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The Wife's Lament: Modern English Translation, Summary, Analysis and Review

"The Wife's Lament"also known as "The Wife's Complaint"is an Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the poem is generally considered to be an elegy in the tradition of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song." Its main theme is the mourning of a lost or unrequited love, or perhaps a more general complaint about women being dominated by chauvinistic men and thus being forced to live subservient existences. (The poem may be considered an early feminist text; it is perhaps a very early precursor of The Handmaid's Tale.)

The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than 990 AD, perhaps much earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the greatest poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations of mine below the poem, including William Dunbar's exquisite "Sweet Rose of Virtue" and the evocative Anglo-Saxon classic "Wulf and Eadwacer." The latter is perhaps the first English poem by a female poet that remains known to us today ... unless "The Wife's Lament" is even more ancient.

Prose Summary/Analysis: A woman grieves because she has been separated from her husband or lover, who is a ruler of some note. He forsook her and their people, after which she was also forced to leave, becoming a refugee. She accuses her husband's kinsmen of plotting secretly to divide the couple, causing her heart to break. She also complains that her lover ordered her to settle in a new region, where she had no friends and felt lost, alone and out of sorts. She reveals how she met another man who initially seemed like a good match for her, until he turned out to be a criminal and a fraud. Because other men held her new lover in contempt, she was forced to live in a cave. (One possible interpretation is that the "cave" is the grave, meaning that the speaker lies dead and buried, and is speaking to us "from beyond.") The wife imagines her first husband or lover to be living a similar dark existence and concludes by saying "woe be it to them who abide in longing." (In modern lingo, "Love sucks!") Another possible interpretation is that only one man is being discussed, with the female speaker alternately regretting his loss and cursing him for his unfaithfulness and cruelty.

The Wife's Lament
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these dark words from deep wells of wild grief,
dredged up from my heart, regretful & sad.
I recount wrenching wanderings I've suffered since birth,
both ancient and recent, that drove me mad.
I have reaped, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.

First, my Lord forsook his kinfolkleft,
crossed the seas' wide expanse, deserted our tribe.
Since then, I've known only misery:
wrenching dawn-griefs, despair in wild tides ...
Where, oh where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed to estrange us,
divide us, keep us apart.
Divorced from hope, unable to embrace him,
how my helpless heart
broke! ...

Then my Lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few acquaintances in this alien land, none close.
I was penniless, friendless;
Christ, I felt lost!

I believed I'd met a well-matched man—one meant for me,
but unfortunately
was ill-starred, unkind,
with a devious mind,
full of nefarious intentions,
plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever—
our marriage is done, severed.

So now I must hear, far and near,
early and late,
contempt for my mate.

Then naysayers bade me, "Go, seek repentance in the sacred grove,
beneath the great oak trees, in some root-entangled grotto, alone."

Now in this ancient earth-hall I huddle, hurt and oppressed—
the dales are dark, the hills wild & immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

How the injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
Elsewhere on earth lovers share the same bed
while I pass through life, half dead,
in this dark abscess where I wilt in the heat, unable to rest
or forget the tribulations of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved, full of belief,
enduring breast-cares, suppressing her own feelings.
She must always appear cheerful,
even in a tumult of grief.

Now, like a criminal exiled to a distant land,
groaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded lover, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish, moans and mourns,
reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing!

To be honest, no one can claim to know exactly what the author of "The Wife's Lament" intended. As Stephen Ramsay observed, "the correct interpretation of 'The Wife's Lament' is one of the more hotly debated subjects in medieval studies." It has been suggested that the poem is an allegory, of the "Bride of Christ" varietyperhaps another "Song of Solomon." An alternate interpretation is that the speaker is dead, speaking to us from beyond the grave. But there is no evidence of such kinds of writing having existed in Anglo-Saxon poetry at the time the poem was written. So it seems best to apply Occam's Razor and take the speaker at her word. "The Wife's Lament" and "Wulf and Eadwacer" appear to be bitter complaints about the lot of women in a male-dominated world. Is there any reason to read them otherwise, really?

"The Wife's Lament" is similar to "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" in that they are three Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems that involve hard-luck "sea sagas." It has also been suggested that "The Wife's Lament" is a riddle ... but if so, it seems no one has ever solved it! It has also been suggested that the speaker is a "peace-weaver" (a woman married to a king in order to resolve a dispute between two warring tribes). And it has been postulated that "The Husband's Message" is a poetic response to "The Wife's Lament."

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

The Seafarer
Deor's Lament
Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

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