp hedges are grown over with briars/ the dwelling place is joyless]. Critics tend to refer to these lines as “pathetic fallacy,” but the term is not strictly correct, because pathetic fallacy ascribes human emotions to natural things: flowers weep when lovers part, for example. It is more accurate to say that the imagery symbolically represents and communicates the speaker’s emotional state. Indeed, this is what the harsh juxtaposition of line 29 communicates: in these lines, the natural world doubles the self.
The description of the young man’s place of exile repeats this trope. As her landscape reflected her, his landscape reveals him. This description, though less extended, echoes the earlier one: where she was “under āctrēo” [under an oak tree] (at lines 28 and 36), he is “under stānhliþe” [under a stony slope] (l.48); he sits there, as she sat, “sumorlangne dæg” [the summerlong day] (l. 37). Here, the description of the setting focuses on the character: he is frost-coated, surrounded by water, in a sad abode [under stānhliþe storme behrīmed/ wine wērigmōd, wætre beflōwen/ on drēorsele]. Alternatively, if one translates drēorsele, following Mitchell and Robinson, as “desolate hall,” there is an inherent contrast: she is in a semi-religious, rural landscape; he is in a ruined building surrounded by water, once-grand nautical ruins that call to mind both The Seafarer and The Wanderer. In any case, the young man is desolate and has many “heart-cares” [brēostceare]: once again, the landscape doubles the self, and the young man’s unhappiness duplicates the speaker’s.
There are additional complexities in the ways in which lines 42-53 repeat and differ from earlier parts of the poem, and their effect is harder to gauge. A. N. Doane suggests that there are three actors and that the main relationship is interrupted by another “young man.” If, with most contemporary critics, one discounts this theory and takes the “suitable” man [ful gemæcne monnan] of lines 18-21 to be the same one referred to at the end of the poem, some interesting comparisons come to light. Richard Marsden cautions that lines 19-21 comprise “the most obscure passage in the poem.” Marsden’s punctuation of these lines is presented below, with Mitchell and Robinson’s following:
At line 44, as was mentioned, the phrase blīþe gebǣro returns: the young man must have a joyful demeanour in addition to or besides his “heart cares.” That is, he must be slightly different from himself. Commentators often view these lines as pointing to a Germanic or Stoic ideal: the need to put on a good face no matter what one encounters. Yet it is hard to ignore the “double” quality they carry with them, too. If they bring an ideal of masculine behaviour into the poem, they also seem to repeat the dissembling that was described earlier. The poem continues to mirror itself as it goes on, and both the similarities and the differences between its two portraits of exile are significant.
Another example of doubling occurs in lines 51-2 when, enduring great sorrow and suffering, the young man “will often think about more pleasant habitations” [hē gemon tō oft wynlicran wīc]. Wynlicran wīc inverts the sounds of the phrase the speaker used to describe her earthy barrow at line 32: wīc wynna lēas, a place without joy. Possibly the phrase is an echo of the wife’s earlier feelings. However, there are very few places where the speaker compares her current sadness to her happier past: lines 22-4 describe a romantic pledge, but also mention death and focus on rupture. Likewise, the reading by which lines 33-4 (Frȳnd sind on eorþan,/ lēofe lifgende, leger weardiað) may refer to “lovers in their beds” is disputed: many scholars now translate the lines as “friends in their graves.” Thus, the young man does not quite seem to be doubling the speaker’s feelings. Rather, with his body in one place and his mind in another, he is himself, again, in a double condition. Earlier in the poem, he was deceitful to her, saying one thing and feeling another, and now he is duplicitous to himself (in the sense of duplicity as a contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action), tormenting himself in an unhappy time with images of a happier place. These lines are semantically rich: the young man may be enduring stoically, but, alternatively, this may echo his earlier doubleness. The reference to “joyful places” at line 52 echoes the “joyless place” at 32. He seems to be repeating what was already in the poem and adding something new. Perhaps we might describe him as a reflection of her, in the way that a reflection in the mirror is both like and unlike at once.
The mood of lines 42-53 complicates matters further, and it is possible the lines just discussed tell us more about the speaker than the young man. Hall describes the lines grammatically as “partly subjunctive” and even with the narrative uncertainties of the poem it is hard to see how the speaker’s description of the young man could be based on observation, as they are in separate locations. Thus, interpreting the lines involves interpreting the speaker’s state of mind. Mitchell and Robinson, with many others, gloss them as consolatory: the speaker’s apparent speculation about her estranged spouse serves “to assure herself that whatever his circumstances, he will certainly be sharing her sorrow over their separation.” However, the lines can also be read as a curse, as suggested by John D. Niles: the speaker has no weapons, only words, which she uses to reduce her enemy to her own pitiful state.
The grammatical basis of these readings lies in the translation of the two subjunctives Sȳ and sȳ in lines 45 and 46: Sȳ æt him sylfum gelong / eal his worulde wyn, sȳ ful wīde fāh / feorres folclondes…. Mitchell and Robinson translate this, “Whether he is dependent (solely) on himself for all his joy in the world, or whether he is outlawed far from his remote inheritance so that my dear one sits…,” arguing that the subjunctives are “used correlatively to introduce alternative speculations.” However, Marsden notes that the subjunctives may be optative: “Let all his joy in the world be dependent on himself, let him be….” Rather than a contemplative comment, in this translation the lines have more resemblance to Niles’s curse. The poem may end, therefore, either with philosophical calm or vengeful passion. In either case, the speaker displays a psychological complexity. She begins by speaking about herself, but eventually passion drives her to speak about the one she loves, or hates.
These lines also offer an interesting comparison to the opening lines: “Ic þis giedd wrece bī mē ful geōmorre, / mīnre sylfre sīð” [I tell this poem about my own melancholy self, my own experience] (ll. 1-2). This introduction is an announcement, a small framing device: rather than beginning with the action, the speaker tells us what she is doing. When the poem shifts in lines 42-53 to the young man’s situation, the question is whether she is telling a tale about someone else or communicating her own experience. Both, I would argue. The lines dramatize a situation he might be in, and simultaneously tell something about the speaker. One potential route towards reading Old English poetry lies in analyzing the ways that the poet-performer, in conjunction with the audience, conjures a persona. In The Wife’s Lament there is an extra level of complication: the speaker is conjured through her own conjuring of another character. That is, she reveals herself through her description of him. The way in which this is achieved is particularly notable: the speaker depicts the second character not only in adjectives, as in lines 18-21, but placed in a setting, as in lines 27-41. There seems to be a self-reflexive or recursive quality to this act: like the strange juxtaposition of natural and emotional description within line 29, it is the poet’s way of drawing attention to the way the poem works its effects.
The Wife’s Lament ends with the gnomic lines “Woe is to one who must wait for a loved one out of longing” [Wā bið þam þe sceal /of langoþe lēofes ābīdan] (ll. 51-2). Like lines 18-21 and 42-53, these lines shift between two meanings. Surely they refer to the speaker; equally, coming where they do, they sum up the geong mon’s present state. And, like a philosophical maxim, they move outward to a much more general statement about the human situation. This transition from self, to other, to a group that includes the reading and listening audience, is a suitable analogue for the speaker’s depiction of another, in order to tell about herself: both move from speaker to audience through the creation of character. The effect is to emphasize the distance between the two exiles, which adds an additional sense of poignancy and isolation to their exile from their homeland. Simultaneously, it elicits the sympathy of an audience perhaps familiar with painful separations resulting from the political events of the years 960-990, the period of the poem’s probable composition and collection.
Within the Exeter Book are all the extant Anglo-Saxon elegies. These secular poems share a thematic link, evoking a common sense of loss and loneliness. Among these, The Wife’s Lament stands out for its treatment of the psychological effects of exile and abandonment, delineating the torn-apart feeling of being physically in one place while yearning for another. Although the difficulties of interpreting the precise psychological state in The Wife’s Lament remain, the purpose of this reading has been to explore the poem’s subtlety and complexity, elucidating the suggestive way in which it portrays the speaker’s literal and figurative exile from her home and happy past through her depiction of her husband’s experience. Whether the close of the poem is a lament or an angry repudiation, The Wife’s Lament uses intricate poetic techniques of repetition and variation, and multifarious methods of characterization, in order to create a complex portrait of this double exile. Within the confines of the poem, the separated couple are still tied together, even as the poem reminds us of the distance between them.
Damian Tarnopolsky is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Toronto. His current research is on literary style in the late modernist novel. He also writes fiction, and his novel Goya’s Dog was recently nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Doubling and Difference at the Close of The Wife’s Lament by Damian Tarnopolsky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
- Exeter, Cathedral Chapter Library, MS 3501. Generally referred to as the Exeter Book, it is a large collection of Old English poetry, including long and short religious poems, riddles, and all the known examples of the genre known as Anglo-Saxon elegy, including The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, and The Ruin. The poems are secular lyrics (although often with religious connotations), evocatively describing loneliness, loss, love and exile, and often set in a ruined landscape or desolate seascape. Collected in the latter years of the tenth century, the manuscript was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in 1072. For text and commentary on the entire work, see Bernard J. Muir (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, rev. 2nd ed., 2 vol. (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2000).
- In addition to the books and articles discussed here, important scholarly readings include the following. R. F. Leslie, Three Old English Elegies (Manchester: The University Press, 1961) is a main source of the contemporary interpretation, which takes the poem to describe a relationship of love and separation. Readings of the poem that envision the relationship between the couple as more fraught include, in particular, Stanley Greenfield, “The Wife’s Lament Reconsidered,” PMLA LXVIII (1953), 907-12, and Kemp Malone, “Two English Frauenlieder,” Comparative Literature XIV (1962), 106-117. Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Situation of the Narrator in the Old EnglishWife’s Lament,” Speculum 56.3 (1981), 492-516 offers an important analysis of the geography of the poem.
- Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, eds., A Guide to Old English (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 276-7 ; Richard Marsden, ed., The Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 339-40. This paper relies primarily on these two texts, with the author’s own translation.
- Alaric Hall, “The Images and Structure of The Wife’s Lament,” Leeds Studies in English 33 (2002), 1-29 (p.12).
- Reading lines 42-44 as “A young man should … appear cheerful though he have many sorrows” and lines 52-3 as “Woe is to the one who must wait for their beloved in longing.”
- Sung-Il Lee, “The Identity of the ‘Geong Mon’ (line 42) in The Wife’s Lament, or, ‘The Lament of an Outcast,’” in Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language, and Culture, eds. Noel Harold Kaylor Jr. and Richard Scott Nokes (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), pp.175-94 (p.187).
- Anne Lingard Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992), p.51.
- Mitchell, p. 278n.
- Martin Green, “Time, Memory and Elegy in The Wife’s Lament,” in The Old English Elegies: New Essays in Criticism and Research, ed. Martin Green. (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1983), pp. 123-132 (p. 125).
- Chris Baldick, “Pathetic Fallacy.” The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online, 20 May 2010.<http://www.oxfordreference.com.my.access.library.utoronto.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e852>
- The two most significant, widely read, and widely reproduced Old English elegiac poems, collected like The Wife’s Lament in the Exeter Book. See for instance Mitchell, pp.280-87 and pp.288-294.
- A. N. Doane, “Heathen Form and Christian Function in The Wife’s Lament,” Medieval Studies XXVII (1966), pp. 77-91.
- Marsden, p. 342n.
- Marsden, p. 344.
- Mitchell, p. 278.
- A paper by Philipp Schweighauser includes some interesting ideas about the desires driving emendation and interpretation of the poem, as does John D. Niles’s work. Schweighauser, “Concepts of Masculinities in the Wife’s Lament and its Critical Literature,” in Masculinities – Maskulinitäten: Mythos – Realität – Repräsentation – Rollendruck, ed. Therese Steffen (Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 2002), pp. 177-85, and John D Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Text (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishing, 2006).
- Hugh Magennis, Images of Community in Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Hall, “Images and Structure.”
- Kathryn A. Lowe, “‘A Fine and Private Place’: The Wife’s Lament ll.33-4, the Translators and the Critics,” in ‘Lastworda Best’: Essays in Memory of Christine E. Fell with Her Unpublished Writings. (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2002), pp. 122-43.
- Hall, p. 12.
- Mitchell and Robinson, p. 278n.
- Niles, p. 194.
- Mitchell and Robinson, p. 276n.
- Marsden, p. 344n.
- Dorothy Haines, “Courtroom Book Drama and the Homiletic Monologues of The Vercelli Book,” in Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank. Antonia Harbus and Russell Poole, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp.105-126 (p. 118).