This book grabbed my attention the minute I saw it displayed on the library shelf. The front cover featured a panel from the fascinating Franks Casket, which reinforced the promise within the title: this would be a book that would weave together history, mystery, and story- I knew I had to have it! Now that I’ve read it, and renewed it several times, I want a copy to call my own.
The book begins by introducing the ancient importance of the early poets. “In such a society the poet is the keeper of the traditions which hold the cynn (kin) together, just as the king (cyn-ing) is the keeper of the treasure which is the cynn’s only possession and defence. The older a sword was, the older a word was, the more it was valued by the cynn. In a primitive society the poet is historian and priest, and his songs have ritual significance.” (page xii, introduction)
It begins with beautiful yet haunting poems such as The Ruin, Caedmon’s Hymn, which was written down by the venerable Bede, and following that is the venerable Bede’s own death song. We have poems about poets such as Deor, and Widsith, ‘the wide traveller’. It includes The Dream of the Rood, which was written on a cross to commemorate the finding of a fragment of the True Cross. The Battle of Maldon reminded me of The Song of Roland*, and- in my opinion -exceeded it. Beowulf, which I had read and enjoyed some years earlier, was included as well.
But I mention only a fraction of what the book holds. Likewise, the book holds only a fraction of what is to be found elsewhere. It stirs my appetite for the old poems, and inspires me on my pursuit to be a shennachie.
For the historians, the writers, and any reader who appreciates the ancient style, I recommend Earliest English Poems, translated and introduced by Michael Allexander. I fully intend to pick this book up again!