New Series No. 18 - 2001
Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Translation
London: Faber and Faber, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999
Also in The Norton Anthology of English Literature,
New York: Norton, 2000.
RM Liuzza, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.
Seamus Heaney has long displayed sympathy for the language and
poetry of Anglo-Saxon times. He strips bare the layers in ‘Bone Dreams’in his collection North (1975):
in the tongue’s
I push back
the erotic mayflowers
and the ivied latins
to the scop’s
twang, the iron
flash of consonants
cleaving the line.
In the coffered
riches of grammar
I found ban-hus,
its fire, benches,
wattle and rafters,
where the soul
fluttered a while
in the roofspace.
Here an Old English kenning for the body sparks new life, stirred by
Bede’s famous sparrow, while the whole collection brims with modernday kennings, i.e. compound words containing a compressed image, like the skull-ware of the Bog Queen, or the oak-bone, brain-firkin of the garrotted bog woman, or Hercules as the sky-born, snake-choker, dungheaver. In that collection, Heaney demonstrated how northern mythology and turbulent northern history could resonate with a contemporary landscape of violence. Throughout his poetry, a sparseness of line, a concrete quality, and a love of heavy-consonanted monosyllables (‘the iron/ flash of consonants/ cleaving the line’) have made Heaney’s poems resonate with Anglo-Saxon poetic technique. In such ways, he has long been borrowing from the Old English tradition; now he returns
the favour by translating the most famous of Old English poems,
Beowulf, and the pay-back is handsome.
Heaney’s sureness of touch is evident from the very opening:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Heaney’s choice of a four-stress line unified through alliteration and
with the hint of a caesura clearly conjures the form of the Old English
verse line without holding closely to its stricter conventions. Such a
choice is broadly characteristic of many Beowulf translations. What is most distinctive here is the freedom Heaney gives himself in tackling Old English syntax, which is so heavily accretive and appositional that it has led many translators to bog down in a mire of grammar words and dangling clauses as they chase the will o’ the wisp of closeness to the original.
Take another recently published translation of the poem, this one by
RM Liuzza. Liuzza is an academic Anglo-Saxonist with years of teaching Beowulf and numerous essays on the poem to his credit. His translation provides a perfect counter-example to Heaney’s, even in this opening:
Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days
of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes,
how those noble lords did lofty deeds.
Often Scyld Scefing seized the mead-benches
from many tribes, troops of enemies,
struck fear into earls. Though he first was
found a waif, he awaited solace for that –
he grew under heaven and prospered in honor
until every one of the encircling nations
over the whale’s-riding had to obey him,
grant him tribute. That was a good king!
Liuzza has adopted the same formal constraints as Heaney: a four-stress line, a caesura, and (mild) alliteration. His version is much closer to the Old English, particularly in syntax, but therein lies the problem. In the original, the first three lines read:
Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in geardagum
peodcyninga prym gefrunon,
hu ∂a æpelingas ellen fremedon.
As an inflected language, Old English signals clearly that prym, ‘glory’, is the object of the opening verb, gefrunon, while peodcyninga is a genitive dependent on prym, and Gar-dena is either a further dependent noun in apposition or qualifies peodcyninga. Liuzza’s translation retains this perfectly, even replicating the mild ambiguity (‘glory of the folk-kings from among the spear-Danes’ or ‘glory of both the folk-kings and the spear-Danes’). Yet the Old English does all this with economy and punch. Liuzza’s repeated ‘of the’ sounds ponderous by comparison, no
matter how accurate. His semantic closeness is also a problem: fremedon in the third line means did, but it probably did not sound as enervated as the modern verb does. And the things we have heard that they did, prym and ellen, are reasonably glossed by Liuzza’s ‘glory’ and ‘lofty deeds’, except that the Old English words packed a far heftier punch with none of the hint of embarrassment that accrues to ‘glory’ in the world of poetry after Wilfred Owen or the stiffness of ‘lofty deeds’.
How, then, might that more forceful effect be conveyed? Heaney
uses two words to do the work of ellen – ‘courage and greatness’ – which between them give a straightforward and unironized sense of
assertiveness. Prym becomes ‘heroic campaigns’, again more assertive, this time because more specific. The peodcyninga have become ‘the kings who ruled them’, a more comprehensible relation than the literal ‘folkkings’. Heaney switches round the verbs and alters the syntax, saving the ‘we have heard’ to act as main verb in a second sentence, thereby staying true to Modern English’s imperative to signal relationships with a subject-verb-object word order. Liuzza translates the 14 words of the Old English sentence with 25 words, Heaney with 26, yet Heaney’s two sentences and avoidance of a concatenation of grammatical words makes for the more vigorous and economical-sounding translation. Heaney’s relative freedom produces something more powerfully compelling and therefore, paradoxically, closer to the effect of the Old English.
The same is true for the treatment of variation in the next lines.
Again, Liuzza’s version stays very close to the movement of the Old
English: ‘from many tribes, troops of enemies’ reproduces precisely the Old English technique of variation in these lines (sceapena preatum/ monegum mægpum). Heaney reproduces the effect rather than the specifics, varying a sequence of parallel descriptive epithets which get across the idea of the Old English while remaining natural to a Modern English ear (‘scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches’ was ‘rampaging among foes’). Heaney stays close to the content of the lines but not so close to the wording as to falsify the voice of his own verse.
Of course, such choices reflect an age-old conundrum for translators, articulated in English as early as King Alfred (reigned 871-899), who claimed that his translations from Latin proceeded ‘hwilum word be worde, hwilum andgit of andgiete’, ‘sometimes word for word, sometimes sense by sense’. It is surprising to what extent an attempt at word for word translation, i.e. closeness to syntax and to detail, has been the tradition in translations of Beowulf for most of the last century. Charles W Kennedy’s translation from 1940, kept alive through its reproduction in the Oxford Anthology of English literature (Medieval English Literature, ed. JB Trapp), opens:
Lo! we have listened to many a lay
Of the Spear-Danes’ fame, their splendor of old,
Their mighty princes, and martial deeds!
Variation is in full play, encouraged by the single main verb, creating a listing effect that results in anticlimax. Michael Alexander (Beowulf: A Verse Translation, Penguin, 1973) begins:
We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory,
for a translation that manages to take liberties, use archaisms and overlyclose glosses (‘folk-kings’, ‘athelings’) and still sound tiresomely grammatical. SAJ Bradley’s prose translation from 1982, common in Old English courses because of the scope of the volume in which it is published (Everyman’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry contains almost the whole corpus in translation), opens:
Listen! We have heard report of the majesty of the people’s kings of the spear-wielding Danes in days of old: truly, those princes accomplished deeds of courage!
The turgid triple ‘of the’ phrases, with two more ofs lurking later in the sentence, introduce immediately the slough of grammatical detail within which this translation will remain enmired.
Such close translations have been standard perhaps because of the
apparent closeness of Old English to Modern English, although the
differences in syntax and semantic resonance have already been
suggested. The result, to my ear, has been a tradition of unreadable or of lame Beowulf translations that, for all their closeness to the poem, always fail to capture any of the excitement of the original or hint why it might be interesting to read the Old English version. This is a tradition I am delighted to see bucked in such style by Heaney.
Not that Heaney chooses to make his language entirely and
straightforwardly accessible to the average reader. He eschews archaisms that spring from over-close translation, but includes a striking array of unfamiliar words: bawn (a fortified enclosure), brehon (judge), bothies (huts), and wean (wee ane, a young child) all derive from Celtic originals. Another cluster of unfamiliar words derive from Old English and became obsolete in standard English but survived in dialectal usage, particularly in the north, such as tholed (suffered), graith (war-gear), reek (smoke). Still others are dialect words of obscure origin, such as stook (bundle), keshes (crags?), and hoked (hollowed out). It is striking how many of these words are heavy-consonanted monosyllables (‘the iron/ flash of consonants/ cleaving the line’ again). The effect of such vocabulary on most readers, I suspect, is to keep the reader conscious that the work is, indeed, something old and strange. For a particular locality such words are apparently familiar: Heaney talks in his introduction about how his acquaintance with the verb thole in the Ulster dialect of his family gave him a point of entry to the language of the Anglo-Saxons (which might otherwise be thought Anglo-Saxon in the more restricted sense of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). He also talks of
how his own writing consciously broke away from seeing a clashing
nationalist opposition between Irish and Anglo-Saxon into a more
creative synthesis, ‘into some unpartitioned linguistic country, a region where one’s language would not be simply a badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or an official imposition, but an entry into further language’. His use of Ulster dialect words in an Anglo-Saxon epic is part of that rapprochement.
The opening word of the poem encapsulates the challenge of
translation in miniature. Hwæt! is a traditional opening of Old English
poems and a conjurer of attention in Old English prose. It is hard to
translate because interjections have become so quaint in Modern English as to sound either farcical or maudlin (or both): Lo! Ah! Oh! Indeed! Liuzza’s ‘Listen!’ is probably as close as uncolloquial English comes to the effect. Heaney’s ‘So’ is so much more forceful because it conjures his story-telling voice, suggesting in his Ulster dialect that a story is about to begin so you’d better pay attention and that there’ll be consequences in that story – all things implied by Old English hwæt. This particular translation choice is also discussed by Heaney in his introduction. He explains that he has adopted for the poem the ‘big-voiced’ language of his Ulster Catholic family: ‘in that idiom “so” operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.’
So, Heaney has a voice for translating the epic, but how does he do
with the story? Beowulf is, at core, an account of action, of a hero fighting three monsters – a fact that any interpretation ignores at its peril ever since Tolkien’s famous essay from 1936 – and Heaney is good with this action. The Beowulf-poet gives considerable space to each of the fights, describing them in attentive detail, as when the hero and the audience first view Grendel in action. The scene is translated closely by Liuzza:
he seized at once at his first pass
a sleeping man, slit him open suddenly,
bit into his joints, drank the blood from his veins,
gobbled his flesh in gobbets, and soon
had completely devoured that dead man,
feet and fingertips (740-45a).
This is a heightened moment of terror in the original (nicely and
emphatically paced in Benjamin Bagby’s oral performance of the poem), with the unusual use of rhyme (‘slat unwearnum, / bat banlocan, blod edrum dranc’, 741b-742) and that rapacious rhythm is captured by Liuzza’s ‘gobbled his flesh in gobbets’. Heaney maintains a more measured pace, albeit with an onomatopœically shaved-down penultimate line:
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.
Here the vocabulary is appropriately revolting, with a particularly
striking kenning for banlocan (glossed by Mitchell and Robinson as
‘bone-lock, (i.e. joint)’), namely ‘bone-lappings’. The heavily-consonanted monosyllables work to good purpose and join the strong alliteration to replicate the Beowulf-poet’s tour de force. Characteristically, Heaney does not just achieve the occasional good phrase but maintains his effect consistently over the sentence.
Some of the lustre of Heaney’s translation comes from his handling
of weapons, where the Old English word-hoard was clearly more
expansive than what is available to a modern translator. Heaney
explicitly begs off close translation of terms for weapons or battles in his introduction, claiming that he cannot match the multitude of words in the poem: ‘Old English abounds in vigorous, evocative and specifically poetic words for these things, but I have tended to follow modern usage and in the main have called a sword a sword’. Nevertheless, weapons are given the heft they deserve. Hrunting, the important sword given by Unferth which is not up to the business of Grendel’s Mother, is a ‘wavepatterned sword, / hard-edged, splendid’ in Liuzza’s close rendering, but a ‘sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonderblade’ in Heaney, which gets across the (sharpened) point. In the Finnsburh Episode, Heaney brings to life the word for the sword that at a crucial moment passes from the son of Hunlaf to Hengest, ‘hildeleoman/ billa selest’ (1143b-44a), ‘a glinting sword,/ the best of battle-flames’ in Liuzza’s perfectly reasonable translation, ‘Dazzle-the-Duel, the best sword of all’ in Heaney’s bold reanimation of the kenning as sword name.
In speaking of kennings in his introduction, Heaney remarks ‘I try to
match the poet’s analogy-seeking habit at its most original’ and he is
predictably good at this throughout. The fægne flæschoman of Grendel’s Mother (literally ‘the doomed flesh-garment’) becomes ‘the doomed/ house of her flesh’. The banhus of Heaney’s reflections in ‘Bone Dreams’ is rendered simply as ‘bone-house’, while bancofa (glossed by Mitchell and Robinson as ‘bone chamber (i.e. body)’) becomes ‘the bone-cage of his body’.
But there is more to Beowulf than the series of fights undertaken by
its hero. For a start, there is a lot more fighting beyond the central action, which helps create the dark tone that pervades most of the poem, a tone often called elegiac. For example, when Beowulf has disposed of Grendel and all would appear happy in Denmark, a poet tells a story at the celebratory feast about an earlier Danish engagement among the Frisians in which nobody looks very glorious. This story, known as the Finnsburh Episode, is introduced by the Old English poet through the doomed figure of Hildeburh, wife of the Frisian leader Finn and sister of the Danish visitor Hnæf, who cannot turn out a winner since both her brother and her son have died fighting, but on opposite sides. Heaney’s verse becomes heightened here through a depressing spareness of line:
had little cause
to credit the Jutes:
son and brother,
she lost them both
on the battlefield.
and blameless, they
foredoomed, cut down
and spear-gored. She,
the woman in shock,
waylaid by grief,
Hoc’s daughter –
how could she not
lament her fate
when morning came
and the light broke
on her murdered dears? (34-35)
The fractured lines emphasize the lament and pained non-understanding. Heaney’s telling of the whole story matches the bleakness of the original.
This elegiac tone becomes particularly prominent in the last third of
the poem. Two famous moments play such sadness to the full – the
lament of the last survivor of his race who buries the treasure now
useless to him that will become the dragon’s hoard (2247-66) and the lament of a father for a dead son judicially hanged (2444-62a) – and both are tours de force in Heaney’s translation. The last survivor laments the absence of the joys of the heroic life:
‘No trembling harp,
no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk
swerving through the hall, no swift horse
pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter
have emptied the earth of entire peoples.’
Here, unusually, Heaney makes his emotive point through a series of
qualifiers – trembling, tuned, tumbling, swift – and through forceful
verbs suggesting action now denied – the swerving of the hawk, the
pawing of the horse. The right tone is established for the last survivor’s demise (‘death’s flood/ brimmed up in his heart’) and a bleakness is associated with that treasure hoard.
Even when things are going well in this poem there is a spirit of doom
lurking. Beowulf ’s most characteristic movement is an insistence on
edwenden, ‘reversal’, usually figured as an awareness of impending
doom that will undercut even the most celebratory moments of the
narrative. So, when Hrothgar is on the rise and has the glorious hall
Heorot built, the poet cannot resist inscribing within its building a hint
of the hall’s impending destruction:
The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.
Blood-lust rampant is very much the point: even if the precise details of this encounter are murky (Beowulf predicts a conflict between Hrothgar and his son-in-law Ingeld in his report-back to Hygelac), the moral of the interruption lies in that killer instinct, the blood-lust rampant, an idea the Old English poet can convey with the compounds ecghete, ‘[sword-]edge hatred’ and wælni ∂e, ‘slaughter-hostility’, more literally but less informatively translated in Liuzza’s
The hall towered
high and horn-gabled – it awaited hostile fires,
the surges of war; it was not yet long
before the sword-hate of sworn in-laws
should arise after ruthless violence. (82-85)
Liuzza’s close translation of the temporal markers for the shift in
fortunes makes for an awkwardness overcome by Heaney’s explicit
rearrangement: ‘That doom abided,/ but in time it would come’.
The Old English poet is fond of expressing this pattern of reversal
with an economy that can’t be matched in Modern English. Heaney
anticipates the ever-present doom, the suggestion that something is
rotten in the state of Denmark, with pleasing simplicity in his use of
The Shielding nation
was not yet familiar with feud and betrayal,
the poet observes, where the word yet does plentiful work; or, at a
moment of Wealhtheow’s exercise of realpolitik,
and Wealhtheow came to sit
in her gold crown betwen two good men,
uncle and nephew, each one of whom
still trusted the other,
in which that still hangs in the air over any accommodation the queen
can suggest. Again, in Hrothgar’s so-called sermon, Hrothgar holds up his own case as a moral for the young Beowulf, calling attention with that problematic hwæt:
Hwæt, me pæs on eple edwenden cwom,
gyrn æfter gomene (1774-75)
translated emphatically if not quite idiomatically by Liuzza:
Look! Turnabout came in my own homeland,
grief after gladness
and more quietly but effectively by Heaney:
Still, what happened was a hard reversal
from bliss to grief.
In Beowulf, the movement ‘from bliss to grief’ is very much the point.
While the poem may be doom-ridden in its implications, it is not
consistently decorous in its bleak tone. Indeed, the original includes a
strand of (mostly dark) humour, that is a challenge for the translator to match. For example, part of the horror of Grendel’s ravaging of Heorot is his disregard of the feuding system and the poet grimly jokes on the retainers’ inability to receive wergild, the appropriate compensation in place of revenge:
nor did any of the counselors need to expect
bright compensation from the killer’s hands,
as Liuzza suggests, with a note about the wergild system. Heaney offers:
No counsellor could ever expect
fair reparation from those rabid hands,
where the shift from description of monstrous action to the counsellors’ expectation for normalcy hints at the joke without needing a footnote, and where the decorum of reparation is clearly incongruous beside the lack of control suggested by rabid. Subsequently, as Beowulf makes his defiant speech in front of Hrothgar, he briefly engages the possibility of losing and being carried off by Grendel, an unsettling possibility that he allays through macabre humour nicely retained by Heaney:
‘Then my face won’t be there
to be covered in death . . .
No need then
to lament for long or lay out my body;’
no need, indeed, since the body won’t be there.
‘Fate goes ever as fate must’
concludes the hero with gnomic pithiness appropriately captured by
Heaney and rather ducked by Liuzza’s ‘Wyrd always goes as it must!’
Heaney does not rise to all the comic moments, though. In a
particularly clear-cut case, when the retainers reach the terrible mere of the Grendels, one of the Geats kills a water-monster with an arrow. The Old English poet provides a laboured joke, captured by Liuzza:
he was a slower swimmer
on the waves, when death took him away. (1435-36)
An Old English tradition of understatement allows a listener no doubt
what is at stake in such tardiness of motion, yet the literal sense creates a comic incongruity, a joke in keeping with the laboured death of a creature defined in a nearby kenning in relation to his motion as a wægbora (1440, Liuzza gives ‘wave-roamer’). Heaney presumably finds the joke distracting and its underpinnings untranslatable and so gives a straight version:
his freedom in the water
got less and less. It was his last swim.
This spells out the point even as it refrains from attempting the tone of the original.
A more serious moment of comedy is also underplayed by Heaney. When Grendel’s Mother surprises the Danes with her revenge attack, Beowulf knows nothing of the calamity when he is summoned by a newly-grieving Hrothgar. As he breezes in, his enquiry about how Hrothgar slept is a faux pas in the newly-serious circumstances, picked up by a distraught Hrothgar. Beowulf
asked him whether
the night had been agreeable, after his urgent summons.
Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scyldings:
‘Ask not of joys! Sorrow is renewed
for the Danish people. Æschere is dead’ (1318-23)
in Liuzza’s translation. The humour depends on realizing the incongruity of agreeable beside urgent summons, as does the Old English in contrasting getæse with neodla ∂u, a unique compound presumably coined for the occasion. Heaney makes the exchange more forceful by playing a single word across Beowulf’s blunder and Hrothgar’s grief. Beowulf enters:
asking if he’d rested,
since the urgent summons had come as a surprise.
Then Hrothgar, the Shieldings’ helmet, spoke:
‘Rest? What is rest? Sorrow has returned.
Alas for the Danes! Æschere is dead.’ (44)
As often, Heaney provides more clarity than the original with that
explanatory conjunction (‘since’) and makes explicit the echo across the speeches (‘rested’/’rest’). The effect here is to make Beowulf sound a little more in control than the Old English poet allows him to be. Heaney’s statement of the grief of Hrothgar (strikingly named ‘the Shieldings’ helmet’ as in the Old English ‘helm Scyldinga’) is forceful in its pithiness and in that way matches the original. In other words, Heaney is being as effective as ever here in getting across the poet’s main thrust but, since Old and Modern English have different ways, he is forced to sacrifice the comic nuances that the Old English poet can play even in a predominantly serious scene.
The balance within Beowulf of a celebratory but elegiac world is
matched by the balance with which the poet places his characters in a pagan world viewed from a Christian perspective, an apparent dichotomy about which the poet seems to worry very little. In summing up the fate of Beowulf, the poet observes:
Famous for his deeds
a warrior may be, but it remains a mystery
where his life will end, when he may no longer
dwell in the mead-hall among his own,
suggesting a pagan viewpoint, which is kept in balance by Wiglaf’s
anachronistic-sounding memorial that Beowulf will lodge ‘for a long
time in the care of the Almighty’. Such a balance is retained in the
famous final lines, which Heaney renders:
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame,
where public opinion mostly reflects neutral or Christian values (gracious, fair and kind) until that final word, lofgeornost, turns back to an economy of heroism where the lasting memorial depends upon the story-telling potential achieved through a life’s reputation.
Beowulf himself makes a strong statement of heroic values earlier in the poem. After he has committed his little gaffe in asking about
Hrothgar’s night’s sleep, and after Hrothgar has expressed his sorrow, Beowulf reestablishes verbal control with a strong assertion:
‘Ne sorga, snotor guma. Selre bi∂ æghwæm
pæt he his freond wrece ponne he fela murne’, (1383-4)
which is rendered by Liuzza:
‘Sorrow not, wise one! It is always better
to avenge one’s friend than to mourn overmuch.’
The Old English here is particularly forceful and concise. Part of the
effect is achieved by the parallel yet contrasting verbs in the second line which are balanced through placement and through grammatical rhyme and yet are antithetical in content (‘he . . . wrece/ he . . . murne’); part is achieved through the appeal to a gnomic voice expressed through an impersonal generalizing (‘selre bi∂ æghwæm’) which, nevertheless, keeps an active agent in the following clause (‘he . . . he’) – literally ‘Do not sorrow, wise man. It is better for each one that he avenge his friend than that he mourn much’. Heaney gives:
Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning,
where the slight assonance of avenge/indulge matches the balanced
grammatical rhyme of wrece/murne, and where the lexical choice ‘dear ones’ for ‘his freond’ avoids the pitfall of a false cognate and extends the generalized wisdom. Still the utterance is not as forceful as in Old English and the impersonal voice does not allow an active agent in the second line. Heaney continues building effects as the speech continues:
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
‘Glory before death’ has much of the climactic weight of the forcefully straightforward original, ‘domes ær dea†e’. On the other hand, ‘bulwark’ may represent a heavy-consonant too many, suggesting a solidity not apparent in the original.
So, Heaney’s translation presents a dazzling success, yet even
Heaney’s version lacks some of the poetic force and misses some of the tone of the original – inevitably, of course, since Old English and Modern English have different ways. Heaney’s is the best translation available and as such deserves its place in the Norton Anthology. Here is a translation that makes for a coherent and exciting reading in Modern English and that achieves a music of its own. If a reader is tempted to turn from this to the Old English poem itself, Liuzza’s volume might serve well as a bridge. Heaney includes a judicious and very readable introduction to the poem (in the Faber volume), but this is inevitably quite brief. Liuzza provides a more extensive if still concise introduction, which will bring a reader up to speed on the major critical issues surrounding the poem. Liuzza also provides a number of useful appendices including, most valuably, a wonderful collection of analogues to the poem, many newly translated. Gathered together here are the remaining Old English heroic fragments, such as The Fight at Finnsburg and Widsith; the obvious Norse analogues for the major action of the poem, including the parallel monster fight from Grettissaga; and a number of Latin and Old English contexts for understanding the balance between Christianity and paganism or Old English attitudes towards
Danes, including a generous selection from the leading churchmen of
the time of the Beowulf-manuscript, Ælfric and Wulfstan. Liuzza’s
translation, if somewhat heavy-going as an independent work, would
serve well as a crib to the original poem. And the serious student of the poem can now approach that original with relative ease in the newlystandard edition by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C Robinson, Beowulf: An Edition (Blackwell, 1998).
Still, while I may hope (as a professional Anglo-Saxonist) that
Heaney’s translation will bring enthusiasts flocking to read Old English in the original and to discover the rest of the Old English wordhoard, its most important function will be to give readers with no knowledge of Old English a taste of the vitality and complexity and music of the poem Beowulf. To do that, it was necessary to create a gripping epic that, while as true as possible to the original, works in the modern language to entertain, to challenge, and to amaze modern readers. Heaney has done that and it is an accomplishment well worthy of the Whitbread Prize. Once again, as is narrated once in the poem:
a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict metre. The man started
to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s
triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
entwining his words.
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- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The