Of course the book was a Penguin Classic.
It occurred to me then – as it has many times in many settings – that I owe an incalculable debt to those familiar black-spined paperbacks, the humble little line of reprints that constitutes the single greatest publishing venture of the 20th century. The sheer improbability of the Penguin Classics enterprise – at least once it strays outside the familiar parishes of Austen, Dickens, and Trollope – is easy to miss, because these books have been a part of our reading lives for so long. But every time I find myself browsing my own Penguin shelves, I’m struck again by the likelihood that sheer, illogical book-passion is the only workable explanation for the vast array of titles Penguin has published over the last seventy or so years. No overwhelming commercial demand could have been imagined for the vast majority of these books (even in more literate times), and I suspect the scholars who contributed their sometimes maddening, sometimes electrifying, always fascinating introductions and notes weren’t paid princely sums for their labors, especially in the early years.
No, these books were born of bookishness, and that’s probably what makes them so irresistible.
So I thought I’d revisit them periodically here at Stevereads! And I’m starting today with a thin volume called The Earliest English Poems, published in 1966. The translator is Michael Alexander, and here he presents readers with a generous helping of the slim body of Old English works we currently possess. The Wanderer is here, and the Seafarer, and the Battle of Maldon, and the Dream of the Rood – and of course a few stirring bits of Beowulf, like this deceptively wonderful evocation of Grendel’s squalid final resting-place:
The tarn was troubled: terrible wave-thrash
Brimmed it, bubbling; black-mingled
The warm wound-blood welled upwards.
Here the death-marked dived, here died with no gladness;
In the fen-moor lair he laid aside
His heathen soul. Hell welcomed it.
Tolkien fans will happy to learn there are also riddles, considerably tougher than the ones wretched Gollum poses:
The womb of the wold, wet and cold,
Bore me at first, brought me forth.
I know in my mind my waking was not
Through skill with fells or fleeces of wool;
There was no winding of wefts, there is no woof in me,
No thread thrumming under the thrash of strokes,
No whirring shuttle steered through me,
No weaver’s reed rapped my sides.
The worms that braid the broidered silk
With Weird cunning did not weave me;
Yet anywhere over the earth’s breadth
Men will attest me a trustworthy garment.
Say truly, supple-minded man,
Wise in words, what my name is.
And as with the best Penguin Classics, there’s also Alexander’s Introduction, which is full of learning, opinion, and snarky looniness in equal measures:
I have, then, retained as much of the metre and the traditional vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon poetry as was feasible, and in order to make this effort worth while, I must further strain the sympathy of the reader by asking him to read these translations aloud, and with as much vigour and deliberation as he finds the line warrants. I must also beg him to observe the mid-line pause, without which the metric is incomprehensible, and to pitch into the stresses. Such instructions, I am aware, are more proper to music than to poetry; and the poet cannot expect the reader to do his work for him. But Old English poetry was oral, therefore aural; and if the reader can with the aid of the poems here translated, imagine a scop, a harp, and a hall hushed, he will be more than half-way there.
The end result is an intellectually and aesthetically packed volume that can be endlessly revisited – indeed, that needs to be. We’ll be looking at many such volumes, in the coming weeks and months of 2010, in a woefully partial repayment on the debt.