Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.09.03, Bjork, ed. and trans., Old English Shorter Poems, Volume II

15.09.03, Bjork, ed. and trans., Old English Shorter Poems, Volume II

"Jewel-like books"--the expression of Sharmila Sen, Harvard University Press's Executive Editor--describes the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library quite well. [1] Slightly larger in format than their companion and precursor series, the Loeb Classical Library, DOML volumes have been designed with care. The press's investment in this series is manifest in its very high production values: the DOML books are durably bound in cloth, and beautifully typeset with relatively generous margins and leading, so that even the notes are easily readable. More importantly, equal expertise and thought has gone into the intellectual content of this fairly disparate series (which also includes Medieval Latin and Byzantine Greek): the Old English volumes are overseen by editorial and advisory boards comprising many of the most important scholars now in the field. The DOML volumes, in other words, are made to last; and this intent shows itself in all aspects of their production.

Who, though, is intended to read them? This isn't meant as a rhetorical question, or as sarcasm. I want, rather, to point out that these books are aimed at a particular and somewhat under-served audience, as an early reviewer of the Loeb series recognized:

[F]or use in the classroom such editions may not be of much service; the authors studied there are already printed in abundance and with every sort of editorial help. Nor is it clear that these books will appeal to a wide circle of readers who have no knowledge of the languages. For such readers the Greek or Latin text on alternate pages will simply be a bother, and most if not all of the authors they will care to look at are already available in translations. There remains a third class of readers--a dwindling class, it may be, and for that very reason to be tenderly considered. We mean those who, without being scholars, take some memory of the Classics with them into the world and still at moments turn to a page of Horace or Cicero, and who would travel further in those realms of gold but for the difficulties of the way. They know that a translation can never give an equivalent joy for the original [...] But a translation on the opposite page will serve them for dictionary and grammar and tide them over dry and hard places. They need also brief and decisive notes. These ought to give the kind of simple information, biographical and other, for which the schoolboy is properly sent to books of reference. [2]

This is a hard task, translating for readers who have the original before them and want to feel that they are in some sense reading that and not the translation (which can never bring "equivalent joy")--and yet who also need and want something more coherent than a mere gloss. Doing it well requires a delicate balance.

In Old English Shorter Poems, Vol. II: Wisdom and Lyric, Robert E. Bjork achieves this balance through an acute and consistent awareness of this audience's needs. The carefully-structured translations respect the lineation of the Old English wherever possible (thus making it easy for readers to find their place in the original text), but never at the cost of coherent modern English syntax. While Bjork's sentences are always clear, he also refrains from imposing a modern English interpretation when none is convincing: for instance, where Solomon and Saturn II uses niehtes wunde in apposition with duste (158), he translates "the wound of night" literally (159) and simply notes that "The meaning of this phrase is unknown" (266). On a scholarly level, the decision to leave some enigmas in place is quite responsible; but it seems a good choice rhetorically and aesthetically too. Wisdom and Lyric contains many poems built--for modern readers at least--around mysteries: the elegies' nameless narrators; the catalogues hinting at classificatory modes as strange as those in Borges' "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge"; the metrical charms' practical supernaturalism. Readers drawn to these texts will likely relish the invitation to struggle with some unknowns.

The notes to this volume also show a thoughtful coherence that goes well beyond the "simple information, biographical and other" needed by readers. For many of these texts--especially Widsith, Deor, and Solomon and Saturn--the provision of biographical (and geographical) information is not so simple a task. Here Bjork concisely describes what is known or definitively unknown, or outlines alternative theories with reference to recent editions and scholarship. But his notes also point out echoes in phrases and motifs scattered across the poems in the volume (as well as in other Old English poems and potential source texts), helping readers see larger-scale patterns, and thematic and stylistic resonances among the poems. Bjork's ideal audience, in other words, is literarily inclined--the introduction draws connections to the work of Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ezra Pound--with an interest in understanding how to close read these texts. Constant Reader is also keen on the social function of these poems:

You, on the other hand, may simply find interesting the ways, by means of the dramatic scene the poem creates, that it may partially answer our question about how Maxims I and Maxims II and other proverbial lore were used by the Anglo-Saxons (xvi).

Though brief, Bjork's introduction consistently and admirably strives to balance accounts of the work these poems may have done for the Anglo-Saxons with commentary on their more universal qualities--linking, for instance, the metrical charms with contemporary research on the medical efficacy of patients' belief. Together, the introduction and notes provide an appealing case for sympathetic attention to even the strangest of these Old English texts, and--just as important--a way to read them with this sympathy.

Among the more significant contributions of the DOML's Old English series has been its willingness to present texts in a way that reconfigures the way readers normally experience them: the juxtaposition of Beowulf with the prose texts found in its manuscript, for instance, or the collection for the first time of all the poems attributed to Cynewulf (the latter also edited by Bjork). In the present volume, Bjork's introduction provides a persuasive account of generic and thematic sub-groupings within the overarching "Wisdom and Lyric" rubric: he separately discusses the metrical charms; "Gnomic and Proverbial Poetry and Widsith (xi); wisdom poetry (comprising catalogues like the Fortunes and Gifts of Mortals and the Rune Poem as well as more admonitory fare like Vainglory); and lyric and elegy, which includes favorites like The Wanderer and Seafarer, Deor and The Ruin together with eccentric relations like The Rhyming Poem. I rather regret that the texts and translations themselves were not presented in these groupings; the volume instead follows the order in which the texts appear in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 3 (Exeter Book) and vol. 6 (Minor Poems).

For future DOML volumes, I do recommend one alteration to the format of the apparatus. The minimalist "Notes to the Texts" are concentrated on pp. 229–239 (with explanation of some emendations given later, in the "Notes to the Translations." The headnote to the "Notes on Texts" (229) explains that the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and Bernard Muir's edition of the Exeter Book have been consulted throughout; the notes to each poem indicate what other editions (if any) have been consulted for that text. The upshot is that there are often several possible sources--sometimes as many as five or six--for any particular emendation. It would be helpful if, in future, sigla were used for the sources of all emendations and alternate readings (as they have been here only for multiply attested texts like Solomon and Saturn).

The texts in Old English Shorter Poems: Wisdom and Lyric have an intrinsic appeal: many are already the best-known and loved of Old English poems, and among the very few read by non-specialists. But the DOML edition (and its compatriots in the series) has particular virtues that will satisfy the needs of its target audience as no other text can. Judging by the reviews on Amazon, most buyers of the series are professional scholars or bibliophiles, and both markets will be pleased with this new volume. But many other readers could enjoy it if they knew of it: this collection seems to me ideal as a recommendation for students who turn up at office hours to lament that their schedules won't let them take another medieval literature class, or as a graduation present for those who love what they've learned but have decided against graduate school. With this excellent little book, such readers can remind themselves of the pleasure to be had in scholarship, and in medieval literature, and that surely is good for us all.



1. Quoted in Spencer Lenfield, "A Renaissance for Medieval Classics," Harvard Magazine (November–December 2010), 64 and 67 at 67.

2. "The Loeb Classical Library," The Classical Weekly 5:16 (Feb. 17, 1912): 126–127. Cited from JSTOR:



The volume is extremely well proofread, and the typographical errors are few and minor: p. 45, l. 7: 'Anglen' for Angeln (so also p. 245, n. to l. 8); p. 46, l. 38: 'mod-gast' for mod[i]gast; p. 118, l. 12: the translation adopts Orchard's emendation of 'geheapen' to 'geheawen', but the text does not; p. 126, l. 5: 'ela' for fela; p. 256, n. to l. 39, 'name' for named.