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International Poetry الشعر শ্লোক ကဗျာ ליבע ਪਿਆਰ өлүм

guest editor Michael R. Burch

Michael R. Burch

The Earliest Native Poems from the British Isles


Since I will be serving as a guest editor of International poetry for the time being, I thought I would go back to the root source of what we now call English poetry. I have long been fascinated with native poetry, whether Native American, African, Arabic, etc. Where better to start than with the oldest natives to have written in the (then-fledgling) English language? These are my translations of three of the oldest extant English poems. No one can claim to know exactly what the poets were saying, because we don’t have clear definitions for some of the words. But I think we can still get a pretty good idea of what the ancient poets were thinking and feeling ...



"The Song of Amergin" may be the oldest poem related to the British Isles, but its origins remain a mystery. It was written by an unknown poet at an unknown time at an unknown location. The unlikely date 1268 B.C. was furnished by Robert Graves, who translated the "Song of Amergin" in his influential book The White Goddess (1948). Graves remarked that "English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin."



The Song of Amergin

translation by Michael R. Burch


I am the sea wind

I am the ocean wave

I am the sea roar

I am the bull of the seven battles

I am the cliff hawk

I am the sunlit dewdrop

I am the greenest herb

I am the rampaging boar

I am the pool salmon

I am the level lake

I am the vale echoing voices

I am the battle-hardened spearhead

I am the god who gave you fire

Who knows the secrets of the unhewn Dolmen

Who understands the ages of the Moon

Who knows where the Sunset settles ...



The original poem:


Am gaeth i m-muir,

Am tond trethan,

Am fuaim mara,

Am dam secht ndirend, [dam = ox, deer, stag?]

Am séig i n-aill, [séig = hawk, eagle or vulture?]

Am dér gréne,

Am cain lubai,

Am torc ar gail,

Am he i l-lind,

Am loch i m-maig,

Am brí a ndai,

Am bri danae,

Am bri i fodb fras feochtu,

Am dé delbas do chind codnu,

Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe?

Cia on co tagair aesa éscai?

Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne?



"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD; it appears to be the oldest extant poem in the English language that can be dated. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735) the poem's author, Cædmon, was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. As the word "hymn" in the title suggests, the lyric was probably meant for a song, but the music has been lost if it ever existed.


However, the poem has been preserved in 19 different ancient manuscripts and in a Latin translation by Bede, so it appears to be authentic, and to have been very popular and admired in its day. In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English because Cædmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" derives from Angle-land: the Angles were a Germanic tribe that migrated to the British Isles, as were the Saxons and the Jutes. Cædmon wrote his poem in the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which was still largely Germanic. Nevertheless, by Cædmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. At the time the poem was composed, poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's poem "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God, with a mortal maker praising his immortal Maker―poet to Poet.

Cædmon's Hymn

translation by Michael R. Burch


Humbly let us honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,

the Measurer's might        and his mind-plans,

the goals of the Glory-Father.     First he, the Everlasting Lord,

established      earth's fearful foundations.

Then he, the First Scop,      hoisted heaven as a roof

for the sons of men:      Holy Creator,

mankind's great Maker!      Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,

afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master Almighty!



The original Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem with a word-by-word literal translation:


Nū scylun hergan            hefaenrīcaes Uard,

Now let's honor               heaven's Guardian

metudæs maecti                  end his mōdgidanc,

(the) measurer's might       and his mode/method



uerc Uuldurfadur,                  suē hē uundra gihwaes,

(the) work (of the) Glory-Father  

                                              and his wonders praiseworthy (which)


ēci dryctin                    ōr āstelidæ

(the) Eternal Lord       established in the beginning.


hē ǣrist scōp                          aelda barnum

He first (poetically) created       

                                                (for) people-children/the sons of men


heben til hrōfe,     hāleg scepen.

heaven as roof      (our) holy creator/poet!


Thā middungeard       moncynnæs Uard,

Then middle-earth     mankind's Guardian


eci Dryctin,              æfter tīadæ

(our) eternal Lord   afterwards creatively adorned (with)


firum foldu,           Frēa allmectig.

firm earth             (our) Father almighty!



Bede's "Death Song" is one of the best poems of the fledgling English language now known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon English. Written circa 735 AD, the poem may have been composed by Bede on his death-bed. It is the most-copied Old English poem, with 45 extant versions. Was the celebrated scholar known and revered as the Venerable Bede also one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poets? The answer appears to be "yes," since Bede was doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our song") according to his most famous disciple, Saint Cuthbert.


Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, is commonly taken by modern scholars to indicate that Bede composed the five-line vernacular Anglo-Saxon poem below. However, there is no way to be absolutely certain that Bede was the poem's original author.


Bede's Death Song

translation by Michael R. Burch


Facing Death, that inescapable journey,

who can be wiser than he

who reflects, while breath yet remains,

on whether his life brought others happiness, or pains,

since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way

after his death-day.


The original poem:


Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðe

ðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæ

to ymbhycgenne ær his hinionge

hwæt his gastæ godes oððe yfles

æfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.

                          Michael R. Burch

Michael R.Burch has been published more than 3,000 times. His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by three composers. He also edits TheHyperTexts.

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