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The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 7, 1992

4.0 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)

About the Author

Michael Alexander has retired from the chair of English Literature at the University of St Andrews. For Penguin he has translated The Earliest English Poems (now The First Poems in English) and Beowulf. These verse translations have sold over half a million copies in Penguin, for whom he has also edited Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales: The First Fragment.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; 3rd Revised ed. edition (January 7, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140445943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140445947
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #718,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on October 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
One of the characteristic aspects of Old English/Anglo-Saxon poetry is that it is highly alliterative; done in short measures with a break (the most common pattern), the use of alliteration can almost drive one to distraction until one gets into the rhythm and process of the metrical sounds.

This is a wonderful, brief collection of early (pre-Norman Conquest) English poetry. When one thinks of this period, one usually defaults to the poem 'Beowulf', from which excerpts are included here, including the title line of this review (which demonstrates the alliterative aspect as well as the short meter with a break). The translations included here are very well done, keeping much of the flavour of the original language, which in relation to modern English, really is a foreign tongue.

Michael Alexander has provided both translations and notes, as well as a very good introduction to early English literature. Anglo-Saxon was an inflected language to a more significant degree than is modern English; in that sense, it has more in common with its Germanic cousins. However, poetry had a much more important role than simply demonstrating facility with language, whatever its origin. 'The Old English poet up until Alfred's time was a man with a public function: he was the voice and memory of the tribe.... Knowing the past, he could interpret life as it came, making it part of the tale of the tribe.'

Poems thus reflect the important aspects of life. 'Beowulf' along with poems 'Widsith', 'Deor', The Fight at Finnsburg' and 'Waldere', demonstrates the heroic aspects of the community, and some of the ideals that the members strive to live up to.
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Format: Paperback
Let me first say that this is a great introductory work and I think very highly of it. However, this collection's title is sort of a misnomer. It should really be called "Introducton" or "excerpts from Pre-Norman English Writings". To think of all of the work as poetry is sort of strange since nearly all writing from the area in the time period was written in a metered fashion. Regardless of this, the book provides great insight into the Anglo-Saxon literature of pre-Norman times including pieces of the works of Bede. It seems that there is actually more notes and explanation than is there source material (actual writing from the time period)and this is very useful in reading this book and will help in understanding other writings of the period as well. We are seldom exposed to this sort of writing in our schooling so a little explanation is key to gathering any sort of understanding of the people that wrote it. To dive right into the source material without some background would be meaningless.

The finest (and longest) piece of writing in the book is "The Battle of Maldon" which describes a Viking raid on an English coastal village. It is spectacular and gripping writing and to our sensationalist minds this work is well within our comfort level with plenty of violence and horror. Again the notes to this piece are great.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants some to learn more about early medieval writing and pre Norman England. It is not the world easiest stuff but it isn't that difficult either. This book is great because it is so difficult to come across works of this era is actually quite difficult. If you like this book check out Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of England" it's a little more difficult but again very rewarding.

- Ted Murena
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This is a fine, concise anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Alexander selected and translated a number of texts, based both on their quality and to provide a representative sample of different genres. Included are heroic poems, including some portions of Beowulf, religious verse, gnomic sayings, and a selection of riddle poems. The selections reflect not only Alexander's choices but also the vagaries of historic survival of the texts. I found Alexander's translations compelling, particularly with reading and rereading the texts. The final work presented, the famous Battle of Maldon, is particularly powerful. The introduction, notes on individual poems and genres, and other accompanying material, is excellent.
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Format: Paperback
definitely an interesting collection; most are of excerpts. had a good balance of the typical ragin' vikings fare (mostly battle scenes) and some surprisingly eloquent ballad selections. "the wanderer" is amazing: "... War took off some, / carried them on their course hence; one a bird bore / over the high sea; one the hoar wolf / dealt to death; one his drear-cheeked / earl stretched in an earthen trench.") a lot of variety, including some entertaining riddles, and really captures the feel of the old english in modern english. also has great introductions to each selection. recommended.
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I may be biased, but this is THE book of Anglo-Saxon poetry to have. It's been around forever, it seems like, or at least since I was an undergrad in the late '80s, and has a great selection of poems to work from. I am really glad I have a copy back in my library, and will be using it the next time I teach my survey of medieval history.
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