Mini Reviews: Old English Poetry

This format is new to me, but I’ve been reading a few things that didn’t feel like they warranted full review posts of their own but also didn’t fitted into the Misc-post round-ups. And, as they were similar books, I decided they ought to be reviewed together.

As you might have guessed, given that Anglo-Saxon poetry (or frankly poetry of any sort) is not my usual reading, yes, there is a very deliberate purpose to reading these. As a science student, it’s not for uni, but instead writing research.

BEOWULF, translated by Seamus Heaney

Genre: classic poetry
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Book cover for BEOWULF: title in orange on dark c

BEOWULF is the classic piece of Old English literature, a poem set in an even-older period of Scandinavian history as a hero faces three monsters – the famous Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and then a dragon.

Most people who’ve gone through at least the British school system will be aware of part of the story – Beowulf and Grendel. That seems to be the bit that get into popular culture, probably because it’s the hero defeating a monster heroically, and the older man fighting a dragon and winning but dying in the process, and thus ending on his funeral seems like a bit of an anti-climax.

It actually constitutes a full tenth of all the literature remaining from the Anglo-Saxons. Written in Old English, it’s about heroes and monsters over in Scandinavia – so obviously, this is a translation because I can just about remember the Old English phonetics, but I have no hope on grammar or knowing words mean!

I’d read it before, many years ago, and vaguely remember studying a passage in school (the battle with Grendel and the arm being ripped off), but this time I was reading it to look at the language and how its told more than the story. As it’s in translation, some of the rhythms are lost – and I’ve always been useless as picking up on rhythm in written word anyway.

However, something that comes through really well in this translation are the kennings. These are descriptive replacements for nouns – like “ring-giver” for king, or “war-shirt” for chain mail. Because that’s not how we typically describe objects these days, it stands out. It’s a lovely little detail that is quite different from classic poems from the Greek tradition, for example, and it helps make it feel quite distinct from that body.

THE WORD EXCHANGE, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

Genre: classic poetry
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Book cover for THE WORD EXCHANGE: title on cream above knot

I picked up these book specifically because it’s one of the largest repositories of Anglo-Saxon poems currently published that has both the original Old English on one page and the translation on the opposite page.

The way this collection is organised is really nice. The poems are thematically connected – religious, historical, songs about life etc – and each set is broken up by a collection of riddles that range from nature to objects. I was awful at guessing them (I got about three of the sixty-odd!) I suspect some of it was clever word play I couldn’t understand in translation, but not enough to excuse my performance. Thank goodness there were answers at the back.

As Beowulf was all I knew of Anglo-Saxon literature before reading this, I was rather surprised by how un-militaristic and un-heroic it all was. The poems tend to focus much more on religious themes (some of which really resonated with me, like the one extolling creation) and moralistic ideas. Definitely an interesting read for those interested in learning more about Anglo-Saxon literature.

What unusual books have you read recently?

2 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: Old English Poetry

  1. I don’t know if I’ve read anything exactly unusual lately, but then again I rarely think about whether something is usual or unusual. But you’ve excited a little of my interest with this post. Could you share any themes or ideas that caught your attention from The Word Exchange?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was interesting to see how different the anthology of poems was to Beowulf – which is all I had know of Anglo-Saxon poetry before. But it’s a lot more contemplative than that.

      Liked by 1 person

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