The Wife’s Lament.
The Wife’s Lament is an Old English poem, found in the Exeter Book, also known as Codex Exoniesis , a tenth century documentation of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The exact date the Wife’s Lament was written is unknown, although an approximate date this poem was written ranges from around 960-990. The Wife’s Lament is one of the 131 writings found in the Exeter Book.
The Wife’s Lament is a poem based on the bitterness and despondency a wife goes through as a result of the departure of her husband. The earliest editors disregarded the fact that the speaker is a woman but since this poem vividly portrays the sadness a woman endures when her husband departs from her unwillingly, it is hard to fathom a man would be able to lament the depth of her sadness at such a time in such a dramatic way.
The West Germanic influences on Old English are evident in this poem as OE characteristics such as grammatical gender, which was contingent on sex are frequently used. For example the adjective ‘geomorre’ (sorrowful) has a feminine ending, ‘re‘ in contrast to ‘geomor’ (line 17). This is an example which demonstrates the difference between Modern English and Old English and is also evidence that this poem was written by a woman, from a feminine viewpoint.
The Wife’s Lament is written in the first person, in the present tense. It denotes the anguish of the wife lamenting her bitter feelings as a result of the departure of her husband. The lexical set of sadness; geomore, yrmpa and gelac mentioned at the beginning of the poem creates the mood and establishes the morbid tone this poem. This poem tends to be very specific. The wife speaks of her anguish which is heartfelt; therefore the absence of figurative language such as metaphors is appropriate in this case. An example of her candid expression is found in lines 9-12 which quotes:
‘Da ic me feran gewat folgad secan, winileas wraecca for minre weapearfe…‘
This is an example of how the wife expresses her feelings which echo sheer anguish but surprisingly, not contempt towards the kinsmen who have caused her to feel such pain. The frequent use of direct address such as ‘hy‘ (they) and ‘mec‘ (me) shows how vehemently she expresses her plight and troubled state of mind.
The syntax of this poem differs greatly to that of Middle English. For example, lines 33-36 ‘Frynd sind on eorpan, leofe lifgende leger weardiad,
Ponne ic on uhtan ana gonge under actreo geond pas eorpscrafu’.
The literal translation of the quote is ‘Grave occupy when on daybreak walk under the oaktree throughout this earthcave’. Here, the object, ‘grave’ precedes the verb and the subject, and as a result the noun which is also the epitome of the whole subject of the poem,’ grave’ is immediately foregrounded, and as a result gains the readers sympathy and also enables the reader to sympathise with her.
The Wife’s Lament, although written in iambic pentametre doesn’t rhyme
This poem is written as a dramatic monologue, and the narrator laments her husband’s departure which results in feelings of loneliness and despair. The frequent use of amelioration in the form of ‘hlaford‘ (lord) which the wife uses when speaking of her husband portrays the extent to which she holds her husband in high esteem. It also gives us insight into the position of women during the Anglo Saxon period, when women were literally owned by men. Even though such headship still exists today, this ‘ownership’ was instigated by law and was a way of life whereas in the present day, this kind of headship is rarely exercised.
The narrative structure of the lament is similar to a conventional poem. She initiates the poem by introducing her intentions, namely ‘Ic pis gidee wrece’. Elaborate. This helps the reader to empathise with her in order to fully understand her plight and immediately sets the melancholy mood of the poem.
The omission of the additive conjunction ‘ond‘ (and) before ‘ful‘ creates a cumulative melancholy tone, as if her lament is endless and difficult to explain. The ellipsis here creates a heightened sense of expectation in the reader, who inevitably begins to understand the wife’s despondency and mind state and therefore expects her to express her feelings through the use of similar adjectives. The adverbials of time ‘niwes‘ and ‘ealdes;” ‘old’ and ‘new’ followed by the adversative conjunction ‘no‘ (but) indicates the way she previously felt is incomparable to her present state. This is indicative of the love she has lost as a result of her lord’s departure.
In the first half of the poem, the wife exposes her mind state through the use of pre- modifiers such as ‘heard heortan’ (hiding heart) (line 43). Her objective in doing so is to help the audience gain insight into why she feels this way before actually stating the reasons why she is in such a state of despair. The majority of this poem focuses on her present feelings rather than the love she has for her husband. This further justifies the point critics have established that there may be another man involved in the poem. According to one critic in the book ‘…’ It states: ‘In the emotionally charged closing passage she is concerned rather with her personal relationship to the man than with her formal association with him; here he appears as her friend and lover (47, 49, and 50). Since her terminology varies in accordance with her attitude, probability favours the identification of her lover with her lord, especially since the sorrows for her lord who is abroad (5-7), and also shows deep concern and longing for her lover who is feorres folclondes…waeter beflowen‘ (47-49) (Literal translation: ‘distant land of flowing water’). This idea stem from the fact that this lament is based on something she has lost rather than the feelings she has towards the man who has departed from her. However, in my opinion, this is not ample evidence to suggest that she may be lamenting over the loss of more than one man.