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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 oldest and 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 older.

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 despised 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. She reveals how she met another man who initially seemed like a good match for her, until he turned out to be a criminal or fraud. Because other men held her new lover in extreme 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 to her.

The Wife's Lament

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these words from deep wells of wild grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, till I was driven mad.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.

First, my lord forsook his kin-folk, left,
crossed the seas' wide expanse, abandoning 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 secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart, divorced from hope,
unable to touch, and my heart broke ...

Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few acquaintances in this alien region, 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 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,
contempt for my husband.

Then other men bade me, "Go, live in repentance in the sacred grove,
beneath the great oak trees, in a grotto, alone."
Now in this ancient earth-cave I am lost and oppressed—
the valleys are dark, the hills strange, wild, immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

Now 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 sorrows 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 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.

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
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

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