These three poems are some of the better-known examples of Old English elegiac poetry. The theme of the outcast, someone who is now alone and outcast from his or her society, forms the basis for all three poems, with the alliterative language across the poems revisiting similar concerns such as...
These three poems are some of the better-known examples of Old English elegiac poetry. The theme of the outcast, someone who is now alone and outcast from his or her society, forms the basis for all three poems, with the alliterative language across the poems revisiting similar concerns such as "mod" (mind, or mindset) and "wyrd" (fate). Perhaps the major difference between "The Wife's Lament" and the other two is that it offers us an early example of the female voice in poetry, with the woman in question mourning for her "hlaford" in the sense of husband, rather than appealing to her vassal or lord.
It is also worth noting that "The Wife's Lament" can be placed with less certainty into the category of elegy than either of the other two poems. While it is generally thought to be an example of the "frauenlied", or woman's song, in the Germanic tradition, its placement in The Exeter Book has caused some to query whether it may in fact be a riddle poem of sorts. Compare "Wulf and Eadwacer," also in The Exeter Book, which shares themes with "The Wife's Lament" but also, in some ways, seems to defy obvious categorization. Who the "Wife" may be, after all, we do not know. Proponents of the riddle theory have pointed to the reference to the wife dwelling "under an oak tree in this earth grave" (28). Is the Wife dead and consigned somehow to her earthly grave while her husband is separated from her? Or is the poem, perhaps, about a personification of the Church, with the "Lord" in question ("resurrected, departed from his people") being Jesus Christ? This would be far from the only poem in the Anglo-Saxon canon to cast Christ in the guise of the traditional Lord or hero (compare "The Dream of the Rood".)
Still, it is certainly the case that "The Wife's Lament" holds many similarities to "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer." The story the wife tells about herself describes her as a "friendless wanderer," longing for her beloved lord, while the sea appears as an obstacle between them. In "The Seafarer," we find a very similar opening in which the narrator declares himself to be telling "a true song about me, myself" and the struggles he has endured, which circle around "the terrible tossing of the waves."
The theme of being bound or enclosed also appears in this poem, where the unwilling seafarer is "fettered" by cold, "bound by frost," as the Wife is bound in her curious grave. Like the Wife, too, the seafarer feels that the joys of the Lord (probably Jesus, but potentially also referring to his sire) are in stark contrast to the misery of his earthly life. In his conclusion, the seafarer declares that "wyrd bith swithre / meotud meahtigra, thonne aenges monnes gehygd" (Fate is greater / and God is mightier / than any man's thought), a refrain that appears in much of Old English poetry.
"The Wanderer" also depicts a sorry-hearted figure who must tread the "hrimcealde sae" (ice-cold sea) alone but who feels he cannot alter fate—"wyrd bith ful araed" (fate is fully inexorable.) The Wanderer is, like his two poetic companions, "bereft of his homeland," and similarly the idea of "fetters," or being bound, appears, in this case in reference to the Wanderer's thoughts. For the Wanderer, his greatest sadness is that he "hid [his] lord / in the darkness of the earth"—that is, he outlived him, when any good vassal should die before his lord in battle. The lament of the Wanderer for the love of his lord is most similar to the sentiments expressed in "The Wife's Lament": he misses being able to "clyppe ond cysse" (clasp and kiss) his Lord, and feels he is exiled from all love forever.
One notable point in relation to this poem, by contrast to the others, is that it mentions "the mercy of the Lord" at the very beginning but then does not mention a heavenly father again until the very last couplet, where the Wanderer "seeks mercy / from the father in the heavens." It is generally believed that "The Wanderer" is the oldest of the three poems, and it largely escaped emendation to include Christian concepts, with small elements only being added at the beginning and end.