The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition

Ah, what I haven’t endured for this little book! I first found The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition by Michael Alexander when wandering through the university library during my first year of graduate school. I fell in love the moment I pulled its dingy yellow cover off the shelf. I checked out and re-checked out that book for an entire year, even though I never had the opportunity to take an Anglo-Saxon literature class. It kept me company through some frustrating times, which I’ll make you read about before I get to the actual review. Scroll down a bit to get to the relevant stuff.

When I was driving home one weekend, an 18-wheeler blew up [1] on the highway an hour or two before I was to pass through the city, so the highway was completely shut down. Since I never listen to the radio, I didn’t realize this, so I was sitting on the highway for 2 hours instead of my usual 30-minute drive. I eventually turned off my car, opened the windows, and read aloud to myself in Old English. I still went nuts siting there in the road, but I went less nuts than I would have without this book.

Right now, this book is listed on Amazon for reasonable prices. When I decided I wanted a copy (which was, frankly, immediately after I first saw it), Amazon had only 1 copy listed at $395. This is usual for scholarly books, so I resigned myself to finding a way to steal it from the library, but I kept an eye on Amazon. Several months later, a copy went up for $9. I sped home from classes that day, and soon enough, that book was MINE MINE MINE! Luckily, sellers are no longer deeming it so expensive, so you, reader, don’t have to watch the market for months to get a copy.

On to the review:

Thank you for bearing with me. The Earliest English Poems begins with the usual introduction and notes on translation. Here is the table of contents:

  • The Ruin
  • Heroic Poems
    • Widsith and Deor
    • Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg
    • Waldere
  • Elegies
    • The Wanderer and The Seafarer
    • The Wife’s Complaint, The Husband’s Message, and Wulf & Eadwacer
  • Gnomic Verses
  • Riddles
  • The Dream of the Rood
  • The Battle of Maldon
    • Map of the Site of the Battle of Maldon
  • Notes
  • Appendixes
    • The Runes
    • Suggested Solutions to the Riddles
    • Anglo-Saxon Metric
  • Glossary of Proper Names
  • Note on Books

This book is published with the Anglo-Saxon text on the left page, the English translation on the right. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction of the section’s poem(s) to place it in its historical context and highlight important themes. The margins leave ample room for annotations, which my book’s previous owner did extensively.

Translations were done with an attempt to keep to the original’s stresses and metre. Alexander retains words of Anglo-Saxon origin wherever possible, and a few words are not translated if there is no modern equivalent, words like scop and hwæt, which should be familiar to the avid reader of Old English, but are explained in translation notes in case they are not. Alexander urges the reader to read the poems aloud, as they were meant to be spoken, but pronunciation notes are sparse, so readers should consult a grammar book for more information.

The Earliest English Poems is easily available at any bookstore in English only, but I demand bilingual editions when available. This is the only bilingual edition of these poems that I have been able to find. While all of these texts can be found on the internet, nowhere are they presented in such an accessible format, making this book a valuable addition to any medievalist’s library.

[1] I’m prone to exaggeration, but this time, I’m not exaggerating.


The Earliest English Poems: A Bilingual Edition — 1 Comment

  1. Interesting, I did not know this was available in both languages. My 1970s Penguin adition only had the translations, but I did also find “A Choice of Anglo Saxon Verse” which has much of the same material and a number of other poems, with the Old English one one page and the translation, by Richard Hamer, adjacent. I have occasionally pulled these volumes off the shelf in the intervening 35 years and still enjoy dipping into them from time to time.
    I particularly like Michael Alexander’s translations, which seem to me to retain the metre, alliteration and general feel of the originals, and as you say, sound good when read aloud, as all poetry from an oral tradition should be.
    I also have the Penguin Beowulf, in Alexander’s translation, which I consider greatly superior to Seamus Heaney’s recent version.
    Thanks for reminding me of this great literature.

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