1995-01-14: The Earliest English Poems

The Earliest English Poems (1991)

Tr. by Michael Alexander (1941-)

Perhaps the saddest thing about this book is that English poems have to be translated.

The poems selected for this book include the best Anglo-Saxon poetry (in the opinion of the translator). Most I had never seen before.

The work is interesting for the view of Anglo-Saxon life it gives, not perfectly consistent, but enough so that the major values of the patrons of the poets are clear. Interestingly, these are very similar to the values that are apparent in the Icelandic saga, a couple of centuries later. In both, the head of a household (not necessarily a blood-related clan) is the highest authority, and the ultimate value is for the family over the band or tribe. The cynn is superior over the “king”.

The other value that comes through is a parasitic meme: the value of a hero having his name remembered in poetry. I have to wonder to what extent the ruling class really believed this one, and how much the poets inflated it.

The quality of the poetry varies, of course, but some is poignant, as the lament of a man who has outlived his lord; he is defenseless, and seeks only to be accepted into some other household. Some looks back to an earlier great age: the stone ruins of the Romans in Britain are called the works of giants.

Perhaps the poetry is not for the ages, but I found the light it shed in a dark place illuminating enough to justify its preservation.

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