The HyperTexts

The Wife's Lament: Modern English Translation, Summary, Analysis, Theme, Tone, Quotations, Authorship 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: 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 the tenth century, and perhaps earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the greatest poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations 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/Theme/Plot: A woman grieves because she has been separated from her first husband, a ruler of some note. He forsook her and their people, after which she was exiled and became a refugee. She accuses her husband's kinsmen of secretly plotting to divide the couple, causing her heart to break. She further complains that her husband 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 seemed like a good match for her, until he turned out to be a criminal and a fraud. Because other men held her second husband in contempt, she was forced to live in a cave. (One possible interpretation is that the "cave" is the grave, meaning the woman lies dead and buried, and is speaking to us "from beyond.") The wife imagines her first husband to be living a similar dark existence and concludes by saying "woe be it to them who abide in longing." Please note that it is not clear that the woman was formally married to either man, nor is it absolutely clear that she had two different male lovers. Other possible interpretations are discussed after the translation.

Authorship: The poem's author remains unknown. While it seems likely the poet was a woman, it is possible that a man wrote the poem in a woman's voice, from a female perspective.

Tone: The tone of the poem and the speaker's voice can be described as: dark to the point of desolation, melancholy, miserable, mournful, morose, plaintive, aggrieved, resentful, alienated, dejected, gloomy, exasperated.

Narrative Structure: "The Wife's Lament" has been called an early dramatic monologue.

Similar/Related Poems: "The Wife's Lament" is similar to "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" in that they are three Old English "sea sagas" told in the first person with considerable anguish and lamentation. "The Wife's Lament" is similar to "Wulf and Eadwacer" in that the speakers appear to be women who are brutally and bitterly honest about their harsh treatment by men. It has also been postulated that "The Husband's Message" is a poetic response to "The Wife's Lament."

The Wife's Lament
loose translation/interpretation 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 seizures I've suffered since birth,
both ancient and recent, that drove my mind mad.
I have reaped, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.

First, my Lord forsook his kinfolkleft,
crossed the seas' strange expanse, deserted our tribe.
Since then, I've known only loneliness:
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!

Eventually
I believed I'd met a well-matched man—one meant for me,
but unfortunately
                          he
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—a hellish 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 with 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!

How can we interpret "The Wife's Lament"? As Stephen Ramsay observed, "the correct interpretation of 'The Wife's Lament' is one of the more hotly debated subjects in medieval studies." Here are a few possibilities:

(1) It has been suggested that the poem is an allegory, of the "Bride of Christ" varietyperhaps another "Song of Solomon."

(2) It has been claimed that "The Wife's Lament" is a riddle ... but if so, it seems no one has ever been able to solve it.

(3) Another interpretation is that the speaker is a "peace-weaver" (a woman married to a king in order to resolve a dispute between two warring tribes).

(4) It may be that only one man is being discussed, with the female speaker alternately regretting his loss and cursing him for his unfaithfulness and cruelty.

(5) Another interpretation is that the speaker is dead, and is thus speaking to us from beyond the grave. But there is no evidence of that kind of writing having existed in Anglo-Saxon poetry at the time the poem was written.

In my opinion 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 following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Charles d'Orleans
Whoso List to Hunt
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Native American Poetry Translations
Tegner's Drapa
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
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
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Poetry by Michael R. Burch
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

The HyperTexts