Of Graves, Caves, and Subterranean Dwellings: 'Eoroscraef' and 'Eorosele' in the 'Wife's Lament.'

By Battles, Paul | Philological Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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Of Graves, Caves, and Subterranean Dwellings: 'Eoroscraef' and 'Eorosele' in the 'Wife's Lament.'


Battles, Paul, Philological Quarterly


The past three decades have witnessed a bewildering variety of interpretations of the Old English Wife's Lament. We are no longer even certain that it is, in fact, the lament of a "wife"; critics have suggested that the narrator is a lordless retainer, a heathen deity, the soul yearning for the body (or the body for the soul), or a revenant. Numerous syntactical and lexical ambiguities - as well as the poem's abstract diction in general - have led to interpretations which differ dramatically even in regard to the basic facts of the poem.(2)

At the heart of the debate over the general circumstances described by the poem is the narrator's dwelling, an eoroscraef or eorosele underneath an actreo in a wuda bearu (ll. 27-29).(2) The dwelling and its surroundings are described at considerable length (ll. 27-36), and this detailed description contrasts starkly with the rest of the poem, whose abstract language and nonlinear order make it difficult to reconstruct the events being narrated. The eoroscraefleordsele provides a tantalizing clue to the situation of the narrator. At least two recent critics have viewed the eoroscraefleordsele as the key to the poem's meaning,(3) and certainly any interpretation of the Wife's Lament must come to terms with the curious dwelling in which the narrator lives. It makes a difference whether we are to imagine her living in a hovel, a grave, or a heathen sanctuary.(4)

Current readings of the eoroscraefleordsele essentially fall into three categories. The most widely accepted interpretation, most forcefully advanced by Karl Wentersdorf, holds it to be a cave.(5) A second approach, first suggested by R. F. Leslie, interprets the dwelling as a grave, specifically a "chambered barrow";(6) this has led several critics to suggest that the narrator is dead.(7) Finally, Earl R. Anderson has recently suggested that eoroseleleoroscraef is a sunken-featured building, a structure quite common in Anglo-Saxon England.(8) On purely linguistic grounds, all of these theories could be correct. Eoroscraef has a broad semantic range, denoting any hollow place in the earth (e.g., "cave" in Gen. 2597, "grave" in Wand. 84). The term eorosele occurs in only one poem other than the Wife's Lament, namely in Beowulf, but its meaning there is not entirely clear. This does not mean, of course, that all readings of eoroscraefleorosele are equally likely, or that - as the most recent critic to discuss the issue has suggested - the poet had no particular kind of stucture in mind at all.(9) Indeed, it has been argued that the eoroscraefleorosele is not a literal dwelling at all, but rather a metaphorical expression of the speaker's state of mind. However, the very specificity with which the narrator describes the eoroscraefleorosele - that it is in a grove of trees (in fact underneath an oak) in a desolate countryside overgrown with briars - indicates something rather more specific than a mental abstraction.(10)

In fact, archeological evidence and numerous literary parallels suggest that the eoroscraefleorosele is neither a grave, a natural cave, nor a "sunken-featured dwelling," but rather a souterrain, an artificial underground dwelling or chamber. During the early Middle Ages, souterrains were quite common in Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany, and were also found in Cornwall, Denmark, and northern England. These structures are documented not only by archeological finds, but also by a wealth of Icelandic, Irish, and English historical and literary sources. Reading the eoroscraefleorosele in the Wife's Lament as a souterrain will shed light on several passages in the poem which have thus far eluded a convincing explanation. In both ON and ME literature souterrains appear as secret hideaways generally associated with fugitives, who are often women; thus, the description of a souterrain as the narrator's dwelling would resonate with several prominent themes in the Wife's Lament, notably confinement and secret hostility.

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