"The Wife's Lament," (MS Exeter Book, before 1072) Ed. Prin. London: Published for the Society of Antiquaries, 1842 (Benjamin Thorpe, editor)
Genre: an "elegy" or lament for things and/or persons lost, often lost to death. The predominant features of Anglo-Saxon verse are produced by oral-formulaic composition, in which an illiterate but immensely learned bard sings, to his own instrumental accompaniment, a song he composes as he sings by following strict metrical rules and a huge array of thematic content strands. Epic singers of this type survived in Serbia, Bosnia and Albania until the early part of this century. (See Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales  for further information.) The poem's date is impossible to determine except that it must have been composed and written down before the Exeter Book, in which its sole surviving copy was found, was donated to the Exeter Cathedral library by Exeter's first bishop, Leofric, upon his death in 1072. Scholars generally accept the conclusion that this, the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry (131 parchment leaves measuring roughly 12.5 by 8.6 inches), is the manuscript the bishop's will calls ".i. mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum şingum on leoğwisan geworht." ["one great English book with many things written in verse."]
Form: four-stress lines of varying syllable lengths, divided in halves by a caesura which often indicates a breath pause. The prose translation obscures many of the work's poetic features, but Anglo-Saxon verse is notoriously difficult to translate into Modern English verse. For a transcription of the first four lines in Old English, click here. To see an enlarged image of the first page of "The Wanderer" with information about the Exeter Book's survival, click here. To hear the "Wife's Lament" read aloud in Old English, click here.
Characters: the narrator, a woman married to a man from a distant community which is hostile to her, and her husband as she characterizes him, also hostile--toward others, but also perhaps toward her (an interpretive crux).
Summary: The narrator makes the case that her grief deserves to be told in song because she is exiled from her own kin and from her husband, doomed to poverty amid a wilderness and surrounded by hostile neighbors, facing old age alone. Click here for a peek at my class notes for Old English literature. They're a bit like shorthand, but you can follow what I'll be asking you to think about more easily if you know where we're headed. We won't cover all of this, but it's the kind of thing we need to be thinking about whenever we can.
Issues and Research Sources:
1) See notes for "The Wanderer" for a comparison between that poem's elegy-framework and the Anglo-Saxon epics, like Maldon and Beowulf. This poem's depiction of a community at war with itself is yet another dramatic contrast to the social solidarity we see lamented in "The Wanderer" and holding the war-band together in Maldon, but consider what life would be like in a community riven by the blood feuds that surely had to follow Maldon's denunciation of those who fled the battle, untrue and foresworn. To see a contemporary culture that lives like that described in "The Wife's Lament," consult the Icelandic sagas, especially Njallssaga (AKA, The Saga of Burnt Njal). Long before its eponymous protagonist and his wife are burned alive in their home by enemies, his friend, Gunnar, is killed at home by his neighbors after asking his wife for two locks of hair to plait into a bowstring because his has broken. The formidable Hallgerd tells him, "In that case, I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not." Also see that page for a discussion of Old English poetic techniques and terms, and the war-band's customs, including the gift-giving that, in good times, binds the culture together.
2) The introductory note reports the speculation, common since the time of Tolkein's pioneering researches in Anglo-Saxon literature, that the female speaker in "The Wife's Lament" may be a "peace-weaver" (friğusibb, pron. "fri-thu-sib"), a term taken from Beowulf's description of queen Wealtheow in Hrothgar's hall as someone who was married to the king by her kin to end a dispute between his tribe and theirs: "Sometimes the queen / herself appeared, peace-pledge between nations, / to hearten the young ones and hand out / a torque to a warrior, then take her place" (75). The Anglo-Saxon word combines two words with similar meanings, friğ and sib (both sometimes used in the sense of "peace," the latter the root of "sibling"). Donaldson's translation expands the implied joining of the two with the prepositional phrase to clarify the queen's social status as one who stands "between nations." Consider the position of such a woman, the physical embodiment of a truce between peoples' divided by war. Almost anything can reawaken the memories of old killings. In Beowulf, the hero predicts that Hrothgar's attempt to end another feud between his Danes and the Heathobards may end in failure if young Danish warriors arrive at the wedding feast wearing gold stripped from the slain relatives of their hosts. How might such a threat help us to understand the reasons for the Wife's move to the "earth-cave beneath an oak tree amid the forest"? She says "I was told to live" there--might there have been no choice? Scholars reading Beowulf must infer Wealtheow's emotional responses to the hero's presence in her court from her speech urging him to protect her young sons, but she does not speak on her own behalf of her joys, fears, pains or hopes (ll. 1215-30). "The Wife's Lament," by contrast, opens up the woman's subjective experience of her life and makes a persuasive case for her significance in her own right. How might 'The Wife's Lament" function in this oral-formulaic traditional literature, taken as a whole, as a supplement to such missing or muted women's voices in other poems?
3) The Husband's character, as the Wife describes him, seems dangerous and alienating. Even based on Alfred David's translation, which the Norton editors suggest indicates the Husband shares the wife's exile, can you detect evidence he may have turned against her? In the editors' introduction to George Philip Krapp and and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie's edition of the Exeter book poems, they reject (after some discussion) the notion that the Husband is not part of the hostile opposition to the Wife (lvii-lviii). In their reading, "mines felaleofan fæhğu dreogan," which Alfred David's earlier prose translation renders as "suffer the feud of my much-beloved," means that even her Husband has conceived a deadly hatred for her (vs.the Norton introduction). Still, the word's meaning in other poems does admit the possibility that she laments or even is proud of having to share her husband's quarrel with others. In either case, considering the tradition of lyric poetry which has come down to us from classical and from popular sources, how might this debate reflect male and female readers' assumptions about marriage relationships as much as it does the interpretation of Anglo-Saxon grammar?
4) One reason why scholars were tempted to "save" the Husband was the presence, eight leaves later in the Exeter Book, of a poem they call "The Husband's Message," which offers hope and support to an absent Wife. This calls into question our most fundamental notions of what we mean when we describe something as "a book" or "a poem in a collection," ideas which originate after the invention of mass-production printing in the mid-1400s, long before the scribes compiled the Exeter Book. For instance, all the titles of these poems have been given to them by modern scholars. The manuscript page records only the poem's text, as you can see by looking at a page from the Exeter Book's manuscript of "The Wanderer." Not until authors anticipated the printed publication of their works did they begin to give them titles, a gesture which tends to trouble college students writing papers to this very day for the same reasons! To be fair, scholars tended to pick strictly descriptive titles based on the works' topics or the first lines of poems. The topics of the Exeter Book's poems are widely varied, and sometimes poems on a similar topic are repeated, so scholars distinguished them by Roman numerals indicating their manuscript order. The two poems are separated by the poems which have been given the following topic-related titles: "The Judgment Day I," "Resignation," "The Descent into Hell," "Alms-Giving," "Pharoah," "The Lord's Prayer I," "Homelitic Fragment II," "Riddle 30b" (solved variously as "rain-water," "beam," and "goblet"), and "Riddle 60" (solved as "a reed" or "a reed flute"). How does this affect your response to the argument that the inclusion of the two poems in the Exeter Book implies their corresponding relationship? (This problem will return to us when reading poems in Tudor courtly manuscript collections, especially the works of Wyatt and Surrey.)
To see a transcription of the Old English text of "The Wife's Lament" at the Labyrinth web site at Georgetown University, click here. For the fragmentary "Husband's Message," also from the Exeter Book and thought by some to answer "The Wife's Lament," click here.