Book Review: The Complete Old English Poems
translated by Craig Williamson
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017
Tom Shippey, in his introductory essay to the mammoth new volume The Complete Old English Poems, points out the obvious, that students, scholars, and poets “have found inspiration, insight, even comfort” in individual Old English poems, but there’s been an odd gap in that long history of inspiration:
Strange and challenging as they are, they are still capable of speaking to us over the centuries. The entire corpus, however, over 31,000 lines, has never before been translated in a collected edition by a single scholar and poet, as it has here. It deserves to be read in its entirety, for the poems illuminate each other, create a priceless example of cultural diversity which at the same time retains haunting familiarity.
The single scholar here is Swarthmore College English professor Craig Williamson, whose earlier books A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs and Beowulf and Other Old English Poems took that picking-and-choosing selective approach, and over time, a much grander project began to take shape. The writers of Old English works like Beowulf or The Battle of Maldon had a word for such an undertaking, and of course Williamson knows that word:
I began to realize that no selective anthology of OE translations, my own included, could hope to accurately represent the whole corpus, and so I set out to remedy this situation by translating all of the poems. This was perhaps an act of what the Anglo-Saxon poets might have called ofermod, or “overweening ambition,” but I felt it was an important task that needed doing. I hope the results here will strike scholars, students, and general readers interested in the period and its poetry as a worthy endeavor.
But those old Anglo-Saxon poets also had words for valorous deeds done superbly well, and those words apply to this doorstop masterwork Williamson has produced (done up in a beautiful hardcover by the University of Pennsylvania Press with a stately cover and a sewn-in ribbon bookmark), which includes every surviving example of Old English poetry, each introduced individually, of course starring the overwhelmingly famous Beowulf in Williamson’s clear and cutting version, with Grendel attacking the feasting hall and consuming its inhabitants:
The monster never thought of holding back –
He seized the first sleeper, slit his body,
Bit open his bone-house, drinking his blood,
Swallowing flesh, feasting on hands and feet,
Eating greedily the unliving one.
But also present here in abundance are all the lesser-known Old English poems from the “Junius Manuscript” or the Exeter Book, lesser-known poems of wild variation but sharing the same beautiful bare-knuckle flavor of the period, with the natural and the supernatural blending in almost ferrous rudeness, as in Genesis (A and B), when God issues a thundering and oddly petulant curse on the generations of Cain:
“The race of Cain is not forgotten –
The crime of Cain is not forgiven.
They were not guilt-free when they left my spirit,
And now this nation enrages me.
The sons of Seth renew this feud
By marrying women from among my foes.
The beauty of these brides, these unbelievers,
And the devious wiles of the fierce fiend
Have wormed their way into these men,
The people who were once at peace with me.”
It’s a strange and ultimately wonderful experience, holding the poetic remains of an entire era in the reading hand, and Williamson’s translations are at once so alien and so inviting that the whole 1100 pages of the thing, against all rationality, actually do encourage what Shippey mentions, the reading in its entirety. The Complete Old English Poems is a joyful scholarly and poetic achievement.