Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 4556
  • Author(s)/Creator(s):
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  • Title: Dazed and Confused: Creating Meaning in "The Wife's Lament" [Annual International Conference of the Texas Medieval Association, San Antonio, Sept. 8-10, 1994, Session 23].
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 28, 3 (Spring 1995):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Literature- Verse Wife's Lament, Old English Elegy
  • Award Note:
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10
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  • Abstract: The Wife's Lament has been many things to many people - an elegy, a frauenlieder, a death-song, a riddle, and a penitential lament. The narrator died in the 1960s, only to be resurrected a decade later, and then subjected to periodic killings off in the 1980s. She has even changed gender, although that particular line of argument has lost ground in the face of unrelenting graounatical studies. What I am interested in, however, is not so much how "The Wife's Lament" is problematic, buy why. The sites of uncertainty which I find most interesting, both within the critical material and the poem itself, are the question of genre, the state of the narrator, and the role of the male figure or figures. Although this statement can only be speculative due to the nature of the poem, I believe that by examining the points at which uncertainty and confusion are created in the text - in part by close textual analysis, and by bistoricizing some of the social issues driving the narrative - it is possible to read the poem as a commentary on the role of women in the political system of Anglo-Saxon kinship. In my paper, I explore these areas, along with a discussion of some of the more important past critical approaches to the text, particularly as they intersect with the problem of genre. I have concluded that "The Wife's Lament" has in some ways fallen victim to the old assumption that Anglo-Saxon poetry was somehow not as complex or as reflexive as modern works; as if the people who composed it were not perfectly capable of manipulating irony and using the indefinable, intangible parts of texts as metaphors just as much as they used other, more concrete ones. Essentially, I believe that the play of genres the poem exhibits would have encouraged the audience for "The Wife's Lament" to begin questioning the poem, and that the two additional sites of uncertainty - the conditions of the narrator's existence and the ambiguous nature of her relationship to the male character in the poem - would have hinted at the kinship structure as the focal point of that questioning. While it is impossible to fully reconstruct the cultural pressures which prompted "The Wife's Lament," I think that the recurring instances of confusion and uncertainty in the poem are too numerous and specific to certain aspects of the kinship system to be anything but deliberate. Some Anglo-Saxon poetry is won- derfully clear; the warriors in "The Battle of Maldon" exist in a defined landscape, carefully delineated, with overtly stated relationships and articulated plot sequences. "The Wife's Lament," on the other hand, belongs in that group of riddles and riddling poems, like "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer," in which ambiguity is an invitation for the reader or listener to interact with the text [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation:
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973