Seamus Heaney's Beowulf
Beowulf, a translation by Seamus Heaney
by Gillian Clarke
In October 1999, in Manchester Metropolitan University, Seamus Heaney read to an audience of students, writers and scholars from his new translation of Beowulf. Something about the sound of it was familiar. As he read, Heaney's voice let into each line a little halfway pause. The effect was like a thread of gold in rock, the visible made audible, a river of light flowing down centre-page between two shores of text, as it appears in the printed versions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This thread of light is seen on the opening page of the poem, the only page where original Old English appears, and heard in the facing translation on the right. Thus, with the Anglo-Saxon thorn symbol, pronounced th, represented here by p:
Daem eafera waes aefter cenned
geong in geardum, pone God sende
folce to frofre; fyrendearfe ongeat
Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed.
'Tholed', the Ulster word to suffer, is a word lost to the English yet kept by Ulster users of the language. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word polian, no longer spelled with the thorn symbol used in Old English, but inherited from that old tongue. When Heaney read this old word again in lines by John Crowe Ransom, he knew it as a word that had crossed time, ethnicity and oceans to become a familiar, a word that belonged to him, a word to unlock the word-hoard of Beowulf
“I was ready to translate Beowulf. Polian had opened my right of way.”
He continues with this insight into the translator's art:
The erotics of composition are essential to the process, some pre-reflective excitation and orientation, some sense that your own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language. And this is as true for translators as it is for poets attempting original work.
The new book bears no resemblance to the faded college books in the comer where my old copy of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader resides, dull text books dense with notes, the margins crammed with youthful longhand. This new version looks, feels and reads like poetry, and should lure those with little or no knowledge of Beowulf.
In his Introduction Heaney describes an undergraduate's experience of dealing with the poem as 'a matter of construing the meaning, getting a grip on the grammar and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon, and being able to recognise, translate and comment upon random extracts'. Generations of scholars have studied the textual and philosophical aspects of Beowulf, but it has mostly remained outside the understanding of mere poetry lovers. Yet, poor as student experience of the poem might have been, Beowulf has left footprints in the language, and has had a profound, secret effect on speakers of English who have never heard of it. To those who have read it once long ago the power to haunt the memory is surprising. The bloodstained jacket of the new book wakes images of a dark history, the smell and flavour of firelit halls, gold hoards, murder and battle and Grendel-haunted bogs and forests. Heaney not only shows its influence on himself as a poet, but his insight shows how it has powered all poetry in English. In their underground caves the dragons of language are alive, like the Anglo-Saxon words that lie underneath the living language we speak and write. What we take from the poem is not just narrative and imagery. There are cave-echoes there, as well as shadows, and the senses steal from deep in the language itself where the roots of English begin. This is the crucial point of Heaney's remaking of Beowulf. He has made it out of the language and because of the language. It has long been obvious that poets choose Anglo-Saxon words knowing that 'womb' is earthier, bloodier, less medical than 'uterus', 'love' is warmer, more committed than 'affection'. Those who value office and status frequently choose important-sounding Latin words and phrases: 'product', 'learning objectives' .
However, Heaney brings all the language he knows to this translation, the Catholic Latin and Ulster English of an Irish childhood, a knowledge of Gaelic and Celtic words, as well as the hauntings of Anglo-Saxon that stayed with him since student days. In his inspiring Introduction he makes much of the power of a single word to spirit poetry into being, as he has often done before in his writings and lectures on poetry. From his Irish viewpoint he hears the River Usk as the Celtic uisce, water, and from water, whiskey. From a Welsh point of view I hear the river sing the early Welsh name for water, wysg. In the Welsh-English dictionary wysg is defined as a water-course.
The point is, this version of Beowulf would never have been written had Heaney not been called to his task by the vocation of poetry itself. He is dazzled by the word-hoard as the marauders were by gold. He delves for language not in a scholarly text but in a poem, therefore what he will find within, inside the text, inside the meaning, will be poetry.
That is the lure. The Beowulf poet and Heaney have in common that they both write out of a Christian culture settled dangerously on disputed land tom by religious differences, in the one case of heathenism, in the other of tribal intolerance within Christianity. This helps Heaney to help us to understand the strange shifts of tone in the poem. At first it is a story of struggle, heroism and courage, reverses, advances, like all mythology. Written between the seventh and the 11th centuries, in Christian times, somewhere in Britain, it sets its scene in the poet's ancestral past in Scandinavia, in the country of mythic memory. Those who know the stories of the Mabinogi, or early Welsh poetry written at approximately the same time and on the same island, will not be puzzled by the mixture of myth and history, the dream-like digressions, the poems within the poem. We know it to be the voice of the inner human being, the narrative we inhabit, the dream-time of the mind. They add depth and dazzle to the narrative, arias, maybe.
In his version, Seamus Heaney has allowed no thesis, no narrowing, no pedantry, no restriction except the standards of poetry itself, to tighten a noose around his talent. Poetry alone solves the puzzle, line by line. No kind of language is banned. Not 'thole', 'gumption', 'blather', not 'That was one good king', 'big talk'. In the Introduction he says of the dragon: 'He is at once a stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air'. And hear this:
He has done his worst but the wound will end him.
He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,
Limping and looped in it.
A great poet has wrested a great poem from the scholars. Scholarship is not enough. It takes a poet to make a poem. This is the most exciting book I've got my hands on in a long time.
(first published in Poetry Wales)