The Wife’s Lament
The poem well exemplifies the problems besetting the critic of OE poetry. It follows a series of riddles and, like many of them, takes the form of a first-person narrative and is mystifyingly allusive in its plot. The poem is a lamentation; the speaker is in friendless exile, left behind by a lord, betrayed by an intimate companion, tormented by an unfulfilled longing; there is imagery of the deserted, decaying city in an aged world, of death and of the grave, of weeping and of retribution: the language and whole mood of the poem may signal a penitential interpretations. Some of its motifs are available in the Scriptures and apt for this purpose.
The theme of betrayal and the lamentation of Zion come together in the Roman liturgy of Holy Week, when reading from this chapter of Lamentations are interspersed with verses including: ‘ My friend betrayed me by the token of a kiss… It were well for him if this man had not been’ and ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the lord of your God.’ If this complex of scriptural associations and their orthodox interpretations already existed, ‘Wife’s Lament’ could conceivably be a riddle with the solution ‘Zion, the soul.’ The woman’s exile and betrayal would then suggest historically the alienated state of mankind before the Messiah’s advent, and symbolically the soul of everyman before the realisation of personal redemption; the woman’s longing and her imprecations would suggest Zion’s and the soul’s intuition of a saviour and a judge to come.
A plausible relationship with ‘Husband’s Message’ is established – the message being a token that love has at last come out of longing and the just judgement is at hand. In ‘Wife’s Lament’, the woman whose lord has gone away is ever tormented by anxiety and longing for him, especially as his own kindred are plotting to make the separation permanent. She has few friends still living; it is therefore especially painful that one of them, a man she had treated as her equal and much loved, proves to have concealed murderous intentions beneath a benign demeanour. Her sense of longing for her lord is all the more acute; now that she is betrayed and utterly abandoned in her grave-like den beneath the oak. She wishes upon her false friend such misery as she herself suffers: then he will understand what she has learned from her own experience – the pain of waiting for longing to be relieved by love restored.
The Husband’s Message
The speaker persona– not the ‘husband’ but the instrument of the message– says that the message embodies an immutable covenant by which an ‘ancient vow’, made before a feud intervened and caused the lord to be cast out by his own people, will be honoured. The spouse is called upon to voyage to the lord across the ocean to another country where he rules, where wealth abounds but where earthly treasure will be superseded by the all- sufficient joy of reunion according to the covenant. ‘Husband’s Message’ stands in a larger context than any that can plausibly be found for it in secular legend. Its motis of seafaring towards a ready home in another country would relate to the meaning as well as to the language of the ‘Seafarer’; and its concern with the covenant– tenuously observed in faith and hope through the history of the Old Testament, awaiting the consummation of charity in the age of the New – would be shared with the poems of Junius MS. In so far as the stoic endurance, the hope of retribution and the unceasing longing, of the woman in ‘Wife’s Lament’ may represent faith and hope glimmering in the pre-Messianic age of exile, that poem too would belong in the context established for ‘Husband’s Message’: the message would be that, in answer to the faithful longing, love has called Jerusalem to what is duly hers in heaven by virtue of espousal to Christ.
As in ‘Wife’s Lament’ and ‘Seafarer’, the literal level of the poem is vivid, specific and circumstantial, and arguably self-sufficient as a poetic topic, without symbolic interpretation. ‘Husband’s Message’ and ‘Wife’s Lament’ are not adjacent in the codex, but still it is hard to resist considering them in the relationship which their titles suggest. However, ‘Husband’s Message’ is as riddling allusive as ‘Wife’s Lament’.