Written in the first person, the titular wife begins by saying that her words come from a "deep sadness", which is a result of her exile. She has never experienced hardship like this before. She is tortured by her isolation.
She explains that her misery began when her lord left their family and sailed away, leaving her behind. She was consumed with anxiety about his whereabouts. Taking action, she decided to undertake a quest to find him, setting out as a lonely and "friendless wanderer." However, her lord's kinsmen did not want the couple to be reunited and devised plans to keep them on opposite sides of the "wide world." The continued separation left the wife heartbroken and longing for her husband.
She shares that ultimately, her lord requested her to live with him in a new country. She moved to this strange place where she had no friends, which made her sad and lonely. Also, she quickly discovered that her husband had been plotting behind her back. Beneath his proclamations of love, "behind [his] smiling face," he was actually planning to commit mortal crimes. She remembers the good times of their marriage, when they had sworn to each other that only death could part them. Sadly, she relays, she realized that she could never feel fondness for this man again. Their friendship vanished as if it had never existed in the first place.
The Wife continued to face hardship as a result of her wayward lord and his ongoing schemes. To stay safe, she went to live in a forest grove in a cave under an oak tree, and that where she is writing her lament. The cavern is very old and leaves her filled with longing. The landscape around her is bleak, the valleys are "gloomy," the hills are high, the strongholds are overgrown with briars, and there is no joy to be found anywhere.
The Wife describes her despair over her estrangement from her husband. She thinks of happy lovers who lie together in bed on summer days while she lives alone in the earth-cave under the oak tree. She is unable to quiet her mind or find any relief from her suffering.
She resents the fact that young women are supposed to be serious and courageous, hiding their heartaches behind a smiling face.
She finishes her lament by invoking her husband again. She does not know if he has conquered his fate, or if he is exiled in another land, sitting beneath cliffs before the stormy sea, cold in body and weary in mind. The Wife knows that her husband is also filled with anguish and constantly reminded of the happy home he has lost. She muses that grief is always present for those who are separated from a loved one.
"The Wife's Lament" is one of the most recognizable Anglo-Saxon elegies. Some scholars actually classify the piece as a Frauenlied, which is the German term for a woman's song. Either way, it is one of the first and only examples of a female-authored poem (or a poem written from a female perspective) in early British literature. An elegy is a lament for someone or something that has been lost, often to death. The Anglo-Saxon poets commonly employed an elegiac style in their writing, so their verses are often mournful, haunting, and plangent. "The Wife's Lament" bears many similarities to "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer". Most noticeably, each of these poems consist of a solitary narrator describing exile, the sea, and the threat of hostile forces.
Like in the case of most Anglo-Saxon poems, there are multiple interpretations of "The Wife's Lament". Some scholars believe that the character of the Wife is a peace-weaver who was living with a hostile tribe, so she had to sever ties with her family and travel to a new land, where she feels isolated. It is evident that 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 his tribe could have forced him to take action against her. Because of the intimate tone of the poem, some scholars claim that both husband and wife still love each other and their despair is mutual. The linguistic structure supports this claim, since the Wife's use of Old English dual pronouns make the lament feel private and sincere.
Stanley Greenfield, the renowned literary scholar, interprets the poem differently. He believes that the lord imprisoned his wife in an oak tree after being pressured to do so by his kinsmen. However, this simple meaning is contradictory to two sections of the poem: the Wife's description of her grief, and her speculation of her husband's exile. Greenfield also does not espouse the commonly-held belief that the Wife is expressing pity for her husband, who is in the same situation as she is. Rather, he believes that the poem expresses "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." Greenfield supports his theory through his translation of the poem from the original Old English. In his version, the Wife's troubles begin when her lord is exiled. She feels uneasy amongst his kinsmen and decides that she will be safer elsewhere. Upon discovering her plans, the kinsmen plot against her and convince her husband to ask the lord of the wife's new land to imprison her, and he does. However, the husband is haunted and disturbed by his actions because he does love his wife. Meanwhile, the Wife lies in captivity remembering better times, and becoming jealous of happy lovers. She is sad because she cannot refute the charges against her and will be forever separated from her husband. Greenfield concludes that the Wife feels no hatred towards her husband, but "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 entertains other interpretations of the poem, in which some scholars speculate that the Wife is referring to multiple husbands, and not just one. However, Wentersdorf concludes that she is indeed only referring to one man. Regarding her subterranean dwelling, he writes, "an Anglo-Saxon audience listening to The Wife's Lament 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 often served as asylums during the Anglo-Saxons' time. Wentersdorf offers his own summary of the poem's narrative. He believes that the Wife is married to a man of high rank, probably a foreigner and/or a peacemaker. When her husband left, most likely to go on a dangerous military trip, his kinsmen schemed against the couple. Wentersdorf has a more forgiving view of the husband and interprets the lord's scheming to be against his own kinsmen, not his wife. Instead, Wenstersdorf claims that the lord sends his wife away to keep her safe, and they both suffer profound emotional pain as a result of their unresolved separation.
Another interpretation, which is not particularly common, is that the poem is actually an allegory. In this interpretation, the Wife represents the Church, specifically, as the Bride of Christ, and she is lamenting her exile from Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. Yet another, even rarer interpretation posits that the Wife's description of an underground cell signifies that she is deceased and is speaking from the grave. Some critics think the poem is part of a pair along with "The Husband's Message," another Anglo-Saxon poem, and others think it may actually not be a poem at all, but a riddle. Its inclusion in Exeter Book with 92 other riddles offers some support for this viewpoint, although the evidence is not strong.