You are on page 1of 24

Anderson1

William Anderson
English 250
Weston
30 April, 2013
The Private and Public in The Wifes Lament
The Wife's Lament or The Wife's Complaint is an Old English poem composed in 53
lines and is transcribed in the Anglo Saxon miscellany the Codex Exoniensis or the Exeter
Book along with other elegies such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Wulf and
Eadwacer. The poem is about a woman who is in despair because she has been separated from
her husband, a man who is of the ruling class of their society. For unclear reasons, he rejects her,
after which she is forced to become an exile and a refugee living in an oak tree in an unfamiliar
and unfriendly land. The themes of grief and exile so expressively articulated by the female
voice in the poem makes it one of the most well-known and studied poems of the Old English
canon. Though this poem has been studied by literary and historical scholars copiously since the
late 1800s, the historical provenance of this piece remains ambiguous (as is the case with a great
deal of Anglo-Saxon Literature) which has led to a vast range of translations and interpretations.
This point was recognized by researchers early on in the history of literary criticism as in the
example by William Lawrence written in 1908 where he describes the ambiguities inherent to the
text by saying, It seems likely that three or four hypothetical plots might be proposed, none of
which would be inconsistent with the text, because so much allowance must in any case be made
for the omissions of the story. The interpretation of the piece as it stands, with all its ambiguities
on its head, is ten times more difficult (397). Some of these interpretations would go so far as

Anderson2
to suggest that the gender of the main character (the wife/woman) was a mistake of transcription
and that the protagonist was originally male, The now prevalent critical consensus that the
speaker is a woman represents a crucial redirection of attention toward the nature of gendered
voice in the literary system of the Anglo-Saxon elegy (Kinch, 124). This possible mistake in
gender accuracy aside, scholars for the most part have read and researched this piece based on
the supposition that this is a very early example of a distinctive feminine discourse in literature,
for critics to deny the speaker's feminine gender on the grounds that dramatic monologues by
women are not characteristic of the literature of this period would seem, these days, to represent
a hermeneutic stance that is curiously impervious to the evidence of the text (Niles, 1109).
Many researchers point to specific constructions of Anglo-Saxon poetry that stand as evidence of
the assumption that the current understandings of the gender positions in the poem are correct,
The female narrators gender is usually established lexically or grammatically. In the course of
the poem, her persona is developed in culture- and genre-based terms. Certain gender-associated
elements recur in several poemsthe male with violence, the female with detention and closure
(Klinck, 353). The study of this poem as a significant piece of extant womans discourse /
rhetoric continues to this day. As scholars like Cheryl Glenn help us to recognize, in order to
remap origins of womens rhetoric, all historical eras containing threads of significance must not
be allowed to fade from our collective consciousness without due reflection. Thus, in order to
begin reclaiming what little extant historic rhetoric that is left to us from women of the Anglo Saxon age and link it to womens contributions to discourse in the periods after, scholars
(particularly those who specialize in historical womens rhetoric) must critically reexamine
poetry like The Wifes Lament and look for textual remnants stemming from any female
gendered sources and distinguish them as culturally significant contributions to discourse in the

Anderson3
textual canon of the Anglo-Saxon people. As Alexandra Olsen says in her research on Old
English poetry, I would like to define feminist as an approach which acknowledges that a
work of poetry or fiction (whether authored by a man or by a woman) can include a female point
of view a feminist reading is an attempt to recover the nature of the feminine in earlier
societies (68). This field of research is very valuable in examining the connection to, and origins
of, the suppression of womens rhetoric in many societies during and after the Anglo-Saxon
period. Documenting and understanding the shift that began to create a more suppressed culture
at the onset of Christian doctrine in Medieval Europe will help feminist researchers document
early historical cycles of gender based subjugation and oppression and allow for more
contemporary comparisons to be made. But, in order to look at this text as an early example of
rhetoric in the voice of a woman, we must examine and understand the problematic nature of
how this particular woman speaks and to whom she may be speaking. Her voice inhabits more
than one realm in that her narration is written as her inner dialogue, grappling to understand what
has happened to her and how she feels about it. However, her voice transmits an essential power
of rhetoric if the poem is looked at in an external context. In this essay I intend to argue that the
The Wifes Lament can be read on the surface as a textual representation of a womans
emotions pertaining to the state of her inter-personal relationship, but also that the text is
problematic in the sense that despite the arguments surrounding the gender of authorship and the
very real probability of some type of male intercession of the text, (even though the voice
represents itself as unmediated), the text willingly seems to take on the characteristics of public
speech and stands as an example of early extant womans rhetoric of the Anglo-Saxon period
pertaining to womans agency and their subjectivity1.
1 The subjectivity of women is being described here and will be used in the following context when
referred to in this essay: As an approach to women's history, subjectivity looks at how a woman herself
(the subject) saw her role and how she saw that role as contributing (or not) to her identity and meaning.
It is an attempt to see history from the perspective of the individuals who lived that history, especially

Anderson4
Looking for pathways into the rhetorical existence of Anglo-Saxon women has been
going on for some time though perhaps this narrow genre of academic inquiry has yet to be
explored fully. Along with research that has been done by feminist academics like Cheryl Glenn
in re-claiming womans voices of the past, there are very contemporary examinations of extant
womans expressions being brought forward and linked into the continuum of literary research of
what is left to us as examples of rhetoric by medieval woman. Glenn speaks of the voices of
women in her work Rhetoric Retold. She discusses her opinion that its possible, and in her
estimation even likely, that the poem was authored by a female by saying, The banished wife
herself is both the voice and the protagonist of the poem, giving credence to the belief that it was
female authored (81). She then goes on to further discuss this concept by saying that,
Moreover, the poem is unrestrained in its passion and emotion, two sensations deemed feminine
(and thus inferior) by the culture. The superior faculty of reason, always in control of those
sensations, would be constituted in male-authored works and enacted by male characters (81).
She does reference a notation attached to these statements that Rudolph C. Bambas (1963),
however, argues that the feminine inflections in the poem are the result of a scribal error (194,
note 22.) I mention this in reference to the persistent, though not currently pervasive concept of,
pronouns and gender inflected endings being transmogrified during some earlier transcription of
the poem. Though I am not all together convinced that what is being read in The Wifes
Lament is the work of a completely unmediated female author (though that would be
monumental in the Anglo Saxon literary genre as proven fact), which would lend it definitive
authority as Anglo-Saxon feminine rhetoric. Other researchers have tried to see beyond the
mediating constraints of social gender construction when discussing Anglo-Saxon poetry.

ordinary women, and requires taking seriously "women's consciousness" (Lewis).

Anderson5
In an essay published in 1993, Jackie MacLelland states that there is good reason to
suspect that many perceive the narrator of The Wifes Lament to be female because of
subconscious predispositions inflicted by societal conditioning. She states that we must accept
the narrator as female not because, of themes or inflected endings, but because we have been
conditioned by social history and myth to anticipate for the female role of passivity and
obedience. We assume that a she must be waiting for a he; and that, therefore, the narrator in
the poem must be female (32). I would agree only in measured degrees with Glenn and more
certainly with MacLelland in these particular instances by stating that the emotional content of
the poem would most certainly have been a recognized cultural construction of female sentiment,
appropriate to women in general and a woman in her position in that society. How I may differ in
my inquiry is whether or not it can be accepted that a male author can faithfully and validly
replicate the emotional content of feminine speech. If we assume yes, that this is possible, if
even in a finite degree, then does this devalue the womans speech as rhetoric, especially in light
of there being so few examples from which to draw? I am not arguing that it is most likely that
the poem was not written or at least heavily influenced by a female poet. I am only stating that
that there is the distinct possibility that when we acknowledge our current conception of the
framework of Anglo Saxon society, that the piece is not a completely unmediated or unfiltered
work by a woman.
An earlier essay (1990) by Marilynn Desmond explores similar territory as she discusses
the processes by which womens voices must be read in order to keep them from fading into
history unheard. Desmond states that, the feminist reader must situate herself outside the
patriarchal biases of the male-authored text (the feminist critique), and she must recuperate the
female authored text from its marginal position in the culture and the canon (gynocriticism)

Anderson6
(576). As I am also situating myself in this essay, Desmond recognizes in her work the
problematic situation inherent with trying to re-claim womens rhetoric from the past, and she
states that expressions of womans subjectivity will have to operate outside of the patriarchal
constraints placed on Anglo-Saxon texts, a feminist poetics must acknowledge the medieval
attitudes toward authority and authorship that allow the medievalist to privilege the voice of the
text over the historical author or implied author (577-578). Susan Morrison takes a similar
position in her essay written in 2000 as she says, Located in the intersection between gender
and genre, the female voice, for example, The Wifes Lament has to be accommodated within, or
abjected from, the conventions of the male (23), but as Barthes once stated, "To give a text an
Author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text
(3). I am not ignorant of the challenging nature of using concepts like Barthes death of the
author in relation to the reclamation of gendered historical rhetoric. Being able to
unquestionably place authority of authorship onto womens texts is an important factor for many
reasons and has often been a primary objective in feminist research. In order to continue piecing
together rhetoric from the period being discussed however, the definitions of what constitutes
valid and legitimate examples of speech by woman from the past will have to be expanded to
include works that are possibly male authored, though influenced in varying degrees by women.
Some recent works discuss the extent to which Anglo Saxon woman had the
opportunities to write their own works and would have had agency and ownership of their texts
and to what degrees the patriarchal society that they lived in would have either influenced or
inflicted itself upon their ability to be voiced individuals. Two works by Diane Watt, Lost Books:
Abbess Hildelith and the Literary Culture of Barking Abbey (2012) and The Earliest Womans
Writing? Anglo Saxon Literary Cultures and Communities (2013) explore some of the most

Anderson7
attestable examples of womans literacy and authorship of texts during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Watt is well aware of the difficulties of studying womens literacy accomplishments in this time
period, My project here resonates with revisionist approaches being undertaken in relation to
womens writings in the later Middle Ages because the manuscript record is so much more
fragmented, the written evidence was produced anonymously, and scholarship in the field
remains resistant to speculative feminist readings and recovery work (2). Regardless of the
hurtles that she points out, Watt does say by the end of her 2013 essay that, traces can
nevertheless be discernedreading strategies have to be developed which take account of the
full range or early womens engagement with literary culture (15). This later work is a
companion piece to her 2012 article in which she states upfront in her introduction, Womans
Literary Histories seldom pay attention to womens engagement with literary history in the
medieval period. Yet recent scholarship by feminist Anglo-Saxonists has illustrated that women
are at the heart of the emergence of the English literary tradition (1). These two works by Watt
are speaking directly about the influence and agency of the nuns of Barking Abbey and not
precisely about the rhetoric inherent to poetry like The Wifes Lament, but I believe what Watt
is advocating for is very relevant to a discussion of this poem, regardless of the lack of direct
evidence pertaining to the specifics of authorship and male intercession. Works like The Wifes
Lament cannot be disregarded or devalued due to relative ambiguities surrounding the text any
more than works that show traces of being overwritten by monks or, occluded from history and
written out of literary history from the time of Bede to the end of the twentieth century and
beyond (Watt, 15). Lisa Weston wrote specifically about the influence Saint Hildelith of
Barking Abbey had on the Anglo-Saxon monastic literary community. According to Weston,
Hildelith was referred to by both Aldhelm and Boniface as helping to develop the core literary

Anderson8
texts of the Abbey, Hildelith is also credited with similar literary competence and equal cultural
authority by Aldhelms disciple Boniface (65). Weston credits Hildelith with the, fostering of
her predecessors cult through implicit and explicit narratives of sanctity and then finishes the
chapter by saying, her ideological redefinition of her community established a base for the
spiritual authority and literary creativity which would characterize Barking for many generations
to come (56). All of this research points to the existence of female literacy and the extant
evidence left to support the possibilities of womens involvement in the literary traditions of the
Anglo-Saxon culture. Thus, the ideological view that The Wifes Lament was intended to not
only be viewed as a personal exploration of the emotion of inter-personal relationships as beheld
from the perspective of a woman, as well as a socio-political critique of the Anglo-Saxon warrior
culture and womans place in it aimed directly at a predominantly male monastic readership does
not seem out of the realm of possibility. Nor, is the possibility that a woman or women may have
been directly involved in some currently indistinguishable degree with the creation of this poem
completely improbable either. Unfortunately the textual or historical evidence is not forthcoming
with a precise evaluation that would allow us to concretely determine these possibilities.
However, the poem is constructed with enough problematic ambiguity of internal versus external
deliberation (the personal thoughts of the narrator versus public rhetorical statements being
inferred from her speech) by the narrator to have allowed, and still allows to this day, for
multiple levels of reader response, The text can be read convincingly in different ways,
functioning coherently on more than one level. It may be seen as a deliberate stratagem on the
part of the poet (Hough, 2003). I contend that the amount of interpretation that has been applied
to The Wifes Lament since its transcription is tangible proof that the poet intentionally

Anderson9
constructed this poem to be read in various, multi-level ways including the possibility of it being
viewed as a rhetorical statement by the narrator.
The narrative voice of the The Wifes Lament begins in internal first person reflection.
As she begins to share her private thoughts, the wife mourns for the loss of a primary
relationship that fulfills her as a human being. She speaks first of her despair and describes her
authority over her own emotion, Full of grief, I make this poem about myself, my own fate. I
have the right to say what miseries I have endured since I grew up, new or old never greater
than now. Endlessly I have suffered the wretchedness of exile (114)2. She establishes that this is
her discourse, these words that follow will be thoughts from her own cognizance, not filtered
through the viewpoint of another, either female or male. Readers are allowed into her thought
torrent and given access to her private grief as if she were speaking out loud in a textual
representation of her emotion, where what is being said is insular and close to her own
consciousness. Readers are enquired to share, understand, and be affected by her seclusion and
her desire for meaningful human contact so that all who experience the text, so too, experience
her anguish. Kinch writes about the effects of a womans voice on the original readers of this
poem: By injecting the voice and perspective of a woman into the discourse of warrior culture,
the poem implicitly argues that the ethics of warrior culture ought rightly to apply to male-female
interpersonal relationships as well: violating an oath is a fundamental abrogation of ethical
2 For the purposes of examination in this essay I have referred to the translation of The Wifes
Lament translated by Alfred David that is on p. 114 of The Norton Anthology of English
Literature, Volume 1. This translation has no line or break references but it is a traditional and
seemingly faithful translation from which to base my arguments. Therefore, all the textual
references coming from the translation of the poem in this essay will only be specified as
located on p. 114.

Anderson10
norms, regardless of the gender of the oath-takers (126). What is being read here is her private
discourse about her personal relationships. In the surface reading of the poem she speaks alone,
and to no one recognizably in particular. The wife says, The mans kinfolk hatched a plot to
separate us so that we two should live most unhappy and farthest from one another in this wide
world (114). The narrator of the poem is making observations about the dynamics of personal
relationships in the context of his larger family as she explores the depths of her grief. At this
point some of the external critique of the socio-political arrangements of Anglo-Saxon culture
begins to present itself to those who would be aware of the distinction, but the most pointed
emotional content at this moment in the poem is still focused on her dysfunctional relationship,
the Old English Authors consistently present women and men as sharing the same problems in
comparable ways (Ellis, 220). Here we find a sliver of tangential evidence that reveals a bit
more about the status of women in the Anglo-Saxon society.
Anglo-Saxon women, though still massively constrained by masculine rules of culture, at
times enjoyed positions of some relative power and were understood to possess qualities that
contributed to their society in more than just the domestic and maternal sense. As Urban states:
English woman post-Conquest might have had some cause to be wistful looking back at the
status of her Anglo-Saxon ancestresses, whom she would have seen possessing rights, exercising
alternatives, and wielding power that she [herself] could barely attain in the best of
circumstances (23). As such, an Anglo-Saxon woman (especially one educated and of noble
authority) would have a tacit understanding of her position and to what degree she could express
her opinion as a recognized member of her society. The woman in The Wifes Lament fully
exercises her claim to her own thoughts and seems to have no trouble expressing some deep
seated issues pertaining to women and their role in her culture. Thus, as the narrative voice

Anderson11
continues, the reading of the poem begins to reveal complexities that force the response to both
the exposition of her lament and her rhetorical position that she has begun to express.
Regardless of the actual power available to a woman in Anglo-Saxon culture, the woman
narrating her lament in this poem speaks of her feelings of powerlessness in this situation. But
the ambiguity of the text again resurfaces and blurs the distinctions as to whom she may be
specifically referring to when she speaks of husband, friend, much-beloved, and lord, Is the
female speaker referring to one man (her husband or her lover), to two men (a first and then a
second husband), or even to three men (two husbands and a kinsmen of the second who accuses
the wife of an offence deserving punishment)? (Wentersdorf, 492). The argument that
Wentersdorf is placing before us highlights the issue that even if there is no attempt to read The
Wifes Lament beyond the surface features of the storyline, the possibilities of interpretations
creates an open discourse that must be dealt with regardless of the resistance of the reader,
There are several semantic and syntactic problems in The Wifes Lament, so that it has been
possible to advance arguments for all three theories. Todays reader seems compelled to
select one of a number of possible versions of the storyline if there is to be a coherent evaluation
of the poem as a work of art (493). Even if a reader of any era wanted to explore the logic of
only one version of the story line in the poem, the examples of possibilities supplied by
Wentersdorf are a poignant reminder that there are various paths of discourse that this poem
might take and in so doing, the levels of meaning begin to multiply if a reader allows for an
external reading to develop.
If a reader focuses on a more external reading, the construction of the womans voice
becomes problematic in that she may no longer be speaking only for the benefit of proffering her
internal discourse, but rather speaking outwardly, as a form of public rhetoric. A larger context

Anderson12
emerges where the discourse of the woman begins to take on rhetorical tones and the poem then
becomes a critique of the societal position of this woman, her agency as a dispossessed woman
of the ruling class. The feminine voice in The Wifes Lament becomes a criticism of warrior
Anglo Saxon principles from a perspective all too often oppressed or devalued by a patriarchal
hegemony. She says, With glad countenance, how often we vowed that death alone nothing
else would drive us apart. That vow has been overthrown. Our friendship is as if it had never
been. Far and near, I must suffer the feud of my much beloved (114). The narrator intersperses
interjections into the narrative that appear to be commentary linked to the socio-political nature
of her situation and how she perceives them. Very early in the poem she states that, I have the
right to say what miseries I have endured since I grew up, new or old never greater than now
(114). Though this line is certainly the narrator proclaiming her authority over her personal
thoughts, it does take on a broader perspective if her declaration is viewed as a generalized
statement and she is using her focus on I to mean all women. A few lines further she continues
with a line that allows more connections to the broader implications of her discourse to surface
when she says, First my lord went away from his people here across the storm tossed sea
(114). She does not confine her statement to simply saying that this person that is important to
her left her. She calls him her lord who has left his people. Thus, it is not unreasonable within
the context of the narrative to believe that she is both speaking of him as the lord over her love
and simultaneously being both her actual lord in the political sense as well as the lord of a
particular group of people. She then states:
At daybreak I worried in what land my lord might be. Then I set out - a friendless
exile - to seek a household to shelter me against wretched need. Hiding their
thoughts, the mans kinfolk hatched a plot to separate us so that we two should

Anderson13
live most unhappy and farthest from one another in this wide world. And I felt
longing (114).
A more external reading of this passage might point out the continuation of the woman
expounding on the depths of her grief and the different aspects of her situation that leads to her
sorrow. She points out very quickly that she worries about and for this man in his absence. She is
in need of a safe place in which to be sheltered and wait for his return, and she tells of the ways
in which his family is involved in their separation. However, these lines willingly allow
themselves to be subjected to a more external and rhetorical reading if we look at the first portion
of the passage as the woman wondering where the man has gone and for what purpose. Is he on
campaign, fighting against another kingdom, or has he left his people in order to be allied with
another? Or perhaps he is on the run as he has committed an indiscretion or a crime that she,
being his wife must also pay for by her exile? There are many cultural implications that the
wifes narrative could be commenting on if these lines are connected to some of the historical
realities now understood about AngloSaxon legal precedents, their responsibility for
themselves [women], within a strict system of lord and kindred ties, can be seen in legal
codes as well as in literature: in the 400 years between Ines and Cnuts laws attitudes shift
towards a wifes share in her husbands crimes (Ellis, 225). If this is what is being employed
into these lines by the woman; that her husband has committed an action that has forced him, for
whatever reason to leave his country, then it is not an unreasonable position to state that the wife
is making a testimonial about the inequitable station women of her society are often relegated to
based on their marital and familial associations. Furthermore, In the 7th century the wife of a
thief cannot be accused of being an accessory to her husbands crimes even if he brings stolen
goods onto the house, for she must obey her lord (Ellis, 225). The exact time period in which

Anderson14
the poem was written would seem to make no difference in her need or agency to express a
rhetorical position on womens rights. Whether she is obeying him implicitly or being excused
from the crime but still punished through the family, the woman is still forced to carry the burden
of this mans guilt and or consequences of his actions based solely on her marriage to him rather
than some individual act she has committed of her own will.
The narrator / wife then begins to describe the location of her exile as a earth-cave beneath an
oak tree amid the forest (114). There is a great deal of emotional unpacking of her grief in the
next few lines as she describes her exile in this place as dales being, dark and hills high, bitter
bulwarks overgrown with briers, a joyless dwelling (114). In a great deal of research on The
Wifes Lament the location of her exile is of utmost importance. Being under an oak tree and in
a joyless dwelling has been read as having many connotations both secular and religious. As an
example of how broad interpretations about the locality of her exile have been written, I depart
from the main focus of my work here only as an attempt to once again elucidate the range of
possibilities of meaning that can be applied to this poem. This is not to suggest however, that I
am accepting the claims made by the theories that I am about to mention.
In a 1977 essay written by Joseph Harris he points to another essay by Elinor Lynch that
was written in 1970 called The Wifes Lament A Poem of the Living Dead which speculates that
there are certain textual clues in the poem that can be interpreted as the wife actually being dead
and speaking to us from beyond this existence. Harris does not appear to agree with this
interpretation and offers some evidence to the contrary by discussing some of the passages that
Lynch points to as evidential referring to her particular locality. Harris says, Thus a traditional
realistic reading might have the Wife ordered to dwell in an ordinary underground house,
possibly a mere Vorratsgrube, possibly a wretched (?) sunken hut, whether or not the female

Anderson15
associations are of any importance (204). Harris is refuting the claims made by Lynch and the
small stable of researchers that he calls post mortem theorists and states that, It is incumbent
upon them to provide clear evidence that death has actually occurred and to deal with several
positive indications that the speaker is now alive, the boast that nothing but death alone would
separate the lovers and the annihilation of the implied oaths must have been broken during life
(206). I offer the textual arguments between Harris and Lynch merely as one example, framed in
a generalized sense, to highlight the understanding that because this poem creates meaning on so
many levels and accepts so many plausible interpretations of reading, those who read this poem
could easily accept that, the problematic construction of the female narrator was a direct ploy
enacted by the poet, whether male or female, to create the platform essential for the voice of a
woman to make rhetorical statements about her culture and the ways in which women were
excluded from lasting expressions through their written independent opinions.
At the end of the poem, the woman sends the reader away with a warning about allowing
ones circumstance in a relationship to overtake the rest of ones life, Woe is the one who,
languishing, waits for a lover (114). The ending of The Wifes Lament has often been a point
of problematic contention in various research examinations. Most research seems to agree
however, that the final lines of the poem have an explicit power to them that make them central
to the final impact of the work. What is not constant is again, the way in which the
interpretations place the locale or exact focus of the power. Is the wife/narrator ending her
thoughts with a warning for young men to heed her words and remember that what she feels is
what they too will feel when separated from their one great love, Should a young person be sad,
harsh care at heart, he must then at one and the same time have heartache and a glad
countenance, although he suffers endless surging sorrows (114) or as many researches point out,

Anderson16
has the poet once again forced the possible levels of interpretation to possibly include more than
first seen? As Strauss asks in her essay about women using words as weapons, what
illocutionary act is being performed: is the woman uttering gnomic wisdom and thereby asserting
general truths about how one should behave, is she predicting how one or more men will behave,
or is she uttering a curse on one or more men? (344). Those who view the woman in a more
traditionally expected, textual representation of the female in medieval literature, may regard the
last line of the poem as more genteel as John Niles explains, there are two schools of thought
about the last lines of the poem. They could be called the genteel versus the vindictive
school (1115). What Niles points out is that one prevalent interpretation of the end of the poem
has the woman being philosophically resigned to her fate and to the lot of unhappy lovers of
either sex being forced to endure the absence of their beloved. For many, this is the obvious
conclusion to the discourse of the wife, and what is being read in the last line, Woe is the one
who, languishing, waits for a lover (114), is her final parting wisdom to all lovers based on the
lasting effects of her circumstance. Those that subscribe to this interpretation often assert that
though she is homeless and exposed to the elements, she is dignified in her passivity and her
suffering is noble (Niles, 1116). The binary of this interpretation is to be found in the
vindictive camp of research which says that, the woman speaks a curse. With bitter but
unbroken spirit, she heartily wishes that her husband were just as miserable as she is, and she
visualizes him suffering thus in some future time (Niles, 1116). What Niles goes on to explain is
that he feels the woman is in fact wielding the only weapon actually available to her in her
current position as well as that which is afforded her by her status as both a person of the upper
social classes and as a woman. She does this in the form of a curse and though she directs it at
her husband, if the reader does accept that what she is doing is cursing him, then in the more

Anderson17
external context, what she does in this line is perform an act of critical rhetoric that allows her to
place the guilt of the crimes being committed against her on her husband and in the greater sense
on men of her society, the isolated, friendless, weaponless woman of The Wifes Lament has
only words with which to strike out at the object of her anger. She is not a member of what the
speakers of Old English referred to as the wpned cynn the weaponed sex, the male sex
(1141). Speaking curses was a known and implemented form of rhetorical agency in AngloSaxon culture, As well as being included in freestanding legal documents, curses were
sometimes inscribed in books, particularly in the context of manumissions. Indeed, the prefatory
pages of the Exeter book itself are inscribed with a number of curses (1127). As this particular
woman seems to feel that she has no more to lose and has explained so throughout the poem, she
turns to an outward expression of her inner discourse that will at the very least grant her platform
from which to argue her case as a crime which has been inflicted on her regardless of the
possible consequences of a woman uttering a curse against another, particularly a man who is her
husband. Niles explains that like the woman in The Wifes Lament many people in AngloSaxon society had no type of legal redress against those who had committed wrong against them.
Thus, people believed in the power of speech as a weapon and often a curse may have felt like
the only way in which they could regain some of their personal agency, they could either suffer
in silence, looking forward perhaps to a better world in the hereafter, or they could resort to
whatever morally dubious sources of power they thought were available to them, despite the
grave risks that could ensue from that choice (1133). Though there were laws enacted and
censure against those who would use curses for their own vindictive ends, the Wife is beyond the
forces of those who would bring condemnation against her. She has been freed to speak on any
level that she wishes in regards to her situation. The poet of The Wifes Lament has created a

Anderson18
gendered vehicle by which the rhetorical actions of a woman cannot only be heard, but quickly
buried in the ambiguity of interpretation if the male, mostly monastic readership of the poem
would have reacted unfavorably to the claims being made about inter-personal relationships,
constructions of Anglo-Saxon patriarchal society and the agency of women as individual human
beings, The speaker of the poem thus emerges, in the end, as a figure to whom the individual
readers can have different responses, all of them legitimate, depending on their worldview and
values (Niles, 1149). This is true now, just as much as it would have been true when it was first
read. And as worldviews and individuals change, so will the interpretations of the poem. But
regardless of any current view, the strength of the extant rhetoric being offered by this woman
should never be denied.
Yet, there are those who would deny this womans rhetorical actions. Many still believe
that she is speaking only about herself and within herself about things that would be recognized
as feminine or womanly. For some readers, she has no agency outside the situation of the
poem. One problematic issue of viewing the Wife as being a rhetorical speaker is, as I have
mentioned before, that she presents herself as being completely unmediated, I make this poem
about myself. But, as I have come to understand through the writing of this essay and as many
other researchers have pointed out, she cannot be completely unmediated in her thought. She is
subjected to patriarchal forces on many levels both internally as a character within the poem as
well as externally as were all woman of her era (and arguably, most women throughout history),
as the genuine voice of a woman who wishes to be heard apart from the hegemony that takes her
individuality as woman away in her society. The possibility that the poem was written by a man
looms large on the list of ways that this womans agency can be compromised. Even if the author
was a woman, it may have been transcribed by a man; the poem may have been edited or

Anderson19
overwritten in places by men as Watt and Weston suggest. Where it would have been read,
published or offered as a text for reading would have been controlled by men throughout history.
The very society that this woman comes from and the situation that she finds herself in are all
due to the domination of men and their construction of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. The
Wife is speaking about her relationships with men and the relationship she has as a woman in a
mans society. Thus, regardless of the womans claim that she is an unmediated entity, there is no
realistic way in which she could be speaking from such a position. So the question then surfaces,
can readers look to the narrator of The Wifes Lament as an authentic source of extant
womens rhetoric being brought forward from the past to tell us about how woman felt about
their personal agency, individual feelings, and the way they were positioned in their society? I
will defer to Ashby Kinch to partially answer this question through his comparison of The
Wifes Lament to Catullus 64, The poignancy of female lament allows us to occupy,
alongside these speakers who declaim their untenable position with respect to male martial
valuesit allows us to observe the craft of a poet who has wed the emotional insight to an
incisive critique of the warrior ethic, creating a deep resonance of form and concept (152).
Thus, the text itself is the only identifiable entity that matters as to whether we decide to
value what the Wife says in this poem. Even without the specific details that might create an
unshakable provenance that can be attached to a specific female authority over what is being
said. This woman is taking a stance for women in her culture whether one chooses to
acknowledge it or not. Her rhetorical authority is absolute, regardless of the specifics of her
creation.
What I have offered here, in several instances throughout this essay, is my own reading,
my own response, both internal and external (incorporated with the voices of other researchers)

Anderson20
to the woman speaking in this poem. I have done this both to explore my opinions about the
rhetorical value of The Wifes Lament as well as present an example of the problematic way in
which the poem and the voice of the woman is constructed by the poet, in order to, I believe,
facilitate a purposeful ambiguity that forces readers to accept the possibility that this womans
voice was intended to relate to a larger, more realistic purpose than just being the narrator in
story about the lost love of an exiled woman. I am not claiming that my interpretations are the
only or exact reading that should be accepted after so much research having been done by so
many and so many readings having been done over time pertaining to what the poet was trying to
do with the voice of this woman. But what I do claim with some sense of urgency is that
regardless of who authored this text, male or female, and despite the fact that the poem has been
interpreted in so many ways as to make it impossible to ever come to a complete consensus as to
every facet of meaning implicit in this work, the rhetorical agency of this womans voice must
never be allowed to be silenced. But regardless of exact degrees of interpretations, if we are to
believe that this is truly feminine rhetoric originating from female subjectivity, then The Wifes
Lament stands as a critically important example of early feminist communication of the Anglo
Saxon era that must be included in the search for early European womens discourse. Cheryl
Glenn states in her last paragraph of Rhetoric Retold:
Whenever we find ourselves entertaining the idea that women have historically
internalized the social pressures to be chaste, obedient, and silent, we need to
laugh out loud and nudge one another in the ribs. We need to remind ourselves
that some of them might have been chaste, some might even have been obedient
(many of them were very brave), but none of them were silent. These women still

Anderson21
have much to tell us - all we have to do is listen to their voices and their silences
(179).
Though the problematic complexities that often plague The Wifes Lament will always
conspire to relegate or devalue this work as rhetorical speech, it is the very same structure of
complexity that will forever allow this woman to make her critical statements and to have them
heard.

Works Cited

Anderson22
Desmond, Marilynn. "The Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and the Anonymous AngloSaxon Elegy." Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 572-90.
Ellis, Deborah. "The Wife's Lament in the Context of Early English Literature: the Paralysis of
Desertion." Jnl of Women's Stud. in Lit. 1 (1979): 220-32.
Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold : Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the
Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997. Print.
Greenfield, Stanley B. "The Wife's Lament Reconsidered." PMLA: Publications of The Modern
Language Association Of America 68.4 (1953): 907-912. MLA International
Bibliography. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Harris, Joseph. "A Note On Eordscraef/Eordsele And Current Interpretations Of The Wife's
Lament." English Studies: A Journal Of English Language And Literature 58.(1977):
204-208. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Hough, Carole. "The Riddle Of The Wife's Lament Line 34B." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal Of
Short Articles, Notes, And Reviews 16.4 (2003): 5-8. MLA International Bibliography.
Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Kinch, Ashby. The Ethical Agency of the Female Lyric Voice: "The Wife's Lament" and
Catullus. Studies in Philology. Vol. 103.2 ( 2006): 121-152. Jstor. Web. 24 Sept. 2012
Klinck, Anne L. "Lyric Voice and the Feminine in Some Ancient and Mediaeval Frauenlieder."
Florilegium 13 (1994): 13-36.
Lawrence, William Witherle. The Banished Wife's Lament, Modern Philology , Vol. 5, No. 3
(Jan., 1908), pp. 387-405. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
MacLelland, Jackie. "The Cultural Myth of Gender in 'The Wife's Lament'." Mount Olive Rev. 7
(1993-94): 30-32. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Anderson23
Morrison, Susan. "Unnatural Authority: Translating beyond the Heroic in The Wife's Lament."
Medievalia et Humanistica 27 (2000): 19-31.
Niles, John D. The Problem of the Ending of the Wifes Lament. Speculum: A Journal of
Medieval Studies. Vol. 78.4. (2003): 1107-1150. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 4
Dec. 2012.
Olsen, Alexandra H. "Old English Women, Old English Men: A Reconsideration of `Minor'
Characters," Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings, ed. Katherine O'Brien
O'Keefe, BRASE, vol. 3, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1994, 65-83.
The Wifes Lament. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1. Ed. Julia Reidhead.
N.Y. Norton: 2006. 114.
Stevick, Robert D. "Formal Aspects of The Wife's Lament." Journal Of English And Germanic
Philology 59.(1960): 21-25. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.
Strauss, Barrie R. "Women's Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in 'The Wife's Lament'."
Texas Stud. in Lit. and Lang. 23 (1981): 268-85.
Urban, M. The Figure of Judith in Anglo-Saxon England. MA thesis. Electronic Theses,
Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1454. Florida State U, 2003.
Watt, Diane. "Lost Books: Abbess Hildelith and the Literary Culture of Barking Abbey."
Philological Quarterly, 91.1 (2012): 1.
Watt, Diane. The Earliest Womens Writing? Anglo-Saxon Literary Cultures and Communities.
Womens Writing. (2013). DOI: 10.1080/09699082.2013.773761.
Wentersdorf, Karl P. The Situation of the Narrator in the Old English Wife's Lament. Speculum,
Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1981), pp. 492-516.

Anderson24
Weston, Lisa. The Saint Maker and the Saint: Hildelith Creates Ethelburg. Barking Abbey
and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community. Eds.
Brown, Jennifer N, and Donna A. Bussell. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press,
2012. Print.