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Lamenting or Complaining: Female Authority in The Wife’s Lament

In Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, the character Pandarus states: “Wommen are born to thraldom and penance, /and to been under mannes governance.”(Chaucer, line 286-7) Extracted from an exchange among the maiden Criseyde and her uncle, Pandarus, the passage speaks volumes on modern views on romance, and the methods in which these views had been influenced by prevalent attitudes towards women. The hugely ambiguous Germanic poem The Wife’s Lament, although it precedes Chaucer considerably, documents the position of a subjugated lady that experiences exile from her husband, his kin, and her own kin. In consultation with Elaine M. Treharne’s publication, Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, the poem breaks convention with classic literary representations of female figures. Treharne establishes a framework for “feminine romance” in Middle English poetry, a kind of aesthetic expression that favored masculine heroes and chivalric ideas of male identity. A woman, nonetheless, dictates The Wife’s Lament, and advocates for divorced or abandoned ladies a message of grief and suffering this language is regarded by scholarship as the conveyance of “lamenting”. In Carol Parrish Jamison’s report, “Traffic of Women in Germanic Literature: The Role of the Peace Pledge in Marital Exchanges”, she gives historical context for the wife’s unfortunate position, that of a marital commodity in political exchanges. By thinking about Jamison’s argument, the female speaker’s voice can be isolated from her physical situation—which is barely divulged in the poem—and a focus placed on her grieving language might propose a dissatisfaction in its title. Maybe a more appropriate title for the poem is “The Wife’s Complaint”, because in the starting lines she proclaims it her mission to speak for herself and her own sorrows, and in the concluding lines curses her male counterpart for his neglect. By interpreting the speaker’s “lament” as “complaint”, the position of the subjugated female changes the poem instead encourages a feminist reading that accommodates the precedence of female speech and writing.

Mainly, The Wife’s Lament is understood as a frauenlied, more literally a “woman’s song”. The content describes an unnamed protagonist’s isolation and victimization as a outcome of an exogamous connection, a standard situation in the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition. Interestingly, the “hero” is absent which problematizes the genre of the poem, and consequently, a concrete interpretation of femininity. David Salter, whose essay, “’Born to Thraldom and Penance’: Wives and Mothers in Middle English Romance” occurs in Treharne’s compilation, demonstrates the numerous gendered readings of early Middle English verse and the patriarchal endorsement that pervaded these texts. Salter makes a claim for the opposing female position in texts like The Wife’s Lament:

“…If we accept that romance is certainly a feminine genre, we are nonetheless presented with something of a paradox, for what seems to confront us when we examine romance is a feminine genre with practically no female heroines.”(Salter, 42)

Salter’s argument, though valid, is not compatible with The Wife’s Lament, since the “heroine” is both speaker and protagonist of the poem her voice, then, can be regarded as a universal, all encompassing articulation for the repressed lady. Salter continues:

“While to a excellent extent Middle English romance does tend to marginalize female experience, it nonetheless acknowledges the centrality of ladies in moulding and establishing the identity of the male hero.”(Salter, 43)

In accordance with this statement, a function reversal is evident in the poem the speaker, through her husband’s detrimental actions and the absence of his voice, is “moulded” into the dominant character. The speaker’s vocalization functions as an outlier in the romance genre, it is inherently “anti-romantic” given that the female’s expertise is not marginalized. Salter also makes comment on the roles of female figures in poetry: “And it is especially by way of their roles as wives and mothers that females in romance are capable to accomplish this shaping of male identity.”(Salter, 43) As the title suggests, the speaker’s role was that of a wife, nonetheless, over the course of the poem that label becomes unsatisfactory. In terms of the romance genre, The Wife’s Lament is deemed unconventional due to a lack of masculine presence, the prevalence of the female voice, and the absence of a plot that circulates around the “hero”.

Now that the poem has been contextualized as atypical to the Middle English romance genre, it is attainable to conceive of the speaker’s message as protest, rather than that of sorrow or regret. In thinking about the opening lines, the poem begins with a declaration:

“I make this song of myself, deeply sorrowing,

My personal life’s journey. I am capable to tell

All the hardships I’ve suffered given that I grew up,

But new or old, by no means worse than now –

Ever I suffer the torment of my exile.”(Mitchell, lines 1-five)

The speaker, though concerned with grievous feelings, adopts an assertive tone when she announces the poem as “her song”. She is “able to inform all the hardships” for herself, and does not need a masculine filter to relay her story. It is basically “her personal life’s journey”, and by establishing these oppressed situations and vocalizing her victimization, probably the poem or ‘song’ is a mechanism for liberation. Jamison’s post is beneficial in regards to the speaker’s scenario and the cause for her exile:

“In order to bind males together and ensure peace, Germanic women of the highest rank often served as peace pledges. Generally the daughter of an essential warrior or king, the peace pledge would be married off to a man of higher status who might be perceived as a potential threat to her kin in hopes of forming an alliance, or at least preventing conflict.”(Jamison, 14)

It is probably that the situation Jamison postulates plagues the speaker, as she suffers in exile, isolated from her husband and family members. The concept of arranged marriage was potentially oppressive to ladies, as they became the essential component in political exchanges the speaker is aware of her confinement, and maybe her song will allow her to overcome female inferiority. Jamison also considers the subject of human exchange:

“…In a society that valued warfare, marrying off females as a indicates to ensure peace could turn out badly, in such situations emphasizing the woman’s unfortunate plight as object of male exchange.”(Jamison, 15)

The wife, in Jamison’s terms, is degraded to a commodity that satisfies both parties in a political trade. The speaker is conscious of her role as ‘commodity’ and in the act of speaking she provides a feminine account of victimization this influences her narrative as one impeded by anguish, but propelled by injustice and a want for freedom.

In examining the narrative, it is significant to take into account that the author of The Wife’s Lament was most likely male. By reminding ourselves of this, it does not hinder the poem’s attitude and speculations on female oppression. Jamison ultimately makes the connection between the speaker’s status and the historical context that was outlined previously:

“The narrator of The Wife’s Lament appears to be a peace pledge whose husband has left his homeland, probably exiled for some undisclosed crime, or probably to lead his men in battle.”(Jamison, 16)

Jamison’s argument is compatible with the sorrow and longing that pervades her narrative: “First my lord left his folks/for the tumbling waves I worried at dawn/where on earth my leader of guys may possibly be.”(Mitchell, lines 6-8) The speaker’s primary concern here is the location of her husband, but, when she references him as the “leader of men”, maybe this signals a refusal to his leadership over her or ladies in general. The speaker does not appear distressed more than her husband’s return rather, the poem is saturated in grievous language and neglects to expose any wish to recover the marital bond. Jamison comments on the goal of the poem and characterizes it as a response to the process of marital exchange:

“Early Germanic girls had, in truth, a number of achievable responses to marital exchanges and could uncover methods to move nicely beyond the part of object, asserting their influence as mothers and diplomats by king-producing, or king-breaking, in their new husbands’ homes.”(Jamison, 31)

To regard The Wife’s Lament as a response to demeaning exchanges and as a implies to “move beyond the role of object,” substantially modifications the connotation of the lamenting language used to convey it rather, it would be a lot more acceptable to connote the language as that of ‘complaint’. The speaker is not aggressive in adopting a part as a ‘diplomat’, nonetheless, it is evident that she is in favor of her husband bearing a burden identical to her own.

In respect to the contents of the narrative, it is equally crucial, if not more required to recognize the function of female speech in basic. By speaking, the wife is undertaking an action that was hardly ever permitted to girls the act of writing a ‘song’ of her knowledge further enables the female figure to independence in political unions. Barrie Ruth Straus in her essay, “Women’s Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in “The Wife’s Lament””, interprets the poem as a kind of speech-act. She asserts at the beginning:

“The idea of the illocutionary act is introduced to make precise the way that the same proposition can be utilised differently—to make an assertion, to ask a query, to give an order, to express a want, and so forth—depending on the scenario.”(Straus, 269)

Straus’s adoption of the “illocutionary act” in determining objective and meaning in the poem elevates the precedence of female language in Anglo-Saxon culture. By apply this notion to the narrative, it becomes apparent that the speaker’s intention advances beyond that of expressing mere sadness. Straus’s argument can be characterized by the following passage:

“The way the wife tells her story—that is, the way she uses words—reveals that she does not merely passively accept her fate, but rather requires benefit of a kind of action obtainable to ladies of her time.”(Straus, 270)

Straus areas countenance in the kind more than the content material of the poem. She is conscious that the speaker’s intentions are precisely that, ‘speaking out’, and promoting an empowering message for women via her unfortunate demise. In returning to the starting lines of the poem, Straus’s proposal is also relevant:

“The presence of a marked overt performative at the starting of “The Wife’s Lament,” then, indicates the speaker’s try to make her listeners understand her deliberate act of producing an assertion.”(Straus, 272)

Nonetheless, the bulk of the speaker’s frustration and wish for independence happens in the concluding lines:

“Let to himself

All his worldly joys belong! let him be outlawed

In a far distant land…

My beloved will endure

The cares of a sorrowful mind he will remember

As well often a happier house. Woe to the a single

Who need to endure longing for a loved one.”(Mitchell, lines 45-7, 50-53)

The speaker becomes far more aggressive in these final lines than anyplace else in the poem, which can be properly interpreted as protest. The wife’s initial longing transitions into a longing for her husband’s exile, which translates to the wife’s inclination for equal remedy. Her narrative does not blatantly ask for liberation instead, the speaker wishes for equal sorrow on her husband, which, in terms of speech acting, infuses the female voice with authority. Straus concludes her exposition by stating: “The speaker has shown that she can do far more than weep. She can still use words to make her story and its causes identified. As a result she requires action by not suffering in silence.”(Straus, 275)

The Wife’s Lament, though ambiguous in purpose and intention, enacts a efficiency of the oppression that females experience in marital exchanges and political strife. Anglo-Saxon literature and culture was fundamentally supported by the patriarchy and masculine topics, even those that are inherently female, such as feminine romance. The poem examined functions as more than a sorrowful lyric or an elegy for longing the ambiguity that overwhelms the poem and confuses critics even in modern scholarship, was conceivably a universal message for girls. The ambiguity makes it possible for for multiple interpretations and the possibility for a title that much better articulates the want for independence associated with feminine romance. Probably a a lot more suitable title for the poem is “The Wife’s Complaint”, since in the beginning lines she proclaims it her mission to speak for herself and her own sorrows, and in the concluding lines curses her male counterpart for his neglect. By interpreting the speaker’s “lament” as “complaint”, the position of the subjugated female modifications the poem instead encourages a feminist reading that accommodates the precedence of female speech and writing.

Works Cited

Jamison, Carol P. ““Traffic of Women in Germanic Literature: The Function of the Peace Pledge in Marital Exchanges”.” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Research in German Literature & Culture 20 (2004): 13-36. Project MUSE. Net. 1 Dec. 2012.

Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. “The Wife’s Lament.” A Guide to Old English. 8th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992. 272-75. Print.

Salter, David. “’Born to Thraldom and Penance’: Wives and Mothers in Middle English

Romance.” Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts. By Elaine M. Treharne. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002. 41-58. Print.

Straus, Barrie R. “Women’s Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in “The Wife’s

Lament”” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.two (1981): 268-85.JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
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