The Wife’s Lament: Possibly the Most Perfect Anglo Saxon Riddle Ever Written

    Amongst the controversy, the one thing that scholars agree on about “The Wife’s Lament” is that it is an Anglo Saxon poem in which the character is experiencing deep sorrow and longing. Unfortunately, all of the other particulars are questionable. As Faye Walker- Pelkey expressed in ‘Frige Hwaet Ic Hatte’: “The Wife’s Lament” as Riddle, “…how we label the poem almost certainly defines how we translate and interpret the poem” (242). It is interesting to note that even the title is not without question; “Benjamin Thorpe’s title for the poem was “The Exile’s Lament” (1842), but Welker-Pelkey points out that by 1850, the poem had been re-titled “The Wife’s Lament” (246).

    The two major controversies that surround the poem are: 1.) the debate about whether the poem is an elegy or a riddle and 2.) whether the poem was written by a male or a female.  My analysis of “Lament” will reopen the hypothesis from Alain Renoir, who most recently discussed Christian influence in 1977 with, “Christian Inversion in The Wife’s Lament.”  I will extend my hypothesis to include the idea that the poem is a riddle written by a nun to express the sorrow of the character.

    “Lament” can by found in the Exeter Book.  Mitchell and Robinson point out that  “The Wife’s Lament” appears after 59 riddles and before seven didactic and homiletic poems which are followed by more riddles (Mitchell and Robinson 259). The mere location of the poem can signify that it is a riddle with a lesson or moral, but Walker-Pelkey provides additional analysis to prove that it is a riddle.  She points out the “riddle-like flavor” (Walker-Pelkey 245) of the poem and Stanley B. Greenfield , one of the most prominent scholars in the field noted, “an element of mystery and riddling” (142).  The poem is intentionally ambivalent to make the reader think about the situation. If the author had provided the reader with all of the particulars of her pining, we would not need to understand the severity of her sorrow and why she is longing. The riddle also ends by teaching us a lesson or providing a warning, similar to the parables that Jesus taught his disciples.

Besides the ambiguity, the form of the poem follows the form of other Anglo Saxon riddles. As Walker explained, “many of the riddles begin with the first person pronoun”I” as does the opening of “Lament” “(248). Walker compares “Lament” to three other riddles: “Riddle 18,” “Riddle 69,” and “Riddle 84.”  In addition to the first person pronoun similarity, “Lament” mirrors a riddle with “descriptions of ambivalence,” “emotional overtones and psychological torment,” and the “impact of companionship” (Walker-Pelkey 252). If we are to discuss “Lament” only as an elegy, the reader may miss the cultural identification that the poem provides and the parallel emotional connection that we can identify with in the Anglo Saxon woman. “The Wife’s Lament” is a well written, emotionally charged poem that provides a glimpse into the sorrow of a woman.

The second controversy about “Lament” concerns that of gender, and whether the author was a female or a male. When comparing the readings of “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” to “Lament,” not only do the verbs display gender differences, but the journey of the character is different.  As Shari Horner explains in Old English Literature : Critical Essays, “… many old English scholars have argued that the feminine forms of the adjectives geomorre and minre, and of the pronoun sylfre is more than sufficient evidence of the speaker’s female gender” (48).

 Horner goes on to say that the character in “Lament” portrays an “emotional journey” (Discourse 49); a lament from a woeful cry to a realization of her situation, versus a physical

journey as portrayed in the other two poems. The character completes her lamenting by ending with a lesson to anyone else that is experiencing the same misfortune.  Ending the poem in this fashion is different than the previous riddles, and signifies that she uses words to justify her agony (Strauss 268).

  There is a difference between the emotional and the physical dynamics of  “Lament”, when comparing them to the emotional and physical dynamics of “The Seafarer”  The  physical dynamic that is prevalent in “Lament” is the physical restraint of the female character; again another characteristic of the Anglo Saxon woman. We know that the women were peace weavers and obedient to their family’s expectations of planned marriages. Therefore, this explanation can justify the scholars who argue that the female character is lamenting her husband. But, the language and the poetic skill which are demonstrated signify a female writer and certainly a writer could recognize the intensity of physical restraint and emotional longing-- like that of a nun.        

    According to Horner, The convents were “important centers of literary activity”, (Spiritual Truth 671) and if we consider the possibility that the character of “Lament” was pining for Jesus Christ, the riddle of the poem is solved and the journey of the female character can be identified.  She is lamenting her hlaford (Lord) and she is accepting her life on earth without him.  We also know that the monastery was an enclosed habitation, commonly placed near the shores, which would identify the landscape of the poem. As the poem begins she is lamenting the loss of her lord “ofer yþa gelac,” over rolling waves. And as Horner points out, “Like a nun at matins (the first canonical hour; at daybreak), singing the office under the cross (and thus lamenting her Lord), this speaker laments the loss of her Lord, under a tree at the hour of matins” (Discourse 52). The author of the poem, who I suspect is a nun, has identified her suffering and existence with that of the character of “Lament.”

I envision the character of “Lament” telling her woeful tale as she is crying.  Therefore, I have translated the beginning of the poem as “choppy” and fragmented.  She is still suffering heartache, and her mourning is expressed as she struggles to orally share the suffering that until now has only been expressed inward.

    I find additional proof for my thesis in the translations created by Ellen Amatangelo, and Susan Oldrieve. Although none of these translations explain my direct theory that the poem is written by a nun to express the lamenting of a woman, both of these translations provide words which can be interpreted with religious connotations. Ellen Amatangelo explains that her intent was to use words that were as close to literal translation as possible, while conveying the most sorrow of feeling. For instance, she translated the second part of line seventeen as "Therefore is my spirit mournful . . .( Amatangelo).” In using the word “spirit” instead of the word “heart,” Amatangelo is evoking the inner being and not the physical being. Susan Oldrieve points out that she believes that “the hlaford” is not the speaker’s husband, “but the leader of her tribe,…” (Oldrieve).  I surmise that the leader of the tribe is indeed Jesus and the speaker is expressing her torment in his death and the departure from her home.

To illuminate my thesis, I have chosen to use words that contain denotative and connotative religious meanings, and were commonly used in the translation of the King James Version of the Holy Bible; such as “sepulcher,” “commanded,” and “resurrected.” I also have tried to translate the poem as if the woman is retelling the story of Jesus. I believe the “heards ligne,” “hygeg omorne,” murderous intent that she speaks of, is actually the knowledge that Jesus had of his own death.

   Therefore, the use of words that impact a religious theme provides the reader with a cultural and emotionally entwined depiction of this character’s sorrow: quite possibly, the most perfect Anglo Saxon riddle ever written. “Lament” provides us insight into the suffering of an Anglo Saxon nun that has immortalized her sorrow through her intelligent, yet ambiguous poetic verse. We now understand that her hlaford is Jesus Christ.


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