The Earliest English Poems, translated & edited by Michael Alexander

The Earliest English Poems, Michael AlexanderThere’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile, when spear-wielding enemies arrived by the seasonal boat-load demanding ransom or death, when every venture forth from home was to risk not coming back, and when every day was rounded by off by darkness laying siege to the little island of light and warmth that was the mead-hall, in which people gathered together to eat, drink, give gifts (gold rings and swords with heroic pedigrees), and listen to stories chanted in a primitive but vital meter. The values of these thousand-year-old societies were simple but profound: loyalty to one’s lord (and, crucially, his to you), kinship, companionship, bravery in battle, and reverence for “Wierd” (as Michael Alexander chooses to spell it, to separate the word from its current usage): that essence of Dark Ages fatalism, a pagan dourness lingering amidst the new hope of Christianity, encompassing both the way things work in the world, and the doom all men inevitably move towards:

“either illness or age or the edge of vengeance
shall draw out the breath from the doom-shadowed.”

These Beowulf-era poems are perhaps most well-known for their use of kennings, poetic prevarications like “welkin-wanderer” for “moon” and “whale’s riding” for “sea” — standard devices used by oral poets to fill out the meter as they think up the next line. But there’s a vitality in their use of language — even in translation — that brings out the sheer facts of living and dying in that era: “grave’s grasp” is death, an old man is “winter-wearied” and “heavy with friend-loss”, battle is “hard wood-talk” and “shield’s answer to shaft”.

Indeed, this thumping, thudding, drum-beat alliteration is particularly good for describing battles. For instance this, from “The Battle of Maldon”, the longest poem in the book, which Michael Alexander calls “without doubt the finest battle-poem in English” (inevitably, it’s one of defeat):

“Then was a splintering of shields, the sea-wolves coming on
in war-whetted anger. Again the spears
burst breast-lock, breached life-wall
of Wierd-singled men.”

The battle-poems are tales of men together. The poems of men and women as individuals are inevitably ones of exile and separation. Of all the poems in this book, it’s “The Wanderer” I re-read the most. It begins:

“Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart
—trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile — Wierd is set fast.”

Another such exile appears in “The Seafarer”:

“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 kennings I mentioned above are usually seen as circumlocutions for things like the sea (“swan’s riding”), or a ship (“sea-steed”), but the Seafarer talks of “breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too” — and that “breast-drought” is a kenning, but one that can’t be replaced by any single modern English word, yet still manages to go straight to a still-living meaning, and make it vividly alive.

Although there is Christian belief in these poems (one of the longer ones is “The Dream of the Rood”, a monologue spoken by the cross on which Christ was crucified), the main mood is a dark one of the inevitability of death, separation, and ruin:

“A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
when all this world’s wealth standeth waste,
even as now, in many places, over the earth
walls stand, wind-beaten,
hung with hoar-frost: ruined habitations.”

But in the face of this there’s a defiance, a decision to hold fast to the code by which the people of that time lived, and to burn all the brighter for the briefness of their flame:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
mood the more, as our might lessens.”

(Which Michael Alexander calls “the classic declaration of the heroic faith”.) This is the essence of what I like in the best sword & sorcery fiction, and here it is, straight from the source.

Fittingly, most of the poems translated here are fragments, ruins, victims of the ravening “Wierd” of history itself. But still the heroic voices come through — the old wanderer bereft of lord and hearth, the woman separated from her lover because of a feud (“If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure”), the exiled poet eking out comfort from a sad refrain (“That went by; this may too”), the brave few battling to the end through loyalty to their dead lord.

What it says in “The Wanderer” could apply to them all:

“Their Wierd is glorious.”

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