‘When a warrior is gone’… Seamus Heaney

‘When a warrior is gone’… Seamus Heaney.

Via Call of the Siren.

Though – as I wrote a couple posts back – Heaney was not my favorite translator of Beowulf, it’s impossible to deny the impact of his translation, and for those who find medieval literature to be not only interesting and entertaining but also somehow important, that impact can only be a good thing.

As I am outside the academy it’s hard to gauge the current state of medieval scholarship in educational institutions, but a more widespread readership of Beowulf means more people are thinking about it, writing about it, making movies and art about it.  We can wrangle about the quality of that art (which is a good deal of the fun!), but to the extent that Beowulf becomes part of our cultural awareness, it becomes part of a living tradition.  I think Seamus Heaney had a good deal to do with that.


‘We’ and Beowulf

The first word in Beowulf – apart from Hwæt (‘listen,’ ‘hark’) – is we.  The first clause of the poem in every modern English translation I own is rendered ‘We have heard.’

We have heard these stories, the poet says – and then goes on to tell us anyway of the aggressive glory of the reign of Scyld, ancestral king of the Danes, and the fortunes of his heirs and his nation.  Past strength is contrasted with the present misery of the Danish court, as Hrothgar and his people live under the terror of the monster Grendel’s nightly raids.

It’s a confident way to begin, telling your audience that they know this already.  The Beowulf-poet says that he and his audience are drawing from the same well.  And throughout the give-or-take-3,000 lines of this long, contemplative, meandering narrative, he gives absolutely no reason to doubt that he is stating anything but simple fact.

What stories today – film, television, book or otherwise – begin with such a casual affirmation of shared cultural knowledge?

Apart from politicians’ campaign rally speeches and the assurances of advertisers, I can’t think of any.

A few years ago, I bought my wife a copy of Brother Juniper’s Bread Book.  On page 48, you’ll find a discussion of Struan, a bread that was made in Scotland as part of a harvest ritual until about a century ago:

The greatest loss is of the ritual itself, the consecrating of such a concise symbol of harvest, of the diverse growth of a fertile land during an entire year, the loss of offering this symbol for a blessing, which is another symbol in the chain of symbols that ends only in the numinous.  Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself.

In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is.  So a bread ritual, a harvest fair, dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God,” is a way to tune into this deeper reality.  I believe that if the world falls apart, as it sometimes shows sign of doing, it will be as much because of the abandonment of festival rituals such as Struan at Michaelmas as because of war or pollution.  

Stories, like rituals, or recipes, or the heirloom swords and treasures depicted in Beowulf, have a life of exchange.  They pass from hand to hand.  Sometimes the exchange is lateral, synchronic, easy, familiar, like bread torn from the loaf.  Other times it’s more of a Hail Mary pass, down the long centuries to some confused future.

For the Beowulf-poet, it seems it was both.  We, the modern readers of the poem, must initially exclude ourselves from the ‘we’ of the opening line, but we cannot exclude ourselves from among its intended audience, as a professor of mine, Tony Brinkley, suggested some years ago in reference to art in general.  Someone created this and did not want it to die.  In a strange but real sense, it was meant for us – and for those who come after. 

In the meantime, we can steward it.  We can be the ones, in other words, who have heard.  

Heaney and Beowulf

I remember being an undergraduate just prior to the publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in 1999.  I hadn’t read much of Heaney’s poetry, but my lit professors were thrilled at the prospect of the old poem being pushed into modern English by a current poet with some real chops.  Some time after the Norton edition came out, I bought a copy – though to be honest I was more interested in the critical essays included in the volume than the translation itself.

But for all its accolades, Heaney’s Beowulf is not my favorite (that honor goes to Frederick Rebsamen, whose translation, light on punctuation and innovative in syntax, seems to evoke most strongly the rhythm and atmosphere of the original).  I remember reading some passages of Heaney’s version to my wife and having to stop – something didn’t seem right; the poem seemed somehow lighter than I remembered.

Other writers have articulated their own thoughts on Heaney and Beowulf, so I was interested to see an essay via medievalists.net that promised to explore the matter:  What Seamus Heaney Did to Beowulf: An Essay on Translation and the Transmutation of English Identity.

If you’ve read Heaney’s Beowulf, the essay could be worth a read – though the author, Sandra M. Hordis, seems to have an axe to grind.  The “English identity” of the title isn’t defined, and its “transmutation” goes largely unexplained.  Hordis shows that Heaney’s use of Anglo-Irish idiom to translate some Old English words complicates the text, given that the majority of its readers will need to have those Anglo-Irish words themselves defined – but then, this would be fairly clear to anyone reading Heaney’s own Introduction to his translation: Heaney’s professed desire to use Irish terms from his upbringing as “one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism” immediately struck me as out of place, a little nationalist, even.  Hordis’s main critique seems to be that Heaney’s translation intentionally “foreignizes” (her term) itself, which is a fair point, but doesn’t perhaps require the detailed explanation she gives.

Hordis’s essay did lead me to Thomas Shippey’s 1999 criticism of Heaney’s Beowulf: “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.”  Shippey takes Heaney to task from the point of view of a scholar of Old English, and he makes his points with force and clarity.  Whereas Hordis sees Heaney complicating the relationship between translator, audience, and source text, Shippey sees Heaney simplifying some of the subtleties to be found in the Old English original.

Both writers make convincing arguments, but neither essay reflects my own reservations about Heaney’s translation, which are admittedly vague, subjective, and aesthetic.  If Heaney’s was the only translation going, I doubt Beowulf would figure so largely in my own reading – and I have to wonder about those many readers for whom Heaney’s is the only doorway.

Old English: this is happening.

This morning I had the chance to read one of the essays that constitute On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.  It was a piece by Howell D. Chickering titled “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith.”

The poem in question concerns the heroine’s beheading of Holofernes, a leader of the Assyrians, as he sleeps drunk in his tent.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon take on an Old Testament story – and, as Chickering shows, is characterized by an especially lively use of language.

Alliteration is properly understood as the outstanding feature of Old English verse – so much so that rhyme may seem to be wholly a French import.  But there’s this astonishing couple of half-lines in Judith that make wonderful use of off-rhyme:

                          sloh ða eornoste

ides ellenrof    oðre siðe

þone haeðenan hund,    þaet him þaet heafod wand

forð on ða flore.

Chickering translates:

                                                then in earnest she struck,

the courageous woman,    a second time

that heathen hound,    so that his head went rolling

forth upon the floor.

Chickering then quotes an analysis by T.A. Bredehof, author of Early English Metre:

the “hund”/”wand” off-rhyme pair implicitly evokes, for readers or listeners, each of the corresponding true rhymes, calling to mind both the “hand” of Judith, and the “wund” [“wound”] of Holofernes.  As the passage insists, this crucial moment of separation (Judith from Holofernes; head – and soul – from body) is simultaneously a moment of binding (Holofernes’s soul is bound in hell), and the use of rhyme and secondary alliteration serves to emphasize the binding aspects of the passage through a kind of linguistic or poetic interlacing.

I love stuff like this, and I’m not sure if I can explain why.  “Hund/Hand/Wand/Wund” – as concrete an example as I can think of to display on a small scale what the Beowulf-poet meant on a larger scale when he wrote “word oðer fand” (“one word found another”), describing the method of storytelling and singing as the Danes rode back to Herot from Grendel’s lair.  It’s the kind of thing Roberta Frank wrote about in her fantastic “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist.”  Words linked to words, sending echoes of meaning banging back and forth.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s time once again to try to learn Old English.  I never had the chance to take a course on the language in undergrad or graduate school, but I’ve got plenty of books and, I realize, enough time to give it another shot.  “Another”, because I’ve made probably half a dozen attempts over the past decade.  The closest I’ve gotten to a respectable mastery was around 7 years ago, when I memorized Brunanburh and in the process got a good handle on some of the vocabulary and grammar.  My problem is that I find my interests shifting to other things and as a result tend not to stick to a single language for more than a couple months.  Learning a language entirely solo also presents its challenges.

It’s time, though.  My mind rarely feels as stretched as when I’m trying to learn a language.  And don’t I owe it to the kids to bring them up bilingual?  They’ll thank me.

Damn right, Dad.  Get on it!

Damn right.