By Sandeep Kumar Mishra and Evan Mantyk

English poetry has a rich history dating back at least 1,400 years. Looking at poetry today, it is easy to get trapped into thinking that the flurry of poetic movements of the last one hundred years or so are incredibly important and represent the majority of poetry. In fact, as we can see from this timeline, there is much more to poetry than the modern era. This timeline seeks to put English poetry today into a proper perspective with respect to its own history.

1 – 449 AD: Romano-British Poetry

449 – 1066: Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period

1066 – 1332: Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period

1332 – 1486: Late Medieval or Chaucerian Poetry

1486 – 1603: Early Renaissance Poetry or Elizabethan Poetry

1603 – 1690: Jacobean/Caroline/Restoration Poetry

1690 – 1756: Augustan or Neoclassical Poetry

1756 – 1837: Romantic Poetry

1837 – 1901: Victorian and Pre-Modernism Poetry

1901 – 1910: Early Modernism and the Edwardian Poetry

1910 – 1936: Georgian and the Modern Poetry

1937 – Present: Postmodern Poetry


Romano-British Poetry (1 – 449 AD)

Celtic druid

After the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the Romano-British culture emerged. Britannia, as it was called at the time, was divided into two provinces: Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior with the foundation of Londinium (London). The Roman influence was such that many of the natives lost their Celtic language and spoke only Latin. Later it developed into the Provencal languages. The southeast and the highlands of Britain were the most influenced by Latin. But, in the midlands, the Britannic languages, like Welsh and Cornish, still had their sway.

The Song of Amergin or Amairgin is an orally transmitted poem thought to hail from some distant time before the Roman invasion. According to legend, it is the first poem of the British Isles and was created when Amergin first set foot on what is today Ireland. However, some sources put the poem long after the invasion. At any rate, it provides a look at English poetry and culture relatively uninfluenced by Rome or Latin.

The Song of Amergin makes ample use of poetic repetition and metaphor. As one might expect from such a relatively primitive age, the use of nature imagery is extensive. Amergin is a god-like bard in Irish mythology and the poem reflects his supernatural persona:

Song of Amergin


I am a wind across the sea
I am a flood across the plain
I am the roar of the tides
I am a stag of seven fights
I am a dewdrop let fall by the sun
I am the fierceness of boars
I am a hawk, my nest on a cliff
I am a height of poetry (magical skill)
I am the most beautiful among flowers
I am the salmon of wisdom

Who (but I) is both the tree and the lightning strikes it
Who is the dark secret of the dolmen not yet hewn

I am the queen of every hive
I am the fire on every hill
I am the shield over every head
I am the spear of battle
I am the ninth wave of eternal return
I am the grave of every vain hope

Who knows the path of the sun, the periods of the moon
Who gathers the divisions, enthralls the sea,
sets in order the mountains. the rivers, the peoples


Am gáeth tar na bhfarraige
Am tuile os chinn maighe
Am dord na daíthbhe
Am damh seacht mbeann
Am drúchtín rotuí ó ngréin
Am an fráich torc
Am seabhac a néad i n-aill
Am ard filidheachta
Am álaine bhláithibh
Am an t-eo fis

Cía an crann agus an theine ag tuitim faire
Cía an dhíamhairina cloch neamh shnaidhite

Am an ríáin gach uile choirceoige
Am an theine far gach uile chnoic
Am an scíath far gach uile chinn
Am an sleagh catha
Am nómá tonnag sírthintaghaív
Am úagh gach uile dhóich dhíamaíní

Cía fios aige conara na gréine agus linn na éisce
Cía tionól na rinn aige, ceangladh na farraige,
cor i n-eagar na harda, na haibhne, na túatha.



During the Anglo-Roman Period (55 BC – 410 AD), Latin became the primary language of scholars with native poetry being only verbal.


Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (449-1066)


After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the invading Germanic tribes, such as the Saxons and Angles, reshaped the cultural makeup of the British Isles. Caedmon, Bede, Cynewulf, and King Alfred the Great are the most well known of the Anglo-Saxon poets.  Their poetry, now known as Old English poetry, is actually Germanic in nature. Poems like “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “Bede’s Death Song” and “Beowulf” are fragments of such Old English poetry. These poems have alliterative qualities and usually have four strong stresses per line and some weaker stresses. But, they are lacking in meter and rhyme. These poets were great sources of inspirations for the common folk. (In fact, Celtic kings were fearful of the derision of the Anglo-Saxon poets. At that time, these poets were also known as “scophs,” a German word for jest.) The shape of the English language we know today began in the fifth century as Germanic-Scandinavian and Greco-Roman words and grammar begin to integrate together.

In 657, the first English monastery, Whitby Abbey was founded by Saint Hilda. Hilda encouraged her pupils to pursue the poetic line of literature. As the story goes Caedmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic creation by an angel and later became a monk. In 664, the Council of Whitby shook hands with the Roman Catholic Church and Whitby Abbey church became the center of education in England and had a major influence on the evolution of English literature and poetry:

Caedmon’s Hymn, written in 658, is the first authoritative English poem. It is the real beginning of English poetry. You can see in the Old English, even without understanding it, the repetition of initial sounds, or alliteration, in the original, which is also captured in the translation: “praise the Prince,” “might of the Maker,” and so forth. The poem is again spiritual, this time Christian, but interestingly there is not much in the way of religious jargon or even a proper name such as Jesus or Mary, but rather metaphors of the family (“Father” “roof” “family”) and even more of the nation (“Prince” “Lord” “Ruler” “Ward”):


Caedmon’s Hymn


Now shall we praise the Prince of heaven,
The might of the Maker and his manifold thought,
The work of the Father: of what wonders he wrought
The Lord everlasting, when he laid out the worlds.
He first raised up for the race of men
The heaven as a roof, the holy Ruler.
Then the world below, the Ward of mankind,
The Lord everlasting, at last established
As a home for man, the Almighty Lord.

Primo cantavit Cædmon istud carmen.



Nu scylun hergan ___hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti ___end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur ___sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin ___or astelidæ
he aerist scop ___aelda barnum
heben til hrofe ___haleg scepen.
tha middungeard ___moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin ___æfter tiadæ
firum foldu ___frea allmectig

primo cantauit ___Cædmon istud carmen.



Bede (c.672-735) was the great English poet who was later known as the Venerable Bede and the “Father of English History.” Bede’s famous “Death Song” was perhaps written on his deathbed. Again we have alliteration and here a spiritual topic of universal applicability.



Bede’s Death Song


Before leaving this life there lives no one
Of men of wisdom who will not need
To consider and judge, before he sets on his journey,
What his soul shall be granted of good or evil—
After his day of death what doom he shall meet.



Fore there neidfaerae ___naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra than ___him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae ___aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae ___godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege ___doemid uueorthae.



Around 700, a long poem “Beowulf” and a small poem “Widsith” (“the Far Traveler”) by an anonymous minstrel were composed. The “Beowulf” poet is also credited with popularizing “hall-entertainment” poetry accompanied by the music of a harp.

Cynewulf, who lived around 800, wrote four poems: “Juliana,” “Christ II,” “Fates of the Apostles,” and “Elene.”

The first dream poem “The Dream of the Rood” in the English language was carved on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross.

King Alfred the Great (c. 849-899), was one of the first known writers of English prose. He was the first notable poet who wrote and translated poetry of the past era. The poem “Deor’s Lament” (900) penned down by Deor, the poet, during the reign of King Alfred, appeared in the Exeter Book (990), which is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence. “Deor’s Lament” is again alliterative but unlike the other poems we’ve looked at is filled with specific allusions, some of which we can only today guess at. The palpable sense of bitterness and suffering is felt in the repeated line: “That has passed over: so this may depart!”


Deor’s Lament

 (translation, *see footnotes)

To Weland* came woes and wearisome trial,
And cares oppressed the constant earl;
His lifelong companions were pain and sorrow,
And winter-cold weeping: his ways were oft hard,
After Nithhad* had struck the strong man low,
Cut the supple sinew-bands of the sorrowful earl.
That has passed over: so this may depart!

Beadohild* bore her brothers’ death
Less sorely in soul than herself and her plight
When she clearly discovered her cursed condition,
That unwed she should bear a babe to the world.
She never could think of the thing that must happen.
That has passed over: so this may depart!

Much have we learned of Mæthhild’s life*:
How the courtship of Geat was crowned with grief,
How love and its sorrows allowed him no sleep.
That has passed over: so this may depart!

Theodoric* held for thirty winters
The town of the Mærings*: that was told unto many.
That has passed over: so this may depart!

We all have heard of Eormanric*
Of the wolfish heart: a wide realm he had
Of the Gothic kingdom. Grim was the king.
Many men sat and bemoaned their sorrows,
Woefully watching and wishing always
That the cruel king might be conquered at last.
That has passed over: so this may depart!

Sad in his soul he sitteth joyless,
Mournful in mood. He many times thinks
That no end will e’er come to the cares he endures.
Then must he think how throughout the world
The gracious God often gives his help
And manifold honors to many an earl
And sends wide his fame; but to some he gives woes.
Of myself and my sorrows I may say in truth
That I was happy once as the Heodenings’ scop*,
Dear to my lord. Deor was my name.
Many winters I found a worthy following,
Held my lord’s heart, till Heorrenda came,
The skillful singer, and received the land-right
That the proud helm of earls had once promised to me!
That has passed over: so this may depart!


Welund him be wurman       wræces cunnade,
anhydig eorl       earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe       sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce;       wean oft onfond,
siþþan hine Niðhad on       nede legde,
swoncre seonobende       on syllan monn.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!

Beadohilde ne wæs       hyre broþra deaþ
on sefan swa sar       swa hyre sylfre þing,
þæt heo gearolice       ongieten hæfde
þæt heo eacen wæs;       æfre ne meahte
þriste geþencan,       hu ymb þæt sceolde.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!

We þæt Mæðhilde       monge gefrugnon
wurdon grundlease       Geates frige,
þæt hi seo sorglufu       slæp ealle binom.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!

ðeodric ahte       þritig wintra
Mæringa burg;       þæt wæs monegum cuþ.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!

We geascodan       Eormanrices
wylfenne geþoht;       ahte wide folc
Gotena rices.       þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig       sorgum gebunden,
wean on wenan,       wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerices       ofercumen wære.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!

Siteð sorgcearig,       sælum bidæled,
on sefan sweorceð,       sylfum þinceð
þæt sy endeleas       earfoða dæl.
Mæg þonne geþencan,       þæt geond þas woruld
witig dryhten       wendeþ geneahhe,
eorle monegum       are gesceawað,
wislicne blæd,       sumum weana dæl.
þæt ic bi me sylfum       secgan wille,
þæt ic hwile wæs       Heodeninga scop,
dryhtne dyre.       Me wæs Deor noma.
Ahte ic fela wintra       folgað tilne,
holdne hlaford,       oþþæt Heorrenda nu,
leoðcræftig monn       londryht geþah,
þæt me eorla hleo       ær gesealde.
þæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg!



Alfricus of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010) was a prolific writer of biographies, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. He is also known as Alfric, the Grammarian (Alfricus Grammaticus). He was a great writer in the class of Bede. Truly he represents the Anglo-Saxon non-poetry literature as his writing has been described as “rhythmical prose,” which in form is the same as the alliterative poetry we’ve seen here.

Statue of Alfred the Great

The Arundel Psalter (1060) was an Anglo-Saxon prayer book. In it, Saint Godric (1065) wrote many poems and prayers. Reginald of Durham (1190) recorded four songs of St. Godric’s: they are the oldest English songs to retain their original music.

In general, the various forms of poetry all became visible such as proverbs, charms, religious verse, devotional or biblical, elegies like “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Ruin,” and some daily life riddles.

In 1066, the French Duke of Normandy William (1066), defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and became King William I of England, better known today as William the Conqueror. Thus, the Norman Conquest of England ended the Anglo-Saxon era. The three major invasions of England—the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, and the French—ultimately provided around 87% of the words of the English language. The language before the 11th century is too difficult for non-scholars to understand. Poetry of this time is classified according to the books in which they are found. The important manuscripts are the Beowulf manuscript, the Cædmon manuscript, the Vercelli Book, and the Exeter Book. Only the long poem “Beowulf” survived as a whole.

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Footnotes for “Deor’s Lament”

-Weland, or Wayland; the blacksmith of the Norse gods. He is represented as being the son of Wada.
-Beadohild was violated by Weland, and this stanza refers to the approaching birth of her son Widia (or Wudga).
-The exact meaning of the third strophe as here translated is not clear. To make it refer to the story of Nithhad and Weland, it is necessary to make certain changes suggested by Professor Tupper (Modern Philology, October, 1911; Anglia, xxxvii, 118). Thus amended, this stanza would read: “Of the violation of (Beadu)hild many of us have heard. The affections of the Geat (i.e., Nithhad) were boundless, so that sorrowing love deprived him of all sleep.” This grief of Nithhad would be that caused by the killing of his sons and the shame brought on his daughter. Thus the first three stanzas of the poem would refer to (1) Weland’s torture, (2) Beadohild’s shame, and (3) Nithhad’s grief.
-Strophe four refers to Theodoric the Goth. He was banished to Attila’s court for thirty years.
Mærings: a name applied to the Ostrogoths.
Eormanric was king of the Goths and uncle to Theodoric. He died about 375 A.D. He put his only son to death, had his wife torn to pieces, and ruined the happiness of many people. For an account of his crimes see the notes to Widsith, v. 8.
-See, for the connection of the Heodenings and the sweet-singing Heorrenda, the note to Widsith, v. 21.



Sandeep Kumar Mishra is an International freelance writer, and a lecturer in English with a Master’s in English Literature and Political Science. He has edited a collection of poems by various poets, Pearls (2002), written a professional guidebook How To Be (2016), and a collection of poems and art Feel My Heart (2016).His blog:

Evan Mantyk teaches history and literature in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

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14 Responses

  1. Brian

    Great article.
    Could you provide a footnote for this translation if the Sing of Amergin?
    It doesn’t look like the sources I’m familiar with, and some lines look like Graves version translated from English to Irish to fill out the ‘original ‘

  2. Rukesh

    Very impressive and helpful article.Looking forward for the next part.

  3. Hershey

    Informative,Historical and classical study.Lot of effort has been put up to reveal the detail.Congratulations.

  4. Dermot Druhan

    I’ll thank you to know and state that Amergin’s poem or invocation is NOT “Romano-British”. It is GAELIC, difficult as it may be for those of an Anglocentric cast of mind to accept such an idea.

  5. Philip Brennan

    Do you know the difference between English poetry and poetry in English? The original Song of Amhergin was written in Old Irish most likely on the island of Ireland. This was a long time before the jingoistic English started emphasising Ireland as British, a habit that, to the relief of a majority of people in Ireland, is coming to be recognised by many decent English people as insulting to them. Maybe you would like to join the ranks of the decent.

    • Mike Bryant

      Is it decent to paint every English person as jingoistic?
      Pot… meet kettle.
      Relax… stop trying to divide the whole damned world.


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