Medieval lament . . . (episode 27)


3A Hyde Park Terrace

May 8 1997

Dear Mum

Things have not been easy here. I have felt struck down by massive waves of rage, alternating with massive waves of grief, like nothing I have ever known in my life. Every time I stand up, I start to feel dizzy. It is unlike me to experience anger – either brief or sustained – and I simply don’t know what to do or how to handle it, short of buying a shotgun and disposing of Austen (who, apparently, has bought a flat with Ariel on the other side of Hyde Park, in Knightsbridge). He has moved in with her if what I hear is true.

However, I have now written my own version – in plain English – of the anonymous medieval poem, ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ This poem, mum, appears in the Exeter Book, which is a tenth century collection of old English poetry. And the poem itself has been translated from the original Anglo Saxon by someone called Richard Hamer. There weren’t any sheep in the primary version I must admit – and nor are there any in Hyde Park – but somehow I just felt like putting some in! Perhaps this is because it is Spring and we keep seeing lambs on TV – dotted about like cotton wool balls – in the fields. That is, we are seeing them now, before they are sent off for (invisible) slaughter.

Well here it is, the poem I mean.


I sing to myself of the days of my sorrow
since the loss of my faith and confidence
in him. It as been a long life, of much pain and many breaks
of my heart. Alone now, in the cave
of my house, the cave of my life, I suffer
the anguish of treachery, the dry dirt
of my path – a path which goes nowhere
lacks source and arrival, and winds on and on.

First my lord went off with another
and hid amongst sheep. I worried at dawn
and at dusk where on earth my horseman might be?
When I set out myself, in the pale light of sun
to follow his hoofbeats, his leather and fur
the whole world out hunting may have guessed
at my search. And thought to divide us
so that we would live far apart in this land
most downcast and sad. Longing seized hold
of me and I padded the earth.

My lord commanded me to take a far path
away from him. I had few loved ones and friends
to protect me, so I did as he bid me. Then
I found that my most fitting man had hid his real mind
and was plotting untruth, behind the smile
on his face. We had sworn in the past that only death
could divide us. But all that is changed now
and is as if it had never been. I feel the black looks
of the one who is dearest to me.

I have been forced to dwell in a burrow of earth.
It is dark except for the lightness of hair
and the ringing of bells and the sheep we all follow.
Only sometimes at dawn, in the sun, is there
some sign of green on the hills and blue in the lake
where geese flash in the sky and hiss in their death.
There are those who lie quiet and close in their beds
hands touching, skin upon skin. I am not
one of these and never shall be. I am an exile from this.

Let my lord have also lost thoughts at dusk
when blackness grows deep and dew forms
on the grass. Let him also have days under cliffs
chilled by north winds, and weary of mind.
There is no escape from cold stone and limitless water.
My beloved will suffer the cares
of a sorrowful mind; he will remember sometimes
the warmth of a hearth, the flame of heart wood.

Woe to the one who must pine for the loss
of the one that they love!


What do you think mum? Do you ‘like’ it? There was just something about it that struck me, somehow, as being the utterly perfect distillation of human grief.

Meanwhile, in the interests of getting away from it all, I have booked a berth on a cargo ship returning to Cuba. It’s one which is used to transport granulated sugar into the UK and agricultural machinery back to Havana. Ralph will certainly approve of the Socialist political regime there, won’t he? And I hear now that tourists are no longer kept segregated from the indigenous Cubans upon arrival!

I have negotiated a reduction on the price of my passage, on the understanding that I will perform evening readings from my poems. I don’t think they would normally have been too keen on this idea, but I convinced them in the end, by sending in a batch of my poems – with exciting content – in an attachment by email!

With love from your daughter (in law)



2 thoughts on “Medieval lament . . . (episode 27)

  1. josna

    This poem is so moving, it’s moved me to go and look for translations of the original. The plot thickens, and the road forks. Harriet, devastated, on a slow boat to Cuba, to read poetry sent via email—I love it! I am totally enthralled—Undercover Mole, lead me where you will!

  2. kristin

    That is the perfect poem for Harriet. And I’m glad she’s taking steps and going to Cuba, (a place I always wanted to go but never have made it.) since it’s a freighter I wonder if she’ll be mostly reading to the crew. and if she’s going to read in Spanish or English or both?


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