Ubi Sunt and Feminism in The Wife’s Lament
Ubi Sunt is a concept used in literature which means “where are they now?” ubi sunt is used to call attention to things or people that have disappeared or been forgotten. In The Wife’s Lament the use of Ubi Sunt evokes a feeling of loss, but for the speaker instead of for who the speaker is directly speaking about, her husband. The Wife’s Lament uses a unique form of ubi sunt and nostalgia in order to create sympathy for herself therefore creating agency for herself, which is significant because of the lack of female representation in Anglo-Saxon literature.
According to an article by Claudia Di Sciacca, nostalgia can often be involved in ubi sunt, nostalgia is the emotional longing for the past that typically has positive association (Di Sciacca 366). Di Sciacca brings up the poem, The Wanderer, this poem is a good example of how nostalgia can intertwine, memories are recalled throughout this poem, which allows the speaker to lament the loss of his lord, but also remember the fond times he had with his lord. For example, the poem begins with “I have sung my lament. There is none living/ to whom I would dare to reveal clearly / my heart’s thoughts,” (The Wanderer 9-11). This is an example of the wanderer formally stating his lament and explaining that he has no one else on Earth that he can or wants to follow. However, an example of the wanderer’s nostalgia would be, “He remember hall-holders and treasure-taking/ how in his youth his gold-giving lord/ accustomed to the feast – that joy has all faded,” (The Wanderer 34-36). This exemplifies nostalgia because for a moment he’s recalling the happier times he had with his lord. This can be crucial to ubi sunt because it allows the reader to better understand where the character is now. Like The Wife’s Lament, the speaker uses nostalgia and ubi sunt in order to bring attention to a loved one who was lost, but does not really evoke any social change like The Wife’s Lament does.
In a journal article by Arthur Robert Harden, three different examples of Anglo-Norman stories that all contain ubi sunt ideals that were supposedly gathered by Saints. The first comes from Saint Osith, it’s about a princess who longs for the lavish lifestyle that once “distinguished unnamed ancestors,” but is reminded by the speaker that Osith (as well as any of the readers) “must inevitably share the destiny of his forbears,” (Harden 63). This example of ubi sunt is used as a warning to not obsess over what was lost (a lavish society), because in the end it will not actually matter. The second example comes from St. Alban, and explains how a wealthy pagan man is converted by the priest Amphibal. The pagan man is told that all worldly possessions are “ephemeral” (Harden 64). This story also focuses on the meaningless of worldly possessions, in both of these poems, the speakers are criticizing the “vanity” and “nostalgia of the characters. The third account of ubi sunt, is from Saint Lawrence, the speaker criticizes society’s fixation on “intellectual and physical accomplishments” is an example of “sheer hedonism,” (Harden 64). This example is once again criticizing the vanity of society, but emphasizes the negativity that can come from boasting. These are three prime examples of Ubi Sunt, because they can be adapted to anyone’s situation and it also provokes changes in society. While these poems do bring changes to what society should focus on, they do not use ubi sunt to focus on the speakers themselves, but the characters within the story.
Purely based on the title of The Wife’s Lament, the audience is able to tell that this will be an elegiac poem about something the wife/speaker has lost, however, after reading deeper into the poem, the audience can see that this poem is unlike most ubi sunt poems. In an article written by J.A. Ward, the curse given by the wife in lines 42-47 is somewhat obscure as to who she’s addressing and also “the husband’s role in the wife’s banishment and the wife’s attitude toward the husband,” (Ward 26). However, the point could be made that the wife is addressing the husband because she repeatedly uses strong diction that has a somewhat negative tone. For example, “My lord commanded me to live here;/ I had few loved ones or loyal friends/ in this country, which causes me grief,” (The Wife’s Lament 15-17). This shows how she resents her lord for forcing her to move to a foreign land and leave her few loved ones behind. In her curse, the wife also could be addressing the people who have banished her to the grove, her kinsmen. The speaker shows the wife’s misery after being banished, “They forced me to live in a forest grove, / under an oak tree in an earthen cave. / This earth-hill is old, and I ache with longing,” (The Wife’s Lament 27-29). This is an example of another person/ group of people she is angry with for being involved in her banishment and could possibly be addressing the kinsmen in her curse. Either way, the wife is still claiming her agency by cursing her husband and kinsmen throughout the poem. While it seems like this poem may be a lament for her disappeared husband, it is actually a lament for the wife’s life before the husband. She’s grieving the loss of her loved ones in her home country. By having a (presumably) woman speaker cursing mostly, if not all, men it acts as representation for a strong female character, perhaps provoking a rise in outspoken women.
In “The Banished Wife’s Lament,” William Witherle Lawrence explains the lack of female characters in Anglo- Saxon poetry and why the Wife’s lament is a significant piece considering the time period. Lawrence argues that, while the speaker is resenting the husband and the kinsmen, the author could be criticizing “general character” because in Anglo-Saxon poetry, authors often used “moralizing incursions” which were brief attacks on characters or society around them. This is significant because it suggests a female voice going against typically male roles (lord/kinsmen) (Lawrence 389). Along with the ambiguity of this poem’s meaning, the poem’s language is also a bit ambiguous and can be translated in many different ways. Lawrence explains, “The similarity of certain Anglo-Saxon words to their representatives in modern English and German occasionally blinds us to differences in their meaning,” (Lawrence 391). While it may have not been intentional at the time, the difference in translations allows the reader to interpret the poem in their own way. For example, Lawrence believes that the phrase “morpor hycgendne” can be interpreted as “brooding over murder” where it could also be interpreted as “meditating upon death” the call for an active reader encourages readers to find different meanings in the text, and in this text, it allows the reader to understand how The Wife’s Lament can be an example of
In conclusion, The Wife’s Lament uses ubi sunt to recall her former life and self, while using nostalgia to remember the better times in her life. Compared to other works of poetry that use ubi sunt, this poem is different because it focuses on the speaker herself. By having a female speaker, the author is making a feminist statement to the otherwise lack of female representation in Anglo-Saxon literature.