As mentioned in Good Morning News, the renowned Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, has died. I had plenty of his poetry foisted upon me in my senior high school English class, and various obituaries and appreciations today will no doubt extol his original work. However, the work of Heaney’s that made the biggest impression on me wasn’t his poetry. It was his verse translation of Beowulf, which is probably the best version of the poem that you can read.
Beowulf, for those of you who didn’t have it foisted upon you, is the story of a mighty dude who fights monsters (sometimes while naked) drinks mead, and then dies in glorious combat after fighting a dragon to the death. It is (and I do not use this term lightly) fucking metal. It’s also a poem with missing parts written in an obsolete version of the English language. Any translation of Beowulf (or any old poem, really) has to balance translation with form. The translator has to make everything comprehensible to the modern reader, but in doing so may sacrifice the beats and rhythms that were part of the original work. There are some prose translations of Beowulf out there, and while they might tell you what happens in the poem, they lose the spirit of the work. Beowulf was poetry, after all, and meant to be spoken aloud in a rhythmic fashion. Heaney’s translation preserves the meter of the original poem, makes it comprehensible to the modern reader, and yet still feels like something that could have echoed off medieval stone walls.
Here’s Heaney describing the monstrous Grendel getting ready for a home invasion. For greatest effect, imagine these words being spoken aloud to a bunch of guys drinking ale in a medieval great hall.
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
he had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar's dwelling—-
although never in his life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
and arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood.
Can you not imagine some dude with a magnificent beard intoning that solemnly to a gathering fellow beard-havers? Imagine listing to those words, in a stentorian baritone, ringing through some archaic stronghold. Imagine dudes pumping their fist while another dude tells of Beowulf ripping Grendels arms off. Imagine them hoisting flagons into the air when told of Beowulf’s heroic dragon-based battle death. That shit wouldn’t be out of place on a Manowar cover. Heaney’s evocations of grim medieval badassitude are (there’s really no other phrase for it) fucking metal. As great as Heaney's poetry is, he also made an important work of English literature a lot more accessible to a lot more people, and that's no small thing.
So, read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. Unless you can read Old English. In which case, read the original Beowulf.
And after you’re done with that, read John Garnder’s Grendel.
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