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.
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.
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