From Bryhtnoth's ill-fated defense against the Vikings in the 10th century to modern-day poets on the verge of a new millennium, in the past 1,000 years the English language has given us a magnificent range of poets and verse.

In the year 991 Viking ships raided the east coast of England. Raids had become an annual occurence. This one ended in a pitched battle near the Blackwater River in the County of Essex. The headman of the Essex fighters, named Bryhtnoth, was killed in the fight. The battle was recorded in a poem, one of the last that survives in the pure old Anglo-Saxon tongue, just as the millennium was turning. So here is the death of Bryhtnoth, and here is what the English language looked like, in the East Anglian dialect, a thousand years ago:

Tha Bryhtnoth braegd, bill of scaethe,

brad and brun-ecg, and on tha byrnan slog.

To hrarthe hine gelette lid-manna sum

tha he thaes eorles earm amierde.

Feoll tha to foldan fealu-hilte sweord,

ne meahte he gehealdan heardne mece,

waepnes wealdan . . .

And now a translation from the late 20th century by Michael Alexander, from his Earliest English Poems (Penguin):

Bryhtnoth broke out brand from sheath,

broad, bright-bladed, and on the breastplate struck;

but one of the spoilers cut short the blow,

his swing unstringing the Earl's sword-arm.

He yielded to the ground the yellow-hilted sword,

strengthless to hold the hard blade longer up

or wield weapon . . .

In 1066 the Normans, Scandinavians from the north who had settled on the west coast of France and acquired the French tongue, invaded England, and the Anglo-Saxons acquired French-speaking rulers. Their influence was to change the English tongue over the next 300 years and bring it closer to modern English. The poetry of the years 1000 to about 1300 is difficult to date exactly. It exists in a variety of manuscripts, written in a variety of dialects. One of the earliest scraps of medieval verse was written by a monk sometime in the 1100s who was angry at the Baron of Urs for chopping down some trees that he loved (note: "the" means "thee"):

Hatest the, Urss.

May God the-cursse.

Scholars think "The Cuckoo Song," one of the earliest English lyrics of the coming of spring, was probably composed between 1240 and 1310, though some think it may date from the 12th century. It was written down in a commonplace book kept over a number of years by the monks of Reading Abbey. Here's the first stanza, in which "cuccu" is an older version of "cuckoo," "med" is "meadow" and "wuds" is "woods":

Somer is i-cumen in,

Lhude sing, cuccu!

Groweth sed and bloweth med

And spryngeth the wude nu,

Sing, cuccu

-- Anonymous, circa 1200-1250 (?)

Two of the most beautiful medieval lyrics are from the 13th century. This Christian poem is intricate with puns. The sun goes down and, at the Crucifixion, the Son goes down. The "tre" and the "wode" of the forest are also the wood of the Cross at Calvary. The poem is about the suffering of Christ's mother. The tone is exquisitely tender. Some scholars think it dates from the early 13th century; others have guessed early 14th. "Rode" means "face."

Nou goth sonne under wode --

Me reweth, Marie, thi fair rode.

Nou goth sonne under tre --

Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the.

-- Anonymous, circa 1200-1230

"Fowles in the frith" was written on one page of a manuscript of legal texts, noted down by some monk going about his labor, or we would not have it. Some scholars read it as a love poem -- "the best of bone and blood" in the last line is the beloved the speaker is going crazy over; others read it as a Christian poem and cite a verse in Matthew's gospel: "Foxes have their holes, the birds their roosts, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Fowles in the frith,

The fisshes in the flood,

And I mon wax wood:

Much sorwe I walke with

For best of bone and blood.

(Birds in the woods, fishes in the sea, and I am going mad: I walk with much sorrow for the best of bone and blood.)

-- -Anonymous, circa 1270

By the middle of the 14th century, the idea of individual authorship had appeared, along with the first great poets in the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, and the unknown poet from the northeast midlands who wrote "Pearl" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." By now we have some of the best-known lines in English poetry:

Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr...

-- -Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1386

The most famous lyric of the 15th century is this one, found in an early 16th-century manuscript, along with a notation of the musical setting:

Westron wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ, if my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!

-- -Anonymous, 1400s

Here is a sweet song from about 1486 that has the flavor of the French-inflected poetry of the courts. It was written in the middle of the War of the Roses, the brutal and seemingly endless struggle between two families in England for political power, when the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster gave rise to a number of poems, apparently love poems, that played with the question of favorite flowers. This song is entitled "The Roses Entwined":

"I love a floure of swete odour."

"Magerome gentill, or lavenduore?"

"Columbine, goldis of swete flavour?"

"Nay, May, let be!

Is non of them

That lyketh me."

I love a sweet-smelling flower, the first singer says. The noble marjoram, or lavender, guesses the second. Columbine or marigolds, guesses the third. No, no, leave me alone, the first girl sings. I don't like any of them -- and the song goes on with its political/erotic guessing game through several more stanzas.

The single most important event for poetry in this last thousand years was the invention of the printing press. It occurred about halfway through the millennium. One of its consequences was the gradual standardization of English -- by the ruling classes, of course, who came to define the dialect of London and its surround as the model of correct speech. Another was the separation of the short lyric from song. Short poems were still called lyrics, but they were thought of increasingly as primarily written compositions -- so the folk tradition of song and ballad and the learned tradition of written poetry come to a parting of the ways.

The first printed book of poetry in English, Tottels Miscellany, contained a number of sonnets. Here is one by a gentleman from Kent named Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt was a courtier and diplomat and one of the first modern masters of the short poem. It's possible to say that modern English poetry begins with him. He picked up the sonnet while travelling in Italy, and wrote this one, which is said to be about his interest in Henry VIII's wife Anne Boleyn. (Being interested in Henry's wife was probably about as safe a state of mind as having a thing for Stalin's mistress.) The Latin in the poem, Noli me tangere, means "You musn't touch me," and it was said to be placed on medallions that were hung around the necks of the king's favorite deer in the Royal Forest:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, alas I will no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Whoso list to hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I, may spend his time in vain.

And graven in diamonds in letters plain

There is written her fair neck round about,

"Noli me tangere," for Caesar's I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

-- -Thomas Wyatt, circa 1540

By the end of the century, Elizabeth was queen, Shakespeare was writing for the theater, and poetry in English had exploded. By the middle of the 17th century, it had spread, along with the English colonists, to North America. Here is a quick run through the last half of the millennium:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

-- -William Shakespeare, circa 1590

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past times are,

Or who cleft the Devils foot.

-- John Donne, circa 1610

Display thy breasts, my Julia, then let me

Behold that circummortal purity.

-- -Robert Herrick, 1648

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then, thee.

-- -Anne Bradstreet,

Massachusetts Colony, 1678

The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep,

Till drowned in shriller notes of chimney-sweep:

Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;

And brickdust Noll had screamed through

half the street.

-- -Jonathan Swift, 1709

Hark the herald angels sing,

"Glory to the new-born king,

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinner reconciled."

-- -Charles Wesley, 1742

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

"Their color is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refined and join th' angelic train.

-- -Phillis Wheatley, a slave,

Massachusetts Colony, 1773

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

-- -William Blake, circa 1800

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

-- -John Keats, 1819

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from

the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your


-- -Walt Whitman, 1855

To see the Summer Sky

Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie --

True Poems flee --

-- -Emily Dickinson, circa 1879

Let us go, then, you and I,

While the evening is spread out against the sky,

Like a patient etherised upon a table.

-- -T.S. Eliot, 1917

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-- -William Butler Yeats, 1927

Tell all the people to dress in red,

Cuz there ain't no sense in my being dead.

-- Langston Hughes, 1933

And the villagers never liked you,

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

-- Sylvia Plath, 1962

I push back

through dictions,

Elizabethan canopies,

Norman devices,

the erotic mayflowers

of Provence

and the ivied latins

of churchmen

to the scop's

twang, the iron

flash of consonants

cleaving the line.

-- -Seamus Heaney, 1975

Still in the published city but not yet

overtaken by a new form of despair, I asked

the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain

it might easily be? Or an emptiness so sudden

it leaves the


whanging in the absence of wind, the sky

milk-blue and


-- -John Ashbery, 1991

Finally, here is a poem (full disclosure: the poet is my wife) that could only have been written in the later part of the 20th century, though it borrows from an older poem, John Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," which begins, "Thou still unravished bride of quietness!" This one is about another kind of container:

Styrofoam Cup

thou still unravished thou

thou, thou bride

thou unstill,

thou unravished unbride

unthou unbride

-- -Brenda Hillman, 1999