The First Poems in English

Reading The First Poems in English is preparation for Beowulf, which I plan to read soon. This Penguin Classics edition is made thoroughly engaging by the commentary and translation of Michael Alexander. His enthusiasm for ‘Old English’ is contagious. He is also not remotely afraid to allow his personality to come across on the page:

A number of books have been published with the title The Triumph of English, one of them adding the dates ‘1350-1400’, 1400 being memorable to those who know a little literary history as the year of Chaucer’s death. Those less acquainted with literary history perhaps think of English literature as beginning with Shakespeare.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Literary history, generally speaking, does not simply progress. Greek literature has not improved on Homer. Italian literature has not improved on Dante. European drama has not improved on Shakespeare.

Quite aside from the enjoyable translations, the book is a succinct introduction to the history of the English language, at least until the Norman conquest.

After 1066, however, English was no longer the language of the rulers. It remained the speech of the people, but local dialects diverged more and more from each other.

My favourite of the selection of poems is The Seafarer (link to a translation by Ezra Pound. I prefer Michael Alexander’s). The emotion of exile is apparent in the opening lines:

Sitting day-long
at an oar’s end clenched against clinging sorrow,
breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too.
I have coursed my keel through care-halls without end
over furled foam, I forward in the bows
through the narrowing night, numb, watching
for the cliffs we beat along.
Cold then
nailed my feet, frost shrank on
its chill clamps, cares sighed
hot about heart, hunger fed
on a mere-wearied mind.
No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters; the wanderer’s beat,
cut off from kind. . . .

The preceding poem, The Wanderer, defines the man:

Wherefore no man grows wise without he have
his share of winters. A wise man holds out;
he is not too hot-hearted, nor too hasty in speech,
nor too weak a warrior, not wanting in fore-thought,
nor too greedy of goods, nor too glad, nor too mild,
nor evert too eager to boast, ere he knows all.
A man should forbear boastmaking
until his fierce mind fully knows
which way his spleen shall expend itself

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