OLD ENGLISH POETRY is currently undergoing something of a renaissance in contemporary culture. Whereas several decades ago only a minority of nevertheless important and influential twentieth-century poets had taken a direct interest in Old English verse in their own work, so far the twenty-first century has seen a far larger number of poets turning to Old English at least occasionally in their writing, to the point (unimaginable during the 1960s, 70s or 80s), where Old English is becoming part of mainstream practice in contemporary poetics. This chapter will survey and close read some of the poems of this ‘New Old English’ for the first time, and in doing so will offer several observations about the differences between twentieth- and twenty-first-century practice. While a primary focus of this chapter is therefore on contemporary literature, I will also seek to advance arguments about the nature of Old English poetry itself, arguments which I intend to be provocative.
Although some of the poets considered here translate, either partially or wholly, examples of Old English poems, many cannot be said to ‘translate’ Old English in the line-by-line, poem-for-poem sense in which that word is most commonly used. Instead, as we will see shortly, contemporary poets often move ideas from, or even ideas about, Old English poetry, taken from a select group of source texts, into their own work. In this chapter then, I am interested in ‘translation’ in its broadest etymological sense (a bringing or carrying over) and in the translation not only of individual poems, but also of a whole body of poetry, a set of texts: the wholesale translatio of Old English poetry from the first millennium CE into the third. That being the case, it is necessary to begin by delimiting that set of texts, and that in turn begs the seemingly stupid question: what do we mean by ‘Old English poetry’? It is indeed an ingenuous question, but ingenuousness can often expose unquestioned assumptions, and this particular question is not asked often enough, especially as both scholarship and (more arguably) practising writers are changing the kinds of answers that might be given to this inquiry. After all, we cannot sensibly discuss the translation of ‘Old English poetry’ until we know what we mean by that term.