16.09.10, Liuzza, ed., trans., Old English Poetry: An Anthology

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Emily Thornbury

The Medieval Review 16.09.10

Liuzza, R. M., ed. and trans., with contributions by Stephen O. Glosecki. Old English Poetry: An Anthology. A Broadview Anthology of British Literature Series. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2014. pp. 280. ISBN: 978-1-55481-157-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Emily Thornbury
University of California at Berkeley

New textbooks--in an ideal world, at least--should allow one not only to teach the same things better, but to teach them differently, and to teach new things as well. Broadview's new collection of Old English verse does just that. In it, translator R. M. Liuzza has provided elegant, accurate modern verse renderings of standard classics (including the elegies, the Dream of the Rood, several riddles, and the Battle of Maldon), together with concise, helpful headnotes and brief but up-to-date bibliographies on most texts: the anthology is thus well-suited to teaching any literary survey course with an Anglo-Saxon component. However, by including a much broader range of texts, many of which are difficult to find in translation, Liuzza has significantly expanded the possibilities for incorporating Old English verse into different kinds of courses, and indeed for reimagining the way Old English literature is taught.

Old English Poetry is arranged in four thematic groups: "Elegies--Complaint and Consolation"; "Wisdom--the Order of Wonder"; "Faith--Heaven's High King"; and "Fame--Heroes and History." The first section begins with a headnote of several pages, providing a discussion of elegy and lyric as they manifest in Old English, and a longish list of further reading followed by annotated translations of all the major elegies (the Wanderer, Seafarer, Deor, Wulf and Eadwacer, Wife's Lament, and Ruin). The three remaining sections are much more heterogenous, which has perhaps motivated the decision to introduce each text, or group of texts, with its own headnote. Here begins the real novelty of the collection.

Under "Wisdom," Liuzza has included two catalogue poems (Gifts and Fortunes of Men); the Cotton Maxims; several riddles and metrical charms (the latter of which translated by the late Stephen Glosecki); and the peculiar, difficult-to-classify meditations titled Vainglory and The Order of the World. Since the genres these texts represent were common well into the modern period, this part of the collection is likely to be useful to those teaching courses on popular literature as well as folklore. The section on "Faith," too, contains a wonderful selection of texts that are rarely read by students: the biblical narratives Exodus, Daniel, and Judith; the full set of Advent Lyrics; Andreas and Fates of the Apostles; and even the late stanzaic poem Seasons for Fasting. Although one might wish that a more conventional saint's life (like Guthlac A or Juliana had also been included, Liuzza's choices well illustrate the dynamism of Old English poets' relations to their religion and their Latin sources. His footnotes are exceptionally helpful here: the Advent Lyrics are supplemented with the texts of the source antiphons and other liturgical material, and notes in Exodus and Daniel explain the poets' (major) alterations to their biblical narratives. With Andreas, whose verbal similarity to Beowulf is clearly laid out, readers will be able to see an instance of active medieval literary criticism (as Liuzza puts it, "a fascinating record of what one reader of Beowulf thought most memorable", 171) while enjoying one of the weirder apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. And even as Seasons for Fasting exemplifies the important and ever-popular medieval genre of "didactic killjoy" poetry, its stirring denunciation of oysters is likely to make it memorable. Though the final section on "Fame" is brief, its juxtaposition of legendary material (Widsith and the Fight at Finnsburh) with historical battle narratives (Brunanburh as well as Maldon) will allow teachers a range of approaches to questions of historicity in medieval literature.

Liuzza's anthology thus does not duplicate any other currently available textbooks. In its range, Old English Poetry comes perhaps closest to S. A. J. Bradley's Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman), which contains many more texts but is aggressively literal in its (prose) translations. Penguin's collection of verse translations by Michael Alexander (formerly The Earliest English Poems, lately reprinted and rebranded as The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles, complete with Tolkien tie-in on the cover) overlaps with most of the best-known texts, and additionally includes The Phoenix, as does Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Anglo-Saxon World: an Anthology, in the Oxford World's Classics series, along with the two Exeter Book Physiologus-poems. Crossley-Holland's collection, however, is far more oriented toward prose than any of the other student anthologies, and like Alexander's lacks many of the poems included in Liuzza's volume. Meanwhile, the Norton Anthology (Broadview's archnemesis, one can gather from their publicity material) contains only a fairly narrow range of Old English verse texts (Dream of the Rood, Judith, The Wanderer, and The Wife's Lament).

There is, in short, only one major Old English poem that the Everyman, Penguin, Oxford, and Norton collections contain and Broadview's Old English Poetry does not, and that is Beowulf. Of course, Broadview does publish a translation of Beowulf, also by Liuzza, which was recently (2013) reissued in a second edition. Old English Poetry seems imagined as a companion volume to this book: not only is the entire first paragraph of Broadview's cover copy about Liuzza's Beowulf, but readers interested in Liuzza's views on translation are referred--in a footnote to a "Note" at the end of the introduction--to the earlier work. While it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect an equivalent of the Beowulf volume's entire appendix on the development of modern English translations of Old English, Liuzza's style is carefully considered, and some discussion of it in Old English Poetry would have been valuable, even at the risk of repetition.

None of the various widely-available translations of Old English translate into what most (American) undergraduates would consider normal everyday English. Heaney's use of a Northern Irish-inflected idiom--one that he located in the past, in the voices of his aunts and uncles--has been much discussed, but is something of an outlier in its attachment to a place still on the map. Many of the other translations, including Alexander's and Glosecki's (whose version of Judith as well as the metrical charms is included in this volume), are instead located in "The Germanic Past," using an imitative Old English verse-form with alliteration and frequent use of archaisms. Liuzza, by contrast, finds that:

[c]ertain features that are structurally important in Old English verse--regular alliteration and a strongly felt caesura--are only decorative in most English poetry since the Renaissance, and are so alien to the sound of Modern English verse that they tend to strike the ear too heavily, overwhelming all other sound-effects and distracting the listener from the larger patterns of the poetry such as sentences and verse-paragraphs. I have tried to write in a poetic idiom that is analogous to, not imitative of, the character of the original; the end result has been a translation that is somewhat quieter than most others. [1]

And while he writes that "I have also tried to avoid archaic language, except in a few inevitable cases," nevertheless "[t]o simulate the formal diction of the poem I have used a slightly more multisyllabic vocabulary and Latinate syntax at certain points" (Beowulf, p. 43). The result is usually a fluid, enjambed verse text, making free use of higher-register words—"celestial," "myriad," "dominion," etc.; even "multitude" probably has a quasi-Biblical ring to many current readers. For most modern undergraduates, then, Liuzza's Old English texts will likely appear not in a contemporary diction, but in the voice of Authority: which is quite possibly how these poems sounded to their original audiences.

While Liuzza's overall translation strategy in Old English Poetry is consonant with his Beowulf, then, some reflections on the particular challenges posed by the texts in this volume would have been an interesting addition. Like Old English poetry itself, his style seems uniform but, when read more closely, reveals a considerable range. The translation of The Battle of Maldon, for instance, is far more end-stopped than most other texts--which accurately reflects the original, as does the often workmanlike tone. But Liuzza has also managed to cleverly capture a great deal of the soundplay in more ornate texts: I thought The Ruin's "rotten, forgotten" (43) for scorene, gedrorene, and Exodus's "the flood was blood-muddy" (132) for flod blod gewod rather wonderful solutions to difficult problems. Indeed, though it is traditional for reviewers of translations to say that "of course one must disagree at individual points," I found it striking how rarely I did disagree: even when Liuzza's choice was unexpected, it was a pleasure to read and think about. Supplemented by his footnotes--which highlight major cruxes, usually presenting alternate readings--Liuzza's translation is a rare balance of elegance and scholarly precision, and students who return to it after having learned Old English are likely to appreciate it all the more.

Since precedent suggests that Old English Poetry will have a second edition, I would note that a relatively minor set of changes could make this volume useful to a wider set of readers. For those who often teach literature in its historical context, especially, this volume offers slimmer support than it might. The discussion of literary history in the introduction, for instance, begins by stating that "it is all but impossible to reconstruct the literary history of Old English poetry" (8), and continues that "some educated guesses about chronology can be made based on assumptions about meter and language, but these are just guesses and assumptions" and that "to all this uncertainty about the history of Old English poetry we must add the fact that we know nothing about the range of poetic style in Anglo-Saxon England" (9). While it is right to emphasize how much we do not know about Anglo-Saxon culture as well as literary chronology, I can say from experience that many students will interpret statements like this to mean that Anglo-Saxon England was an acausal wonderland of unmoored phenomena, and write essays accordingly. Leaving that menace aside, though, there is a real difference between the presently unknown and the absolutely unknowable; and even "guesses and assumptions" are sometimes worth considering. Including a bit more about some proposed historical contexts--perhaps even conflicting readings--of some poems would be of help (for instance, the suggestion that Judith was written in praise of Æthelflæd of Mercia), as would augmenting some of the connections made in this volume--e.g. a more detailed explanation of Archbishop Wulfstan and his relevance to Seasons for Fasting (105). More of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poems, perhaps the pair on Edgar, would also be useful, in part to show how unique Brunanburh is. Finally, it seems odd to qualify Bede's account of Cædmon--the only prose narrative included here—with doubts "if he really existed" (16). Though Bede has given his story mythic contours, this does not necessarily mean that Cædmon himself must be mythical [2]: Bede locates him not in the mists of time, but less than seventy miles down the coast from his own abbey, and within living memory. Although it would be rather splendid if Cædmon were a seventh-century Ern Malley, fabricated by Bede or the Whitby community, I find this much harder to believe than that a man attached to a monastery had a religious vision and composed some poems. In other words: while I sympathize with a reluctance to embroil an innocent anthology in unpleasant and unproductive controversies over dating, I think that this reluctance sometimes goes too far, and that deepening the discussions of historical context, and the section on "Fame," would be of use to many readers.

Yet this edition of Old English Poetry is a real achievement, presenting a wide range of Old English texts in a style whose sophistication is likely to open many readers' eyes to the beauty and literary value of these poems. In the current textbook market, it is unique, and will probably be widely adopted by teachers of medieval literature; but its value goes beyond that, and Old English Poetry deserves to find its way to general readers. For them, Liuzza's translation will open up new vistas in works like Exodus or the Advent Lyrics, which at last have justice done to their poetic voice.



1. R. M. Liuzza, trans. Beowulf (2nd ed., Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2013), 42.

2. Cf. Jean-Baptiste Pérès' proof (in Grand Erratum, 1827) that Napoleon Bonaparte, till then thought historical, was merely a euhemerized solar deity.

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