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lamenting for

The Wife's Lament

The Wife's Lament is a short Old English poem of 53 lines found in the Exeter Book and generally treated as an elegy in the manner of the Old English frauenlied, or woman's song. The poem has been relatively well-preserved and requires few if any emendations in order to be properly read and understood. Thematically, the poem is primarily concerned with the evocation of the grief of the female speaker and with the representation of her state of despair. The tribulations she suffers leading to her state of lamentation, however, are cryptically described and have been subject to a wide array of interpretations.

Genre

Though the description of the text as a woman's song or frauenlied, lamenting for a lost or absent lover, is the dominant understanding of the poem, the text has nevertheless been subject to a variety of distinct treatments which fundamentally disagree with this view and propose alternatives. One such treatment considers the poem to be allegory, in which interpretation the lamenting speaker represents the Church as Bride of Christ or as an otherwise feminine allegorical figure. Another dissenting interpretation holds that the speaker, who describes herself held within an old earth cell (eald is þes eorðsele) beneath an oak tree (under actreo), may indeed literally be located in a cell under the earth, and would therefore constitutes a voice of the deceased, speaking from beyond the grave. Both interpretations, as with most alternatives, face difficulties, particularly in the latter case, for which no analogous texts exist in the Old English corpus. The Anglos repeated the ancestry.

The status of the poem as a lament spoken by a female protagonist is therefore fairly well established in criticism. Interpretations which attempt a treatment diverging from this, though diverse in their approaches and not few in number, bear a fairly heavy burden of proof. The thematic consistencies between the Wife's Lament and its close relative in the genre of the woman's song, as well as close neighbour in the Exeter Book, Wulf and Eadwacer, make unconventional treatments somewhat counterintuitive. A final point of divergence, however, between the conventional interpretation and variants proceeds from the similarity of the poem in some respects to elegiac poems in the Old English corpus which instead feature male protagonists. Similarities between the language and circumstances of the male protagonist of The Wanderer, for example, and the protagonist of the Wife's Lament have led other critics to argue, even more radically, that the protagonist of the poem (to which the attribution of the title "the wife's lament" is wholly apocryphal and fairly recent) may in fact be male. This interpretation, however, faces the almost insurmountable problem that adjectives and personal nouns occurring within the poem (geomorre, minre, sylfre) are feminine in grammatical gender. This interpretation is at the very least dependent therefore on a contention that perhaps a later Anglo-Saxon copyist has wrongly imposed feminine gender on the protagonist where this was not the original authorial intent, and such contentions almost wholly relegate discussion to the realm of the hypothetical.

Narrative content and interpretation

Interpreting the text of the poem as a woman's lament, many of the text's central controversies bear a similarity to those which surround Wulf and Eadwacer. Similarly, it is unclear whether the protagonist's tribulations proceed from relationships with multiple lovers, or a single man, and, similarly, virtually all of the facts integral to the poem beyond the matter of genre are widely open to dispute. The obscurity of the narrative background of the story has led some critics to suggest that the narrative may have been one familiar to its original listeners, at some point when this particular rendition was conceived, such that much of the matter of the story was omitted in favour of a focus on the emotional drive of the lament. Constructing a coherent narrative from the text requires a good deal of inferential conjecture, but a commentary on various elements of the text is provided here nonetheless.

The Wife's Lament, even more so than Wulf and Eadwacer, vividly conflates the theme of mourning over a departed or deceased leader of the people (as may be found in The Wanderer) with the theme of mourning over a departed or deceased lover (as portrayed in Wulf and Eadwacer). The lord of the speaker's people (min leodfruma, min hlaford) appears in all likelihood also to be her lord in marriage. Given that her lord's kinsmen (þæt monnes magas) are described as taking measures to separate the speaker from him, a probable interpretation of the speaker's initial circumstances are that she has been entered into an exogamous relationship typical within the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition, and her marital status has left her isolated among her husband's people, who are hostile to her, whether due to her actions or merely due to political strife which is beyond her control. Somewhat confusing the account, however, the speaker, longing for her lover, has apparently departed (Ic me feran gewat) either to seek out her lord or merely to seek exile, and the relationship, chronologically or causally, between this act and the hostility of her and/or her husband's people is unclear.

She is told by her lord (hlaford min) to take up a particular dwelling place, where she encounters a man of unclear identity, who is or was "suitable" (ful gemæcne) to her, and they declare they will not be separated by anything save death. This, however, does not last, seemingly as a consequence of prior difficulties concerning her marriage. The remainder of the narrative concerns her lamentable state in the present of the poem. She is commanded to dwell in a barrow within the earth (þes eorðsele), wherein she is compelled to mourn the loss of her lord and her present exile. The poem concludes with what begins as a gnomic exhortation admonishing youth to adopt a cheerful aspect, even in grief, but subsequently develops into an expression of the grief of the speaker's beloved.

References

  • Baker, Peter S. "The Wife's Lament." Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. p. 207-210.
  • Mitchell, Bruce. "The Wife's Lament." An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. p. 305-307.
  • Mitchell, Bruce and Robinson, Fred C. "The Wife's Lament." A Guide to Old English. 6th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 264-267.
  • Treharne, Elaine, ed. "The Wife's Lament." Old English and Middle English c.890-c.1400. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. p. 76-79.

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