Book Review: Anglo-Saxon And Norse Poems

Anglo-Saxon And Norse Poems, by Nora K. Chadwick

While I was looking up some information for a post [1], I came across this book, as it had a copy of some Anglo-Saxon and Norse poems, of which I am fond, given their combination of melancholy reflection and flowery honoring of war dead, both aspects that are congenial to my own reading and writing, despite my greatly different moral worldview from the poets. This particular book consists of thirteen poems, six of them Anglo-Saxon poems, and seven of them Norse poems, which had never received prose translations, or whose prose translations were out of print and inaccessible, at the time this book was written in the early 1900’s. The work of the editor is thoughtful and elegant, and there is a bit of intrigue in that the author praises a Professor Chadwick for placing his labors at her disposal, when the author has come to us under the name of Nora Kershaw Chadwick, which leads to the possibility that the professor’s help of the writer was of great gain to him in leading to a hopefully happy and productive marriage.

The structure and contents of this book are straightforward and easy to read, so long as one does not trouble oneself too much with the lacunae of the texts at hand. After short introductory text, the author begins with six notable Anglo-Saxon poems: The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Complaint, The Husband’s Message, The Ruin, and The Battle of Brunanburh. Many of these poems are preserved in very limited numbers of manuscripts, sometimes only a single and additionally, there are some difficulties in how the texts have been preserved, and after introductory text describing the historical context and textual state of the poem, the poems are given in their original language and a very clean and descriptive English translation on alternating pages. Many of the poems are incomplete, and the author refuses to engage in conjecture to fill in the gaps, which is an admirable decision. After the English poems, the author repeats the same pattern for the following seven Norse poems after discussing the state of their own manuscripts: The Hransfnsmál, The Battle of Hafsfjord, The Eiríksmál, The Hákonarmál, The Darraoarljó, The Sonatorrek, and the Battle of the Goths and Huns. After this comes a very lengthy section of endnotes that amply demonstrate the author’s high level of competence in handling these notable, if sometimes obscure, texts.

Why would one read these poems, coming between seven hundred and more than a thousand years, where the authors themselves were of a heathen worldview with at best only the barest encrustation of a syncretistic Catholic worldview in the poems themselves? Obviously, one does not read such poems to understand how to live—the poems talk about warfare, about vendettas, and some of the writers of the poems wrote flattery to rulers in order to spare their lives, evidence of the way that writing is often corrupted to please corrupt and violent authorities. Yet, at the same time, the poems are an expression of melancholy and loss—most of them involve death and exile, and remind us of the natural results of life in a fallen world, the works of brokenness that result from living broken lives. To read such works is not to endorse such a lifestyle as created the works, but often inoculates us from seeing continual violence and quarrelling as a good thing, when in reality it is only creating food for ravens and wolves, devouring the corpses, and creating melancholy ruins for others to reflect on later [2].


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: Anglo-Saxon And Norse Poems

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