The Wife's Lament: Modern English Translation and Summary
"The Wife's Lament" (also known as "The Wife's Complaint") is an Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem
from the Exeter Book. The Saxons were a Germanic tribe and the poem is 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 men and forced to live subservient existences. 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 earlier. The version below is my modern English
translation of one of the best
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 more ancient.
Prose Summary: 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 forced
to leave, becoming a refugee. She accuses her husband's kinsmen of
plotting secretly to divide them, causing her heart to break. She also complains
that her husband
ordered her to settle in a new region, where she had no friends and felt
completely lost and out of kilter.
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/or 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 female speaker lies dead and buried.) She imagines her husband
or former lover living a similar dark existence and
concludes by saying "woe be it to them who abide in longing."
Another possible interpretation of the poem 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 from my heart, regretful & sad.
I recount wrenching woes I've suffered since birth,
ancient and recent, that drove me mad.
I have reaped, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.
First, my Lord forsook his kin-folk, left,
crossed the seas' wide expanse, deserted our tribe.
Since then, I've known only misery:
wrenching dawn-griefs, despair in great 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 touch him,
how my 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 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 marriage is done, severed.
So now I must hear, far and near,
early and late,
contempt for my mate.
Then other men bade me, "Go, seek repentance in the sacred grove,
beneath the great oak trees, in some silent grotto, alone."
Now in this ancient earth-cave I lie, lost and oppressed—
the valleys 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 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 appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.
Now, like a criminal exiled to a distant land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded lover, 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.
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
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ono no Komachi
If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out
English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.