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The Wife's Lament: Modern English Translation, Summary, Analysis and Review

"The Wife's Lament"also known as "The Wife's Complaint"is an Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. The Angles and Saxons were originally Germanic tribes and the poem is an elegy in the tradition of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song." Its main theme is the mourning of a lost or unrequited love, or perhaps a more general complaint about women being dominated by men and thus forced to live subservient existences. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than 990 AD, but perhaps much earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the greatest poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations of mine below the poem, including William Dunbar's exquisite "Sweet Rose of Virtue" and 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 more ancient.

Prose Summary: A woman grieves because she has been separated from her husband or lover, who is a ruler of some note. He forsook her and their people, after which she was also forced to leave, becoming a refugee. She accuses her husband's kinsmen of plotting secretly to divide the couple, causing her heart to break. She also complains that her lover ordered her to settle in a new region, where she had no friends and felt lost, alone and out of kilter. She reveals how she met another man who initially seemed like a good match for her, until he turned out to be a criminal and a fraud. Because other men held her new lover in contempt, she was forced to live in a cave. (One possible interpretation is that the "cave" is the grave, meaning that the speaker lies dead and buried.) She imagines her former lover living a similar dark existence and concludes by saying "woe be it to them who abide in longing." Another possible interpretation is that only one man is being discussed, with the female speaker alternately regretting his loss and cursing him for his unfaithfulness and cruelty.

The Wife's Lament

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these dark words from deep wells of wild grief,
dredged up from my heart, regretful & sad.
I recount wrenching wanderings I've suffered since birth,
both ancient and recent, that drove me mad.
I have reaped, from my exile-paths, only pain
here on earth.

First, my Lord forsook his kinfolkleft,
crossed the seas' wide expanse, deserted our tribe.
Since then, I've known only misery:
wrenching dawn-griefs, despair in wild tides ...
Where, oh where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed to estrange us,
divide us, keep us apart.
Divorced from hope, unable to touch him,
how my helpless heart broke! ...

Then my Lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few acquaintances in this alien land, none close.
I was penniless, friendless;
Christ, I felt lost!

I believed I'd met a well-matched man—one meant for me,
but unfortunately
was ill-starred, unkind,
with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions,
plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever—
our marriage is done, severed.
So now I must hear, far and near,
early and late,
contempt for my mate.

Then naysayers bade me, "Go, seek repentance in the sacred grove,
beneath the great oak trees, in some silent grotto, alone."
Now in this ancient earth-hall I huddle, hurt and oppressed—
the dales are dark, the hills wild & immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

How the injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
Elsewhere on earth lovers share the same bed
while I pass through life, half dead,
in this dark abscess where I wilt in the heat, unable to rest
or forget the tribulations of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved, full of belief,
enduring breast-cares, suppressing her own feelings.
She must always appear cheerful,
even in a tumult of grief.

Now, like a criminal exiled to a distant land,
groaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded lover, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish, moans and mourns,
reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing!

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Deor's Lament
Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
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
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

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

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