The Wife's Lament: Modern English Translation and Summary
"The Wife's Lament" or "The Wife's Complaint" is an Old English (Anglo Saxon) poem
from the Exeter Book. It is an elegy in the manner of the
German frauenlied, or "woman's song." Its main theme is the
mourning of a lost or unrequited love. The Exeter Book has been dated
to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than 990 AD,
but may have been written much earlier. The version below is my Modern English
translation of one of the oldest and best
poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations of mine below
the poem, including William Dunbar's wonderful "Sweet Rose of Virtue" and the truly
magnificent, heart-wrenching Anglo Saxon classic "Wulf and Eadwacer." The latter
is perhaps the first English poem by a female poet that is still known to us
today ... unless, of course, "The Wife's Lament" is older.
Prose Summary: A wife grieves because she has been separated from her husband, a
ruler of some note. He forsook her and their people, after which she was forced
to leave, becoming an exile and a refugee. She accuses her husband's kinsmen of
plotting secretly to divide them, causing her heart to break. Her husband
ordered her to settle in a new region, where she had no friends and felt lost.
She met a man who seemed like a good match for her, but he turned out to be a
criminal. Because other men held her new lover in such contempt, she was forced
to live in a cave. She imagines her husband living a similar dark existence and
concludes by saying "woe be it to them who abide in longing."
The Wife's Lament
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
I draw these words from deep wells of my grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, never more than now.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.
First, my lord forsook his folk, left,
crossed the seas' tumult, far from our tribe.
Since then, I've known nothing but misery ...
wrenching dawn-griefs, disconsolate mournings;
where, oh where can he be?
Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart, without hope
across earth's wide expanse, and my heart broke ...
Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few acquaintances in this unknown,
friendless region, none close.
Christ, I felt lost!
I thought I had found a well-matched man—one meant for me,
but unfortunately he
was ill-starred and blind,
with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions,
plotting some crime!
Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever—
our friendship done, severed.
So now I must hear, far and near,
contempt for my lover.
Then other men bade me, "Go, live in the grove,
beneath the great oaks, in an earth-cave, alone."
Now in this ancient cave-dwelling I am lost and oppressed—
the valleys are dark, the hills immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!
Now the injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
On earth there are lovers who share the same bed
while I pass through life dead,
in this dark abscess
where I wilt summer days, unable to rest
or forget the sorrows of my life's hard lot.
A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved, full of belief,
opposing breast-cares and her own feelings.
She must appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.
Like a criminal exiled to a far-off land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded love, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish, mourns,
reminded constantly of our former happiness.
Woe be it to them who abide in longing.
If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out
English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.
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.
Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
List to Hunt
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ono no Komachi