The anonymous 'The Wife's Complaint', 'The Husband's Message' and 'Wulf and Eadawacer' are found in the Exeter manuscript which was written down about 940 A.D. 'The Wife's Complaint' and 'The Husband's Message' appear only a few pages or leaves from each other in the manuscript. Thus some people think both poems are about a single couple. Others believe they are about two different marriages, but thematically linked because they are the product of a single culture and time.
'The Wife's Complaint', 'The Husband's Message', 'Wulf and Eadawacer' all deal with marriage. These poems explore two of the possible outcomes of infidelity in marriage. 'The Wife's Complaint' and 'The Husband's Message' how the impact infidelity can have on a couple when it is discovered and used by the members of the husband's family against the wife. We see the impact that community inference has had on the couple's union and their mental state (which is now sorrow and depression). We see a yearning for forgiveness and each partner's desire for reconciliation. 'Wulf and Eadawacer' also addresses infidelity, but from the perspective of someone who does not want to rejoin her husband. This poem focuses on the wife's desire not to salvage her marriage, but to be with her castaway man.
For the purposes of this essay, I will take the view that 'The Wife's Complaint' and 'The Husband's Message' are connected poems which speak about a single couple. Even if this is not necessarily so, it's clear readers of the manuscript could have read them this way, and when we bring them together, they become consistent in theme and richer. Here is a plot summary of them both taken together. The wife has an affair with a young man while her husband is away at war. The husband's family learns of the affair. They inform the husband and persuade him to banish his wife. The couple is separated, and the wife left to live alone in exile from the tribal family. Intensely lonely, she longs for a reunion with her husband. After the extended separation and a possible journey, the husband also longs for reconciliation and send his wife a message from a distant place (or land) using a staff with carved symbols on it. He tells her that he wants her to join him and to re-exchange vows. In 'Wulf and Eadawacer' the wife also had a secret affair when her husband left her. When caught during one of their trysts, she is not ashamed but relieved that the truth has been exposed. At the same time, she grieves and rages that now their affair has been brought to an end. Wulf who may have been one of her two lovers has to flee the land to save his life. She now longs for him and despises her husband, Eadawacer. It's not clear that this is the plot: some people have thought that Wulf is the husband who left her, but it seems that Eadawacer is a tyrant she is angry at, though at the poem's there is a sudden reversal when she calls Wulf a 'whelp'. Even so the theme of the poem is the same: perversion of people's natural emotions when in love or married leads to misery.
The characters in 'The Wife's Complaint' and 'The Husband's Message' view marriage as good and sacred. Its center is friendship. They long to be companions again. The importance of companionship to the wife is shown in the way she seeks companionship elsewhere when she finds her husband's absence unbearable and her existence perverse and anguished. The poem begins:
'I have wrought these words together out of a wryed existence
the heart's tally, telling off
the griefs I have undergone from girlhood upwards
old and new, and now more than ever;
for I have never not had some new sorrow
some fresh affliction to fight against
The first was my lord's leaving his people here: crossed crests. To a country I knew not,
wondered where, awoke unhappy.
I left, fared any road, friendless, an outcast,
sought any service to staunch the lack of him ('Wife's Lament', p. 58)
The loss of him is felt as a wound. The importance of having someone to be your companion is also expressed by the sorrow and intense depression both the husband and wife feel while neither had the other's friendship. From the moment of waking the wife feels she is half-whole:
I see the thorns thrive up there in thick coverts
on the banks that baulk these black hollows
not a gay dwelling. Here the grief bred
by lordlack preys on me. Some lovers in this world
live dear to each other, lie warm together
at day's beginning. I go by myself
about these earth caves under the oak tree
Here I msut sit the summer day through,
here weep out the woes of exile,
the hardships heaped on me. ('Wife's Lament', p. 59)
She imagines her husband remembering her:
He remembers too often
less grim surroundings. Sorrow follows
this too long wait for one who is estranged. ('Wife's Lament', p. 59)
The husband's family reveal that they look at marriage as something intensely serious when they drastically banish her for disloyalty. For the betrayal of love banishment and divorce are the only possible and a just desert. It may also be that the husband's family planned this and manipulated the couple so that they would be separated permanently once the husband went away on his own. The family fomented his jealousy and anger:
Then his kinsmen ganged, began to think
thoughts they did not speak, of splitting the wedlock
so -- estranged, alienated -- we lived each
along, a long way apart; how I longed for him!
In his harshness he had me brought here;
and in these parts there were few friendly-minded
Trouble in the heart now:
I saw the bitterness, the bound mind
of my matched man, mourning-browed
mirk in his mood, murder in his thoughts.('Wife's Lament', p. 58)
In 'The Husband's Message' there seems to be another voice who says of the husband that he is not relieved to be alone even though everything is done to make him forget:
. . . the man has now.
laid his sorrows, lacks no gladdeners;
he has a hoard and horses and hall-carousing
and would have everything within an earl's having
had he my lady with him. ('Husband's Message', p. 61)
The story of the two poems shows us that even in marriages where the two were at first happy and satisfied, temptation, lust, a desire to wander, vulnerability can destroy the pair. It seems an opportunist preyed upon the lonely wife. Although the wife knows and remembers the happiness he had shared wit her husband, when he leaves her, she misses him and is afraid. This is when the opportunist she curses stepped in:
May grief and bitterness blast the mind
of that young man. May his mind ache
behind his smiling face! May a flock of sorrows
choke his chest.('Wife's Lament', p. 59)
In the words carved onto the token of 'The Husband's Message' we find out there was a war going on or he fell into a feud with his own family:
The carver of this token entreats a lady
clad in clear stones to call to mind
and hold in her wit words pledged
often between the two in earlier days:
then he would hand you through hall and yard
lord of his lands, and you might live together
forge your love. A feud drove him
from his war-proud people.('Husband's Message', p. 60)
In her loneliness and fear, partly deliberately alienated by her husband's family from him, she came upon an attractive man and succumbed to temptation. The young man had a much more fun-loving spirit, handsome face, beautiful body:
. . . May his mind ache.
behind his smiling face! May a flock of sorrows
choke his chest! He woudl change his tune
if he lived along in a land of exile
far from his folk.('Wife's Lament', p. 59)
The young man seems to have deserted her. Meanwhile her husband's family had turned him from her. It's not clear which happened first; it doesn't seem to matter to the wife now.
The poet or poets of these poems reveals the emotional consequences, pain, devastation and remorse that can come from infidelity in marriage or betrayal by family or friends. The husband had felt great rage and overwhelming grief. In the wife's poem we see she believes that her adultery has caused the man she loves most, her best friend, to hate her:
' . . . I feel in the wind
that the man dearest to me detests me.
I was banished to ths knoll knotted by woods
to live in aden dug beneath an oak.
Old is this earthen room; it eats at my heart' ('Wife's Lament', p. 59).
The poet or poets also express the idea that a severed marriage, even one so badly severed, is mendable. Forgiveness can grace both wronged and wrongdoer. Since in these poems, the wife and husband recall and long again to return to their happier past, there is hope for this couple. In 'The Husband's Message' the third voice asserts that the husband's mind is better and he has felt for her in her grief:
. . . You shall directly
know how you may think of the thorough love
my lord feels for you. I have no fear in promising
you shall find him heart-whole, honour bright.('Husband's Message', p. 60)
The husband's message, the token carved on the the staff may be the third voice or other speaker. It's not clear. At any rate, we can see that the husband wants to revert to what is customary and traditional to bring them both back to health. Health is belonging to the clan, living out their roles in it. The husband made have made a life for himself and has gladness, but he feels incomplete with a wife.
The poem 'Wulf and Eadawacer' shows us the devastation that can happen when better or more social feelings do not emerge after loss and grief. It is not a romantic poem partly because our idea of romance is irrelevant. It is intensely lustful. The wife is also half-insane because she has been forced into marriage with a man she didn't love. To this wife, her marriage was a torturing contract that kept her from mating with a man she was attracted physically and mentally to. Now that she had betrayed her husband, his family stands ready to murder her lover:
The men of my tribe would treat him as game. To this wife her adultery was not a betrayal, but a pursuit for joy for herself. As in the other two poems, it's not clear exactly what happened, but she tells us enough to suggest that the young lover, Wulf, was taken from her or her husband Wulf left her. She then became desperate like the wife of 'The Wife's Complaint', and took a lover:
if he comes to the camp they will kill him outright,
Our fate is forked.
Wulf is on one island, I on another ('Wulf and Eadawacer' , p. 62)
It was rainy weather, and I wept by the hearth
thinking of my Wulf's far wandering;
one of the captains caught me in his arms.
It gladdened me then, but grieved me too.
Wulf, my Wulf, it was wanting you
That made me sick, your seldom coming,
the hollowness at heart; not the hunger I heard of.('Wulf and Eadawacer' , p. 62)
The wife does not seem guilty, or if she is, she hides it in her rage and grief. She says of her marriage: 'What was never bound is broken easily,/Our song together' ('Wulf and Eadawacer' , p. 62). Here she may be cursing Wulf for leaving her (as the husband of 'The Husband's Message' was led to do) or cursing Eadawacer as a man who was forced upon her. They never had a 'song together'. The wife's only regret is that she no longer has her lover; she lives in intense fear the husband's family will murder him: 'If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure' ('Wulf and Eadawacer' , p. 62).
These two poems are very powerful. They show us an older society and older view of marriage. They also show that some constant emotions underlie these institutions and how people can suffer in ways similar to those today when their emotions are twisted against them. They are far more sympathetic to women than I would have expected.