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  • Writer's pictureAn Oxford Historian

Old English Poetry

The poetry of 'Anglo-Saxon England' holds an interesting middle-ground in public perception. On the one-hand Beowulf is perhaps the single most famous piece of 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural output, of any form. Tolkien famously translated it, as did Heaney, and there was that terrible movie in the 2000s that we try and forget...

However, the sheer quantity of poetry is often overlooked or simply not known about by those interested in the period. There are roughly 30,000 lines of Old English that survive today (Beowulf itself is only a little over 3,000 lines). A lot of it is religious, in itself an interesting point, and a lot of it is fantastical and very good fun.

Reading the corpus is (or rather was) a difficult task - learning Old English is a pain, and translations are often scattered across expensive editions. However, look no further than Dr Hostetter's exceptional Old English Poetry Project, which can be accessed here. A massive undertaking, this website provides (for free) a translation of almost 80% of all the poetry, into modern and readable English, all in one place. Dr Hostetter's contribution here is immense, and his dedication to providing free historical resources is exemplary.

Which Poems Should I Read?

There's a lot here, and it's often hard to know where to start. Unless you're specifically interested in religious history, or personally well-versed in scripture, I probably wouldn't recommend diving head-first into the religious poems without a little warm-up. Here are four accessible and important texts to get you started.

The Exeter Book Riddles - amusing, and often bawdy, riddles that bring a certain humanity to the long-dead past. It is partially from this that Tolkien based his famous 'Riddles in the Dark'.

The Finnsburh Fragment - a wonderfully evocative (and mercifully short) account of early medieval combat. This text is remarkable in that all that survives is a small sliver in the middle of a much larger, now lost, tale.

The Whale- devils and fish abound in this slightly strange text, involving some slightly foolish sailors who mistake a whale for an island, and decided to take a nap.

The Wanderer - an incredibly touching story about loneliness and solitude.

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