Medieval poetry in the modern world

John Chapman
Thursday 7 June 2018

Research into uses of Old English in contemporary poetry alongside medieval-inspired poetry has raised public awareness of an obscure and linguistically complex area of literary heritage. This resulted in the commission of a multi-media poetry installation at a Roman fort, which led to the creation of paid employment. The research also inspired new methods of expressing medieval poetry as tweetable riddles (‘twiddles’).

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Old English is a living poetic tradition at St Andrews and sees medieval researchers produce high-quality critical work which enables unusually broad cultural dissemination, facilitating, for example, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Heaney made extensive use of the Oxford University Press edition of Beowulf, produced by George Jack, a researcher at St Andrews until his death in 1999, when Heaney worked on his own translation of the poem.

Working within this tradition, Dr Chris Jones began his work on the uses of Old English literature in modern culture in 1997, and from 2002 has lectured in the Medieval and Renaissance research group.

Jones’s research documents the ways in which Old English literature continues to have creative application in the work of a considerable number of practicing writers. This had previously received little scholarly attention, and no sustained study of this intersection of medieval and modern poetry existed beforehand.

Jones studied sources for analogues, allusions and formal improvisations based on Old English in a range of 20th and 21st-century poets, including W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, Seamus Heaney and John Haynes. This research, as well as work on the use of Old English in contemporary film, was conducted between 1997 and the present day, and has been published in several articles and chapters, including the Oxford University Press monograph Strange Likeness.

Following on from this research, Jones’s next step was creating new literature by collaborating with a practising poet, Jacob Polley. Jones became Polley’s professional mentor, and their discussions soon began to centre on medieval poetry and research.

These conversations led to Polley working with Jones to produce translations of, and new poems featuring, Old English literature. Together, they created Livings, several newly composed riddles in response to those in the Old English Exeter Book. This was then followed by a poetic translation of the Old English “The Ruin”, which was not a word-for-word translation but translated in a manner that imaginatively restored the damaged, fragmentary nature of this poem.

Several of these new poems were later published as part of the award-winning collection, The Havocs (Picador, 2012). Jones’s research generated new ways of thinking for Polley’s literary practice, which in turn generated wider impact in the creative industries.

A project to create a multimedia poetry installation in Segedunum, a Roman Fort museum in the north of England, was based on Polley’s poetry and Jones’ research. This project saw direct economic and cultural impact. The installation was named Bathtime, and a specification was that Polley’s work should not only address the Roman ruins at Segedunum, but also the remains of the once prosperous local shipbuilding industry at Wallsend, an area that has been in economic decline since the closure of the shipyards. Several new poems were created for the exhibit and were partly crowd-sourced from interviews with Wallsend residents.

The Bathtime project was of cultural value and significance, both in bringing the voices of members of the local community into poetry and in delivering a poetic revisioning of its deep history back to the community. It was also of benefit to the local area in purely practical terms: more than 5,600 people came to Segedunum to visit the exhibition over its lifetime, generating significant revenue for the museum.

In this way, Old English poetry was applied to the 21st century and found meaning in an area in north east England. It acted as a stimulus to the local heritage and creative industries, promoting increased participation of the local community in their shared cultural heritage. As a senior manager for culture and commissioning at North Tyneside Council put it, “Bathtime not only brought new audiences to an historic site, but also engaged the public from an area of economic deprivation in the creation of new work of lasting value. Jacob’s contribution to the quality and success of this project was fundamental.”


  • Raised awareness of a historically remote body of English poetry. Polley’s version of “The Ruin”, worked on with Jones, and his Old English-inspired riddles formed the core of the poetry volume The Havocs. The Havocs was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot and Forward poetry prizes and won the Geoffrey Faber prize and was widely praised in the non-academic press. The Havocs has promoted knowledge and understanding of Old English poetry, as well as enriched the cultural life of readers.
  • Curation of cultural heritage with economic benefit. Polley received a commission from North Tyneside Council and their project partner New Writing North for a site-specific, multimedia poetry installation, Bathtime, in the reconstructed Roman bath house at Segedunum Roman Fort museum. Employment was created as designers and printers, construction companies, sound engineers, photographers and other local craftspeople were paid in order to create the installation.
  • Historical literary heritage is digitally presented for the general public at an independent literary festival. Polley conducted a reading of “The Ruin” in the StAnza Poetry Festival’s online Poetry Trail, which guides literary tourists around St Andrews using QR codes at several sites. Jones’s and Polley’s work was also available via an app for iPhone and Android. All in all, the digital realm in which their work resides broadened the festival’s outreach beyond the window of the dates of the live festival.
  • New forms of artistic expression were created based on Jones’s and Polley’s research. Jones and Polley collaborated to produce translations of the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book riddles in 140 or fewer characters for Twitter as tweetable riddles which Polley dubs `twiddles’. The researchers appeared on BBC Radio 4’s `The Echo Chamber’ reading from these twiddles as well as from “The Ruin”, both in Old English and in Polley’s translation.


  • The Havocs won the Geoffrey Faber prize in 2012.

Researchers involved



  • Chris Jones, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-century Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • Chris Jones, ‘Where now the harp? Listening for the sounds of Old English verse, from Beowulf to the twentieth century‘, Oral Tradition, 24/2 (2009), 485-502.
  • Chris Jones, ‘From Heorot to Hollywood: Beowulf in its third Millennium’, in Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, eds., Clark and Perkins (Brewer, 2010), pp. 13-29.
  • Chris Jones, ‘While Crowding Memories Came: Edwin Morgan, Old English and Nostalgia’, Scottish Literary Review, 4/2 (2012), 123-44.
  • Jacob Polley, The Havocs (Picador, 2012). Poetry volume. Shortlisted for T. S. Eliot and Forward poetry prizes. Winner of Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize.

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