The Wife’s Lament – Love Gone Wrong

The Wife’s Lament, as one of only two pieces of Old English poetry spoken entirely by a woman (the other is Wulf and Eadwacer), and a jilted wife at that, it is of particular interest and relevance to modern readers. It is, however, a very mysterious piece in a number of respects.

Over the years we have had various interpretations, including:

The transgender interpretation    – she’s really a man;
The necrophilia interpretation    – she’s dead;
The menage a trois interpretation    – there are two guys, not one.

But these days the basic plot is interpreted more prosaically as dealing with thwarted (live) heterosexual monogamy. But there’s no shortage of drama.

Prof. John D. Niles, in his excellent piece “The Problem of the Ending of The Wife’s Lament” (2003 Speculum 78 (4): 1107–1150) argues convincingly that previous interpretations of the final part of the poem are far too “genteel”. The jilted wife is not sympathising with her exiled husband at all, she is cursing him. Very modern indeed.

One particularly confusing passage of the poem is where the speaker describes her husband prior to the breakdown of their relationship. The relevant passage is lines 17-26:

                   Forþon is min hyge geomor,
    ða ic me ful gemæcne      monnan funde,
    heardsæligne,      hygegeomorne,
    mod miþendne,      morþor hycgendne.
    Bliþe gebæro      ful oft wit beotedan
    þæt unc ne gedælde      nemne deað ana
    owiht elles;      eft is þæt onhworfen,
    is nu      swa hit no wære
    freondscipe uncer.      Sceal ic feor ge neah
    mines felaleofan      fæhðu dreogan.

The lady’s heart is broken because she found her perfect match, but now their love is no more and he is persecuting her. But if he was such a nice guy at first, why is he immediately described as mod miþendne, morþor hycgendne which is generally translated as “concealing his mind, planning murder”? The conventional explanation (e.g. Anne L. Klinck, ‘The Old English Elegies’, quoted in Niles’ piece) seems to be that these descriptions reflect her subsequent knowledge of his character and that bliþe gebæro (‘joyful demeanour’) refers to his dissembling outward appearance. But these terms are in apposition to gemæcne, and one would expect positive descriptions to follow.

There are problems with treating bliþe gebæro as part of the preceding lines, as the adjectival ending is not in the dative and does not match monnan. In fact some editors (e.g. Krapp & Dobbie) take bliþe gebæro as the start of a new sentence, with bliþe referring to the happy couple, qualified by gebæro, indeclinable, either genitive or dative. The main objection to this is that ful oft usually starts a new sentence in other poetry, which is certainly true. Perhaps bliþe actually modifies mod, as is proposed below for hycgend. I’m not sure that one’s mind can have a demeanour, but this is the only way I can see to save the reading without starting a new sentence.

Even if bliþe gebæro is in fact the start of a new sentence, and thus refers to the couple, this doesn’t change much. We still have the reading that he was hiding his true thoughts while exchanging promises with his wife.

But in fact there are two reasons to reexamine the reading of hiding murderous thoughts. The first issue is that in the ms. we actually find not hycgendne, qualifying monnan, but hycgende. The ‘n’ is the result of editorial intervention going back to Thorpe in 1842. Now hycgende doesn’t match monnan, but it does fit mod (neut. acc.), giving a reading that he is concealing his murder-plotting mind, i.e. his plans for revenge. As it stands, this does not significantly change the meaning of the text. But it opens up another possibility.

This possibility depends on the fact that miþan doesn’t only mean ‘conceal’, but also (like its German cognate meiden) ‘to avoid’. According to Sweet and Clark Hall, this meaning is only found in poetry and according to Bosworth-Toller & Sweet it takes the instrumental when used this way. But the object of miþan is mod, which is in the accusative, so as the text stands this reading is excluded.

Interestingly, hycgende is also the correct form for the neuter instrumental. So if miþendne means ‘avoiding’, then perhaps what was being avoided was mod[e] morþor hycgende, ‘murder-planning mood’, i.e. ‘murderous thoughts’. So instead of amending hycgende to hycgendne we can retain that ms. reading and amend mod to mode, exchanging one minor emendation for another.

I must admit that in general I am not in favour of emending the text when a grammatical reading is already present. This objection has special force here when we have just managed to get rid of another emendation and restore the original text. For those who take this view, I should point out that it doesn’t require us to see the husband in a totally negative light.  Although the husband is hiding, not avoiding, his murderous thoughts, he can still be viewed sympathetically. This poem has all the hallmarks of a tragedy, so the husband’s plotting may be imposed on him by the social requirement for revenge.

It may seem therefore that there is no reason to go ahead in amending mod to mode, but in fact, by reading miþendne as ‘avoiding’ with object in the dat./inst., the dramatic sense and flow of the passage is greatly improved. The speaker found the perfect guy, who, though troubled by misfortune, managed to keep thoughts of revenge at bay and they made the best of it, promising never to part. Then one day everything changed….

In summary, I suggest reading line 20 not as

mod miþendne,      morþor hycgendne.

but as

mode miþendne,      morþor hycgende.

In the alternative, I propose simply restoring the original reading of the ms.:

mod miþendne,      morþor hycgende.

which improves the grammar without really altering the sense.


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