Translated, Edited and Introduced by Micheal Alexander
Country: Great Britain (Pre-England)
Years: 600AD – 1000AD
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, Third Edition. 1985 cover design.
First Read: Yes
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
In the eyes of most undergraduate English majors, these lines are the kick-off point of English literature. These are the opening lines from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem about a Geatish hero who slays monsters, mothers and dragons. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poetry is far deeper and richer than just the 3,182 lines of Beowulf. The average undergrad English major though is unlikely to be exposed to much pre-Chaucer/Sir Gawain writing, except for Beowulf or perhaps of The Dream of the Rood if they take a Bible and literature course. I was in that situation. These two pieces were the only Anglo-Saxon works I read as a student, and the professor I had for my Medieval-Renaissance survey course only taught Beowulf because he was a huge fan of Seamus Heaney – this was not normally included by other professors teaching the class. My university had several courses in Middle-English literature, but nothing dedicated to Old English. A classmate of mine asked the Chair of the department about doing a direct studies course on the subject, her request was declined because there was no one suitable to oversee it. The writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, and even Tom Clancy descended from Anglo-Saxon poetry just as humans descended from the flat-worm. It deserves the attention of any discerning reader. It deserves it’s share of critical and academic attention.
A few years ago, I came across The Earliest English Poems while browsing the Penguin Classics at my favorite used book store. The concept alone intrigued me. Whether I would ever read it or not, I thought it would be a nice-looking addition to my shelf. Edited, introduced and translated by Michael Alexander, this volume essentially serves as a sample of the best Anglo-Saxon poetry from the four major poetic manuscripts, at least in the editor’s subjective opinion. Selections include heroic poems like Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh, Maldon and passages from Beowulf; elegies such as The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message; a large selection of the riddles from Exeter Book; and The Dream of the Rood.
Michael Alexander does several things that make this book both extremely readable and highly informative. First, he has written an incredible introduction. The intro is concise, gives context and historical background, explains his approach to translating these pieces, and gives some commentary on why reading each of these poems is significant. Second, he gives summaries and descriptions of each poem. This is very important in making this book assessable, especially for someone with an English degree let alone a layman; Alexander delves into the historical framework of each poem, gives a general summary, and digs into the genre and its significance (e.g. heroic poem, riddle, elegy, etc). Finally, his translations open these poems up to 21st century readers. The language is still “elevated,” in that elegance is not sacrificed. Alexander also manages to maintain the alliteration that is such a signature of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Additionally, a few select words of Old English are maintained, both for dramatic effect and because there is no direct translation to modern English, like Hwaet and Wierd.
It is safe to say that in this 200-page book, I learned more about Anglo-Saxon literature than I did in a four-year English degree. Every poem in this book is between 1000 and 1300 years old – to put this into perspective, these poems are closer to a living Jesus than they are to us. It is a miracle of historical accidents that they survive at all. Why is this a great book: great poetry that stands on its own merits, historical gravitas, novelty, to understand that there was great writing in English before Chaucer, to get some great timeless riddles to try out on your friends, need I say more?