Read The Complete Old English Poems by Craig Williamson online for free (2023)




Ruth Mazo Karras, Series Editor

Edward Peters, Founding Editor

A complete list of books in the series is available from the publisher.



Translated by


With an introduction by TOM SHIPPEY


Copyright © 2017 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of review or scholarly citation,

none of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher.

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Williamson, Craig, translator. | Shippey, T. A., writer of introduction. | Container of (expression): Alfred, King of England, 849–899. Old English version of Boethius De consolatione philosophiae. English (Williamson)

Title: The complete Old English poems / translated by Craig Williamson ; with an introduction by Tom Shippey.

Other titles: Container of (expression): Caedmon manuscript. English (Williamson) | Container of (expression): Exeter book. English. | Container of (expression): Vercelli book. English. | Container of (expression): Beowulf. English (Williamson) | Container of (expression): Judith (Anglo-Saxon poem). English (Williamson) | Middle Ages series.

Description: 1st edition. | Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, [2017] | Series: The Middle Ages series

Identifiers: LCCN 2016048011 | ISBN 978-0-8122-4847-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)

Subjects: LCSH: English poetry—Old English, ca. 450–1100—Translations into English. | Epic poetry, English (Old)—Translations into English. | Didactic poetry, English (Old)—Translations into English. | Riddles, English (Old)—Translations into English.

Classification: LCC PR1508 .C47 2017 | DDC 829/.1—dc23

LC record available at

Wilt þu, fus hæle, fremdne monnan,

wisne woðboran wordum gretan,

fricgan felageongne ymb forðgesceaft,

biddan þe gesecge sidra gesceafta

cræftas cyndelice cwichrerende,

þa þe dogra gehwam þurh dom godes

bringe wundra fela wera cneorissum?

Are you willing to trade talk with a stranger,

Give a seer or singer, poet or prophet,

A greeting, a welcome with wise words,

Question the far-traveler about creation,

Its natural power, its bodying forth

Into everyday wonder through God’s grace,

Its life-quickening capacity and clout,

Its marvelous moving among men?

—from The Order of the World



Are you willing to trade talk with a stranger,

Unwrap riddles, mix words with the wise,

Wonder how and why each element

Of creation quickens from cell to star,

Each song shapes from Beowulf to blessing,

Each primrose or prayer begins to bloom?

Each day through dom—through judgment,

Through honor or ordinance, majesty or meaning,

Some mystery offers itself up for unraveling

To those who can thread thoughts and hear

The shuttle singing, click and clack,

Across the web, across the centuries.

And you, wanderer of landscape or light,

Can you read runes, sift evidence,

Draw conclusions or a straight line,

Craft arguments in prose or a pot in clay,

Chart the universe, charm the moment

With child’s play?

Here’s an Anglo-Saxon proverb:

A wise man or woman never wearies

Of asking questions about creation,

Never tires of digging up ideas and artifacts,

Never says, “No,” to the dirt of history

Or the mind mucking back through memory,

Rooting about for tribal glory or plain truth.

So that by repeating, rehearsing, revising,

We take the cunning wonder of the world

And weave it into a nest of numbers,

A house of hypotheses, a web of words.

The Anglo-Saxon poet says, Leorna ðas lare—

Learn this lore. So scholars wrote riddles,

Teasing the wits of would-be solvers,

Celebrating the mystery of moon and mailcoat,

Warhorn and harrow, piss and plow,

Weathercock, wine-cup, web and loom.

And across the bridge of language that lifts

Over the river of years, here is my riddle:

What shapes us all from morning to meandering,

From ancient galaxies to ribonucleic acid,

From certainty to serendipity, dawn to doom,

From quarks to quasars, from proofs to passions,

From kisses to calibrations, love to longevity,

From warriors to websongs, high art to half-lives,

From the flowers of heaven to the fields of Einstein?

Let each student who loves a mystery,

Either as a shaman or as a detective,

Inquire after the wonders of creation,

The order of the world, inscribe in her book

Or his understanding the searorun,

The secret skill or inwrought power,

Of each elemental thing, each nascent thought,

Each truth-song inscribed in number or narrative.

Be bold to question, quick to doubt,

Eager to imagine, proud of precision,

Humble at the end of a proof or poem.

Give thanks that some part of this grand,

Unabating, intimate mystery remains

Unknown, whether you want to call it

A unified field, a world-wide web,

Or a shuttle singing through the loom of time.

—Craig Williamson


Introduction by Tom Shippey

Note on the Texts, Titles, and Organization of the Poems

List of Abbreviations

On Translating Old English Poetry



Genesis (A and B)



Christ and Satan



Andreas: Andrew in the Country of the Cannibals

The Fates of the Apostles

Soul and Body I

Homiletic Fragment I: On Human Deceit

The Dream of the Rood

Elene: Helena’s Discovery of the True Cross



Christ I: Advent Lyrics

Christ II: The Ascension

Christ III: Judgment

Guthlac A

Guthlac B

Azarias: The Suffering and Songs of the Three Youths

The Phoenix


The Wanderer

The Gifts of Men

Precepts: A Father’s Instruction

The Seafarer



The Fortunes of Men

Maxims I: Exeter Maxims (A, B, and C)

The Order of the World

The Rhyming Poem

Physiologus I: The Panther

Physiologus II: The Whale

Physiologus III: Partridge or Phoenix?

Homiletic Fragment III: God’s Bright Welcome

Soul and Body II


Wulf and Eadwacer

Riddles 1–57

The Wife’s Lament

Judgment Day I

Resignation A: The Penitent’s Prayer

Resignation B: The Exile’s Lament

The Descent into Hell



The Lord’s Prayer I

Homiletic Fragment II: Turn Toward the Light

Riddles 28b and 58

The Husband’s Message

The Ruin

Riddles 59–91







The Metrical Psalms of the Paris Psalter

The Meters of Boethius



The Fight at Finnsburg


The Battle of Maldon

The Poems of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

1. The Battle of Brunanburg (937)

2. The Capture of the Five Boroughs (942)

3. The Coronation of Edgar (973)

4. The Death of Edgar (975)

5. The Death of Alfred (1036)

6. The Death of Edward (1065)


The Rune Poem

Solomon and Saturn I

Solomon and Saturn II

The Menologium: A Calendar Poem

Maxims II: Cotton Maxims

A Proverb from Winfrid’s Time

Judgment Day II

The Rewards of Piety

The Lord’s Prayer II

The Gloria I

The Lord’s Prayer III

The Creed

Fragments of Psalms

The Kentish Hymn

Psalm 50

The Gloria II

A Prayer


The Book’s Prologue to Aldhelm’s De virginitate

The Seasons for Fasting

Cædmon’s Hymn

Bede’s Death Song

The Leiden Riddle

Latin-English Proverbs

The Metrical Preface to The Pastoral Care

The Metrical Epilogue to The Pastoral Care

The Metrical Preface to Gregory’s Dialogues

Colophon to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

The Ruthwell Cross

The Brussels Cross

The Franks Casket

The Metrical Charms

1. Charm for Unfruitful Land

2. Nine Herbs Charm

3. Charm Against a Dwarf

4. Charm for a Sudden Stitch

5. Charm for Loss of Property or Cattle

6. Charm for Birthing Difficulties

7. Charm for the Water-Elf-Disease

8. Charm for a Swarm of Bees

9. Charm for Theft of Cattle

10. Charm for Loss of Property or Cattle

11. Journey Charm

12. Charm for Wens (or Tumors)



Additional Poems of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

1. The Accession of Edgar (959)

2. Prince Edward’s Return (1057)

3. Malcolm and Margaret (1067)

4. The Wedding Conspiracy Against King William (1075)

5. The Rhyme of King William (1086)

6. The Suffering Under King Henry (1104)

Captions for Drawings

Cnut’s Song

Distich: Psalm 17:51

Distich on Kenelm

Distich on the Sons of Lothebrok

Five Memorial Stone Inscriptions

1. Dewsbury Memorial (or Stone Cross)

2. Falstone Hogback Memorial

3. Great Urswick Memorial

4. Overchurch Memorial

5. Thornhill III Memorial

Genealogical Verse

Godric’s Hymns

The Grave

Honington Clip

Instructions for Christians

Lament for the English Church (From the Worcester Fragments)

Lancashire Gold Ring

Metrical Psalms 90:15–95:2

The Soul’s Address to the Body (From the Worcester Fragments)

Sutton Disc Brooch

Two Marginalic Lines

Verse in a Charter

Verse in a Homily: The Judgment of the Damned

Verse Paraphrase of Matthew 25:41

Verse Proverb in a Junius Homily

Verses in Vercelli Homily XXI

Appendix of Possible Riddle Solutions


Index of Poem Titles



Tom Shippey


About fourteen hundred years ago, mourners buried a man in what archaeologists have now labeled “Grave 32” in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape, in Suffolk, England. He was laid out carefully and respectfully, in pagan fashion, with a spear by his right side and a round shield covering the left side of his torso. Underneath the shield, though, the mourners placed what may have been the dead man’s most precious possession: his harp. (Technically speaking, it is a lyre, but Anglo-Saxons would have called it a hearpe.) Made of maplewood, with a soundboard of thin oak, and with attachments, including a wrist-strap which would allow it to be played two-handed, it is an unusually fine instrument even compared with the similar harps recovered elsewhere, one of them from the lavishly furnished royal burial at Sutton Hoo a few miles away. The report of the archaeologist Graeme Lawson notes that it was left “cradled in the crook of the [dead man’s] left arm, almost as though in preparation for performance,” and adds that such graves provide us with “direct archaeological links” to the world in which Old English poetry was composed and preserved (215, 223). The “warrior-poet” of Grave 32 was surely a scop, one of those who (see The Fortunes of Men, ll. 74–77) “sits with his harp at his lord’s feet, / Takes his treasure, a reward of rings, / Plucks with his harp-nail, sweeps over strings, / Shapes song: hall-thanes long for his melody.”

What we now know as poetry, then, began as song, though the tunes and the music have been lost beyond recall. Performers nowadays try to reimagine it, though one may wonder whether any one person can now recreate a whole art form developed long ago by many minds and marked by delighted virtuosity. The Anglo-Saxons’ word for “harp-nail,” or plectrum, was sceacol, and the poet of The Fortunes of Men calls it, in very literal translation, “the shackle, which leaps, the sweet-sounding nail.” It is “the harp’s sweet songs, the poet’s music” that provoke Grendel to envious fury in Beowulf, and there are “sound and music mixed” when Hrothgar’s poet plays the “joy-wood” and sings the story of Finnsburg to the Danish court and its guests (see ll. 89–90, 1060–1161). At a much lower social level, the story of Cædmon told by the eighth-century historian Bede (see the headnote to Cædmon’s Hymn) indicates that it was normal at an Anglo-Saxon drinking-party for a harp to be passed around so that everyone could sing. Cædmon is unusual in that he cannot sing (or play?) and has to hide his embarrassment in the cowshed, from which the angel rescues him by the gift of inspiration. Of course, Bede’s story may not be true, but it cannot have seemed implausible either to the first readership of Bede’s own version, written in Latin, or to the readership of the translation into Old English made more than a century and a half later. For the pagan and pre-literate Anglo-Saxons of the early Anglo-Saxon period, poetry deliver
ed as song was at once the main channel of their own traditions, their highest intellectual art form, and their most valued entertainment. When the messenger who announces Beowulf’s death says that their lord has “laid down laughter” (l. 3022), he is thinking of gamen ond gleodream, “game and glee-dream,” or as we would say, “merriment and joy in music.”

The very high cultural value placed on their native skill by Anglo-Saxons must account for the preservation of Old English poetry in relatively large quantities, rather more than 31,000 lines of it all told, enough to fill the six thick volumes of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (and the post-ASPR discovered poems included in the section, “Additional Poems,” in this collection). This body of literature is a striking anomaly on the early medieval European scene. Anglo-Saxons were still writing poems in the traditional style, with fairly strict adherence to the old rules of meter and use of traditional “kennings” (see pp. 17–18) almost up to 14 October 1066, when the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, died on the battlefield of Hastings: the latest datable poem we have is the one preserved in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of his predecessor, King Edward, nine months before. How long they had been doing this is a much harder question. Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was finished by 731, and his story of Cædmon is set many years earlier, so that Cædmon’s Hymn is often taken to be the earliest Old English poem. But it has been pointed out by Kevin Kiernan (1990) that Bede gives only a Latin version of the Hymn, the Old English poetic versions (in both Northumbrian and West Saxon) being added much later, so that they could have been composed on the basis of the Latin at that later date—though it is an odd coincidence, as Fulk and Cain remark (142, 255), that the Latin falls so neatly into Old English poetic form.

Other contenders for “earliest surviving poem” are carved rather than written (Old English used the same verb, writan, for both), and use the old runic alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet brought in by Christian missionaries. The poem, The Dream of the Rood, survives in long and probably expanded form in the Vercelli Book—an Anglo-Saxon manuscript found against all probability in the cathedral library of Vercelli in northern Italy, perhaps left there by a pilgrim—but some twenty lines of a version of the same poem are carved in stone, in fragmentary form, in runic letters and in a very different far-northern dialect, on the stone obelisk now known as the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire in southern Scotland. Everything about the Ruthwell Cross is enigmatic, but it could be three hundred years older than the Vercelli Book. There are five lines of Old English poetry, also in runic script, on the Franks Casket, a whalebone box discovered in France, and an early date is suggested by the fact that the engraver not only carved his runes clockwise around the box edges, but did them in mirror-writing along the bottom, as if the left-to-right convention was unknown to him (Fulk and Cain, 45–47).

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rubie Ullrich

Last Updated: 02/05/2023

Views: 6182

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (72 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rubie Ullrich

Birthday: 1998-02-02

Address: 743 Stoltenberg Center, Genovevaville, NJ 59925-3119

Phone: +2202978377583

Job: Administration Engineer

Hobby: Surfing, Sailing, Listening to music, Web surfing, Kitesurfing, Geocaching, Backpacking

Introduction: My name is Rubie Ullrich, I am a enthusiastic, perfect, tender, vivacious, talented, famous, delightful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.