cover image The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation

Edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, Norton, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-393-07901-2

Hefty and easy to like, fit at once for the classroom and the kitchen table, this anthology is a rare beast, a commercial opportunity that also fulfills a real literary need. Most of the corpus of surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry—though it has been translated before—has had no recent, high-profile rendering until this capacious book. Most of the short poems and passages from all the long ones are rendered into modern English, sometimes (but only sometimes) in Anglo-Saxon alliterative metrical form, by several dozen British, Irish, and American poets of some repute, and the results are consistently good and sometimes stunning. The editors (one Irish but resident in Vermont, one American) do well to mix famous Americans such as Robert Hass with talented poets known mostly across the Atlantic, such as Paul Farley and David Constantine. Delanty and Matto divide their selections by genre—accounts of historical events (mostly battles), charms and recipes, proverbs and advice, lyrical laments, and the famous riddles, broken up into seven “hoards” throughout the book. Anglo-Saxon culture was stark and practical, deeply Christian once converted, and with few illusions about life on Earth: “Holly must be burned,” says a maxim translated by Brigit Kelly, “and the goods of a dead man divided./ God’s judgment will be just.” The riddles are sometimes easy, sometimes hard to solve, and many are double entendres: riddle 45 (“I saw in a corner something swelling,” in Richard Wilbur’s version) might be bread dough, or something else. To these light moments—and there are plenty of them—such poems as “The Damned Soul Address the Body” (in Maurice Riordan’s choice words) add force and gravity. The editors have produced a book the many fans of Heaney’s Beowulf might take home and dip into, almost at random, for years. (Dec.)