The best Anglo-Saxon books and poems
What are the finest works of Anglo-Saxon literature? We’ve restricted our choices to works of literature written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English, so that rules out Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which, as the title suggests, was written in Latin. But there’s a wealth of great literature written in Old English, as the following pick of ten of the best testifies (we hope).
Anonymous, The Exeter Book riddles. Here’s a riddle for you: what hangs down by the thigh of a man, under his cloak, yet is stiff and hard? When the man pulls up his robe, he puts the head of this hanging thing into that familiar hole of matching length which he has filled many times before. Got it? A key, of course! This is one of a number of riddles found in the Exeter Book, one of the jewels in the crown of Anglo-Saxon literature.
Anonymous, ‘The Wife’s Lament’. At just 53 lines, this is one of the shortest works of Anglo-Saxon literature included in this list. It’s a cry of despair and grief, told from the perspective of a wife whose husband has been exiled. The poem also features the rather useful Anglo-Saxon word uhtceare, which has been translated as ‘lying awake in the morning worrying’.
Anonymous, Beowulf. As we’ve discussed in our detailed summary of Beowulf, this poem is part of a rich literary narrative tradition that encompasses Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the story of St George and the dragon, and even Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It chronicles the hero’s exploits, notably his slaying of the monster Grendel – actually only the first of three monsters Beowulf has to vanquish. Perfect fireside reading, and an archetypal work of English literature, composed when the notion of ‘England’ itself was only just beginning to emerge. Recommended edition: now sadly out of print, but available second-hand, this Norton Critical Edition includes Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed translation of the poem along with invaluable background information and a selection of critical essays on the poem: Beowulf: Verse Translation: A Verse Translation (Norton Critical Editions) by Heaney, Seamus New edition (2002).
Anonymous, ‘The Seafarer’. This 124-line poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old sailor looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships. As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side. Variously viewed as a moral poem about how to face up to your own fate, a wholly religious poem, and as a great secular poem, ‘The Seafarer’ is a fine and accessible example of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Ezra Pound produced a loose translation of the poem in the early twentieth century, but we’ve linked to a parallel text version above, with the original Anglo-Saxon included on the left and a modern English translation on the right.
Anonymous, ‘The Wanderer’. Like the riddles above, this poem was preserved thanks to the Exeter Book. It’s 115 lines long and written in alliterative verse, and like ‘The Seafarer’ is about a solitary man looking back on his past. In the poem, the man is referred to as eardstapa, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning literally ‘earth-stepper’, hence the title usually appended to the poem.
Caedmon, Hymn. Perhaps the oldest poem written in English, Caedmon’s Hymn was composed in the 7th century by a goatherd and takes the form of a short hymn in praise of God. It was Bede, or ‘the Venerable Bede’ as he is often known, who ensured the survival of Caedmon’s Hymn, when he jotted it down in Latin translation in one of his books. An anonymous scribe then added the Anglo-Saxon form of the hymn in the margins of Bede’s book.
Bede, ‘Bede’s Death Song’. As well as rescuing Caedmon’s Hymn from oblivion, Bede also wrote this very short poem on his deathbed – at least, reportedly. Whether he was actually the author of ‘Bede’s Death Song’ is difficult to say for certain, but this five-line lyric, about facing death and looking back on a life well lived, is a marvellous short example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Anonymous, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the most important manuscripts in English history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was created in the late 9th century during the time of Alfred the Great, almost certainly at his command (the manuscript is thought to have been written in Wessex, where Alfred ruled). Actually, the Chronicle survives in several different manuscripts, a result of its having been distributed to various monasteries and then added to. Among other things, the Chronicle contains accounts of the two battles of 1066, Stamford Bridge and Hastings.
Anonymous, ‘The Dream of the Rood’. Another early work of Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an early work of English Christian verse and an example of the dream poem, which would later become a staple of medieval verse thanks to the Pearl poet and William Langland. ‘Rood’ means ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’, and part of this poem was inscribed on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross in Scotland; it’s been speculated that the cross, and the poem, were used to convert people to Christianity.
Anonymous, ‘The Battle of Maldon’. This poem is unusual in that it commemorates not a glorious victory but a crushing defeat: in 991 the Anglo-Saxon army failed to ward off the Vikings near the town of Maldon in Essex. It’s also not exactly out-and-out propaganda for the English (even though it’s an example of history being written by the victims rather than victors): several members of the English army are described fleeing the battlefield, for instance. And although only the middle section of the poem has survived, this poem remains a fine piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry and gives an insight into how hard life was for early settlers defending – or trying to defend – their homes against invaders. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a sequel to the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which takes the form of a dialogue between two characters at the end of the battle.
If this selection of classic Anglo-Saxon texts has whetted your appetite for more, we recommend The Anglo-Saxon World An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics).