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The Husband's Message: Modern English Translation, Summary, Analysis, Theme, Tone, Authorship and Review

"The Husband's Message" or "The Husband's Lament" is an Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. "The Husband's Message" may or may not be a reply to "The Wife's Lament," another poem in the same collection. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the poem is generally considered to be an Anglo-Saxon riddle (I will provide the solution), but its primary focus is on persuading a wife or pledged fiancée to join her husband or betrothed and fulfill her promises to him. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than the tenth century, and perhaps earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the earliest poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations below the poem, including 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 even more ancient!

The Husband's Message or The Husband's Lament
anonymous Old English poem, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

See, I unseal myself for your eyes only!
I sprang from a seed to a sapling,
waxed great in a wood,
                           was given knowledge,
was ordered across saltstreams in ships
where I stiffened my spine, standing tall,
till, entering the halls of heroes,
                   I honored my manly Lord.

Now I stand here on this ship’s deck,
an emissary ordered to inform you
of the love my Lord feels for you.
I have no fear forecasting his heart steadfast,
his honor bright, his word true.

He who bade me come carved this letter
and entreats you to recall, clad in your finery,
what you promised each other many years before,
mindful of his treasure-laden promises.

He reminds you how, in those distant days,
witty words were pledged by you both
in the mead-halls and homesteads:
how he would be Lord of the lands
you would inhabit together
while forging a lasting love.
Alas, a vendetta drove him far from his feuding tribe,
but now he instructs me to gladly give you notice
that when you hear the returning cuckoo's cry
cascading down warming coastal cliffs,
come over the sea! Let no man hinder your course.

He earnestly urges you: Out! To sea!
Away to the sea, when the circling gulls
hover over the ship that conveys you to him!

Board the ship that you meet there:
sail away seaward to seek your husband,
over the seagulls' range,
                          over the paths of foam.
For over the water, he awaits you.

He cannot conceive, he told me,
how any keener joy could comfort his heart,
nor any greater happiness gladden his soul,
than that a generous God should grant you both
to exchange rings, then give gifts to trusty liege-men,
golden armbands inlaid with gems to faithful followers.

The lands are his, his estates among strangers,
his new abode fair and his followers true,
all hardy heroes, since hence he was driven,
shoved off in his ship from these shore in distress,
steered straightway over the saltstreams, sped over the ocean,
a wave-tossed wanderer winging away.

But now the man has overcome his woes,
outpitted his perils, lives in plenty, lacks no luxury,
has a hoard and horses and friends in the mead-halls.

All the wealth of the earth's great earls
now belongs to my Lord ...
                             He only lacks you.

He would have everything within an earl's having,
if only my Lady will come home to him now,
if only she will do as she swore and honor her vow.

Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems: The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, The Husband's Message, Deor's Lament, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, The Seafarer, The Rhyming Poem, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

Summary/Analysis/Theme/Plot: The solution to the riddle may seem a bit obscure to modern readers. Rather than sending a mundane love letter to his fiancée, the earl has sent a talkative emissary ... in the form of a staff carved with runes, perhaps fashioned of inlaid gems or crystals. This is why the emissary begins by saying he "sprang from a seed to a sapling" and "waxed great in a wood." The emissary began life as a sapling, grew up to be a tree, then was cut down and became a staff. Then runes were affixed with the plan for the young lovers to be reunited at long last. Is this poem related to "The Wife's Lament," in which a woman separated from the man she loves, whom she calls her "Lord," complains bitterly that members of the man's family or tribe have conspired to keep them apart? While there is no way to be sure, it seems very possible to me that "The Husband's Message" is a reply to "The Wife's Lament."

Authorship: The poem's author remains unknown.

Tone: The tone of the poem and the speaker's voice can be described as: loving, hopeful, optimistic. But there also seems to be some degree of worry that the woman may not honor her youthful vow.

Similar/Related Poems: "The Husband's Message" seems possibly related to "The Wife's Lament" and to other riddle poems that appear in The Exeter Book.


How can we interpret "The Husband's Message"?

Other than the riddle, the poem seems to be pretty straightforward: A man of significant prominence, an earl, was pledged to marry a girl or young woman of similar prominence, but had to flee due to a feud or vendetta of some sort. He has now established himself securely across the sea and wants to be reunited with his lover. Or perhaps they were married and became separated when he fled.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Rhyming Poem
Anglo-Saxon Poems
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
The Husband's Message
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Charles d'Orleans
Whoso List to Hunt
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
MICHELANGELO Translations by Michael R. Burch
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Native American Poetry Translations
Tegner's Drapa
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
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
Vera Pavlova
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Poetry by Michael R. Burch
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch
Doggerel by Michael R. Burch

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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