Written in the first person, the wife begins by saying that her words come from a "deep sadness" resulting from her situation. She has not experienced such hardships in her entire life. She is in exile and is tortured by her isolation.
She explains that her lord left his family and sailed away, and she worried excessively about where he might be. She decided to journey away to find him, a lonely and "friendless wanderer." However, her lord's kinsmen did not want them to be together and devised plans to keep them apart in the "wide world." This filled the wife with longing for her husband.
Her lord had asked her to live with him in this new country, but the wife had no friends or anyone she could count on as loyal to her. This also caused her immense grief. She then discovered that her husband had been plotting behind her back; he was pretending to be loyal and loving to her but was planning murder "behind a smiling face." She remembered how they had sworn to each other to never be parted save by death, and saw now that their friendship was vanished almost if it had never been.
The wife is undergoing hardships caused by her most beloved lord and his feud. She is forced to live in a forest grove in a cave under an oak tree. The cavern is very old and she is filled with longing. The landscape is bleak: the valleys are "gloomy," the hills are high, the strongholds are overgrown with briars, and there is no joy anywhere.
The wife is often seized with despair over her husband's journey. She thinks of happy lovers who lie together in bed while she lives alone in the earth-cave under the oak tree and spends the summer days mourning her life's hardships. She is unable to quiet her mind and have relief from her suffering.
She says that young men have to be serious and courageous, hiding their heartaches behind a smiling face.
She closes the lament by thinking of her husband again. He may be the master of his own fate or exiled in another land, sitting beneath cliffs before the stormy sea, cold in body and weary in mind; no matter which he is, he is anguished and cannot help but think of his happy home. She muses grief is always present for those who long for a loved one.
"The Wife's Lament" is one of the most important Anglo-Saxon elegies. It is also viewed as a Frauenlied, a woman's song. It is one of the first and only female-authored (or written from a female perspective) poems in early British literature. An elegy is a lament for someone or something that has been lost, often to death. The Anglo-Saxons often used the elegiac mood in their writings; these poems are mournful, haunting, and plangent. "The Wife's Lament" shares with "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer" several characteristics, such as having a solitary narrator speaking of exile, hostile forces, and the sea.
Like most Anglo-Saxon poems, there are multiple interpretations of the text. The wife may be a peace-weaver sent out to live in a hostile tribe and thus severed from her family but also isolated in her new land. She misses her husband profoundly, but it is unclear if he reciprocates her feelings. He may have turned against her, either of his own volition or due to his family's disapproval. He may love her but was forced to take action against her. Some scholars see both the husband and wife loving each other and sharing in a mutual despair and devastation; these scholars point to the intimate tone of the poem and look at the linguistic structure to note the usage of Old English dual pronouns by the wife that make the lament more intimate and private.
Stanley Greenfield, the famed literary scholar, addresses the meaning of the poem in detail. He writes that it seems to be about a wife imprisoned in an oak tree by her husband who was moved to do this by his kinsmen. However, this simple meaning is belied by the difficulty in the two sections of the poem: the wife's discussion of her exile and grief, and her discussion of her husband's exile. Greenfield does not espouse the commonly-held belief that the wife is expressing pity for a husband in the same situation as herself; he sees the poem as expressing "the wife's wish (a milder form of curse) that her husband, because of his cruelty to her, may endure an exile's tribulations so that by direct experience he may come to understand emotionally the misery and suffering he has caused her." She does love him, but wants him to know how he has hurt her. Greenfield explains his summary of the poem through his translation of the Old English: the wife's troubles began when her lord was exiled; she felt insecure amongst his kinsmen and felt she might be safer elsewhere; the kinsmen plotted against her and convinced her husband to make the lord of the land where she was exiled imprison her; the husband is disturbed by his actions; the wife remembers happier times; the wife describes her place of captivity and is jealous of happy lovers. She is sad because she cannot refute the charges against her and will be forever sundered from her husband. Greenfield concludes that while there is no hatred on the part of the wife, "since she must ever be parted from him and bear his wrath, she wishes that he might know the full extent of her undeserved afflictions."
Scholar Karl P. Wentersdorf discusses the multiple interpretations of the poem some of which wonder if the wife is referring not one husband but two or even three. He concludes that she is referring to one only. He also looks into her subterranean dwelling and writes that "an Anglo-Saxon audience listening to WL would have envisaged the narrator of the poem as dwelling secretly in an ancient pagan sanctuary that included a cave opening up into other caves, located at the foot or in the side of a cliff or hill, in a wooded area with a great oak on or near the top of the cliff or hill." These sanctuaries were often places of asylum. Wentersdorf also gives his summary of the poem: the wife was married to a man of high rank and was probably a foreigner and a peacemaker; her husband left her, probably on a military trip with his life in danger; the kinsmen schemed against them; the husband was not scheming against her but against his kinsmen, and he sent her away to keep her safe; both husband and wife are in emotional pain at their separation.
Another interpretation is that the poem is actually an allegory, with the wife standing for the Church, the Bride of Christ, which has been exiled from her Lord, Christ. Yet another, rarer interpretation posits that the wife's description of an underground cell means that she is deceased and is speaking from the grave. Some critics think the poem is part of a pair with "The Husband's Message," another Anglo-Saxon poem, and others think it may be a riddle. Its inclusion in The Exeter Book with 92 other riddles offers some support for this viewpoint.