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. Unlike post-Norman Britain that has repelled invasions successfully, pre-Norman Britain was constantly in turmoil, with migrations and invasions from almost every side. The poem 'The Battle of Maldon' recounts an important battle in these struggles, showing the power of poetry not just for idealistic endeavours but also for historical record.
Other poems included in this collection include several elegies -'The Wanderer', 'The Seafarer', and 'The Wife's Complaint' are generally well-known poems, and again tap into regular life concerns of the people of the time. There are Gnomic verses and Riddles that were popular, and continue to be of interest. 'Much of it is of curiousity value only and loses little by being read in translation,' Alexander writes. They are maxims or proverbs of a sort, such as
A king shall with a queen with goods,
Frost shall freeze, fire eat wood
There is also a section here of 'The Dream of the Rood', an important poem of its day celebrating the discovery or recovery of a piece of the True Cross - in a superstitious society that prized relics highly, this is one of the best that could be had.
This is a great collection, very brief but worthwhile, for anyone who has an appreciation for the English language and history, or wants to understand the history of poetry and verse in English better.