Book Review: The Wife’s Lament

The Wife’s Lament is an anonymous poem, in the form of a lament, written in Old English. The edition I read was published in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

The Wife’s Lament is quite a short poem, which was refreshing for me – poetry isn’t my favourite form anyway, and I already worked my way through the entirety of Milton’s Paradise Lost earlier in 2016.

This poem is primarily about love and loss, but what I find so fascinating is the variety of interpretations that can be drawn from the poem.

Some like to read the poem as a message from a retainer to their lord. Anglo-Saxon England, loyalty to leaders was hugely important and lords and retainers had a special relationship. This interpretation also works well when considering the poem uses terms such as ‘lord’ and ‘master’ frequently.

However, translators have assigned this poem The Wife’s Lament – suggesting a female author, and thus not a retainer, but a wife longing for her husband. Again, this could be evidenced in the text as it uses words such as ‘family’, ‘lovers’ and the phrase ‘dearest loved one’.

It has even been suggested that The Wife’s Lament symbolises the relationship between Christ and his people, longing for them to turn from their pagan ways and embrace Christianity. I’m not sure how convincing I find this argument.

Instead, I prefer the interpretation that the narrator in question is actually… dead!

What I find so favourable about this idea is how it fits with the elusive word ‘earth-cave’ in the poem – nobody really seems to know what it means. Of course, with a Gothic head on my shoulders, I’d love to think that her ‘earth-cave’ means her grave. This seems particularly convincing, when she goes on to refer to the those who are still alive and present on Earth, and can enjoy love and happiness.

All in all, it doesn’t matter which interpretation you pick, or whether you come up with another idea of your own.

The Wife’s Lament is a short poem packed with emotions, and it is my favourite Old English text I’ve read so far. It really doesn’t take long to read (a whopping 2 pages) so if you can get access to it, I strongly recommend you read it.

– Judith

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