At least late tenth century, possibly earlier
The Wife’s Lament survives only in the Exeter Book, just as The Wanderer does. It is one of two Old English elegies that are told from the perspective of a woman; instead of a retainer lamenting the loss of his lord, the women lament their separation from a husband or lover (her “lord” regardless of his status). Like The Wanderer, the 53-line poem is alliterative, with short half-lines divided by a caesura, or pause. The woman in The Wife’s Lament, however, does not talk about reuniting with her lord in heaven, as the narrator does in The Wanderer. The wife is focused on the anguish of the moment, since she does not know if her lord is dead. Both the wife and the wanderer are in exile, but the wanderer’s exile is from the death of his lord, while the wife’s exile is from her family when she joins her husband’s family. As the wife sits in her “earth-hall” (a kenning for “cave”), lamenting her lot in life, the reader is forced to piece together the few (mostly ambiguous) details she recounts into a coherent story. Scholars argue about how to interpret her circumstances. Has she been separated from her husband by the cruelty of his family, or by his own cruelty (since he apparently has murderous thoughts)? Some scholars suggest that more than one man is involved; some suggest that she is cursing her husband; still others suggest that the “earth-hall” is actually a grave, and she is a ghost.
1.8.1 The Wife’s Lament
I make this song of my deep sadness, of my own lot. I can say that since I grew up I have not endured miseries new or old more than now. Ever I suffer the torment of my exile. First my lord went hence from his people over the tossing waves. I had sorrow at dawn as to where in the land my lord might be. Then I set out, a friendless exile, to seek helpers in my woeful hard straits. The man’s kinsmen began to plot in secret thought to part us, so that we should live most wretchedly, most widely sundered in the world, and a yearning came upon me. My lord bade me take up my dwelling here; few dear loyal friends had I in this place; and so my mind is sad, since I found the man most mated to me unhappy, sad in heart, cloaking his mind, plotting mischief with blithe manner. Full often we two pledged one another that naught but death should divide us; that is changed now. Our friendship now is as if it had not been. I must needs endure the hate of my dear one far and near. They bade me dwell in the forest grove under the oak-tree in the earth-cave. Old is this earth-hall; I am filled with yearning. Dim are the valleys, high the hills, harsh strongholds o’ergrown with briers, dwellings empty of joy. Full often the departure of my lord has seized cruelly upon me. There are loving friends alive on the earth; they have their bed; while alone at dawn I pass through this earth-cave to beneath the oak-tree, where I sit a long summer’s day. There I can mourn my miseries, many hardships, for I can never calm my care of mind, nor all that longing which has come upon me in this life. Ever may that youth be sad of mood, grievous the thought of his heart; may he likewise be forced to wear a blithe air and also care in his breast, the affliction of constant sorrows. May all his joy in the world depend on himself only; may he be banished very far in a distant land where my friend sits under a rocky slope chilled by the storm, my friend weary in mind, girt round with water in a sad dwelling. My friend suffers great grief; too often he remembers a happier home. Ill is it for him who must suffer longing for his loved one.
1.8.2 Reading and Review Questions
- Compare the situation of the speakers in The Wanderer and The Wife’s Lament. How are they similar and different?
- Based on the information in the poem itself, why was the wife forced to live in a cave? What are the possible reasons?
- Why does the poem contain so much deliberate ambiguity? What purpose might the multiple possible readings have, if any?
- Why must the wife appear to be cheerful, even if her heart is breaking?
- Based on the poem itself, what evidence suggests that the “earth-hall” might be a grave? What evidence appears to contradict that theory?