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"Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems

"Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems

Edited and translated by CRAIG WILLIAMSON
With a foreword by TOM SHIPPEY
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    "Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems
    Book Description:

    The best-known literary achievement of Anglo-Saxon England, Beowulf is a poem concerned with monsters and heroes, treasure and transience, feuds and fidelity. Composed sometime between 500 and 1000 C.E. and surviving in a single manuscript, it is at once immediately accessible and forever mysterious. And in Craig Williamson's splendid new version, this often translated work may well have found its most compelling modern English interpreter. Williamson's Beowulf appears alongside his translations of many of the major works written by Anglo-Saxon poets, including the elegies "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," the heroic "Battle of Maldon," the visionary "Dream of the Rood," the mysterious and heart-breaking "Wulf and Eadwacer," and a generous sampling of the Exeter Book riddles. Accompanied by a foreword by noted medievalist Tom Shippey on Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and archaeology, and Williamson's introductions to the individual poems as well as his essay on translating Old English, the texts transport us back to the medieval scriptorium or ancient mead hall to share an exile's lament or herdsman's recounting of the story of the world's creation. From the riddling song of a bawdy onion that moves between kitchen and bedroom, to the thrilling account of Beowulf's battle with a treasure-hoarding dragon, the world becomes a place of rare wonder in Williamson's lines. Were his idiom not so modern, we might almost think the Anglo-Saxon poets had taken up the lyre again and begun to sing after a silence of a thousand years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0440-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxvi)
    Tom Shippey

    About fourteen hundred years ago, mourners buried a man in what archaeologists have now labeled “Grave 32” in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape, in Suffolk. He was laid out carefully and respectfully, in pagan fashion, with a spear by his right side and a round shield covering the left side of his torso. Underneath the shield, though, the mourners placed what may have been the dead man’s most precious possession: his harp. (Technically speaking, it is a lyre, but Anglo-Saxons would have called it a hearpe.) Made of maplewood, with a sound-board of thin oak, and with attachments including a...

    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
    (pp. xxix-xxxii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    When poets are asked to describe the act of writing or translating poetry, they often turn to metaphor to unravel or explain a process that remains in part mysterious. If writing poetry is like dancing solo with the world, translating poetry is like dancing with a partner you get to know over time. My partner usually comes from a different homeland with a different personal or cultural way of perceiving and performing in the world. Our rhythms, our dances, our expectations are different. We do, however, share a sense of rhythm, and we both utilize bone, muscle, sinew. We do...


      (pp. 21-36)

      Over a millennium ago, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet—or poets—wrote a long poem about a hero named Beowulf who fought two monsters, Grendel and his mother, ruled a kingdom with courage and wisdom, and killed a dragon in his last battle. Today, in an electronic age when most people cannot read this poem in its original tongue, people still flock to watch movies about Beowulf, read modern retellings of the ancient story in science fiction novels, attend musical versions about the heroes and their monstrous passions, and laugh at a New York Times editorial about a political convention in...

      (pp. 37-122)

      (pp. 125-126)

      The shorter Old English poems that follow are grouped by genre, as is common in collections of this sort. The caveat here is that the poems are not identified by either genre or title in the manuscripts. Genres can sometimes be identified by formal motifs such as riddles opening with “I saw a creature” and closing with “Say what I mean,” or charms opening with medicinal instructions such as “Boil feverfew and plantain and the red nettle.” Other genres can be identified by thematic motifs such as the presence of an elegiac speaker who laments his or her misfortune and...

      (pp. 127-142)

      The Germanic tribes—Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who migrated to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries brought with them a storied code of heroic values, including a profound loyalty to kin and countrymen, a devotion to duty, and a mutual sense of obligation between lord and thanes, including protection and generosity on the part of the lord and service on the part of the thanes. It also incorporated a sharing of war-booty for both economic and symbolic reasons, a desire for honor and glory, and a love of oral poetry, especially that dealing with the history of their people....

      (pp. 143-160)

      The Old English elegies are notoriously difficult to define. Traditional elegies lament the death of a particular person and celebrate the accomplishments of that person’s life. The Old English elegies are usually dramatic monologues in which the speaker expresses some sense of separation and suffering and attempts to move from a cri de coeur to some form of consolation. The term “elegy” was not applied to these poems until the nineteenth century, and there is some debate about its usefulness as a generic marker. Nonetheless, the term serves to characterize a group of Old English poems which share some or...

      (pp. 161-177)

      There are over ninety Old English lyric riddles in the Exeter Book. Some, such as Riddle 81, “Fish and River,” are based on medieval Latin riddles, but most appear to be original. They may have been written by a single author or by several. Cynewulf, whose runic signature appears in two of the Exeter Book poems, was once thought to be the author of the riddles, but on stylistic grounds this now seems unlikely. Aldhelm of Malmesbury, the seventh-century English churchman who wrote one hundred Latin riddles, may have written some of the Old English riddles. His love of vernacular...

      (pp. 178-189)

      Under this heading, scholars normally include a diversity of genres such as charms, proverbs, gnomes or maxims, advice poems, and homiletic poems. Gnomic poems tend to be didactic and moralistic. The writers of these poems want to give us advice about life, to cure illness, and to tell us how to act or where to be in the social or natural matrix. But they are full of artful mystery, tangled ambiguity, surreal gaps in meaning. So they are also telling us how difficult it is to know the truth, to pass on proverbial advice, to guide the listener in the...

      (pp. 190-214)

      The power of the Christian message for the early Anglo-Saxons is told in legendary form by Bede when he recounts the story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria in his History of the English Church and People. When Edwin asks his counselors for their opinion about this new faith, his chief priest Coifi admits that the old religion seems powerless and without value. An unnamed advisor then says:

      Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of...

  9. APPENDIX A. “Digressions”: Battles, Feuds, and Family Strife in Beowulf
    (pp. 215-219)
  10. APPENDIX B. Genealogies in Beowulf
    (pp. 220-222)
  11. APPENDIX C. Two Scandinavian Analogues of Beowulf
    (pp. 223-227)
  12. APPENDIX D. Possible Riddle Solutions
    (pp. 228-236)
    (pp. 237-244)
    (pp. 245-252)
  15. Index
    (pp. 253-255)
    (pp. 256-256)