on Beowulf and his verse translation
And now this is ‘an inheritance’ –
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward
Again and again and again.
1 BEOWULF: THE POEM
The poem called Beowulf was composed some time between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century of the first millennium, in the language that is today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is a heroic narrative, more than three thousand lines long, concerning the deeds of a Scandinavian prince, also called Beowulf, and it stands as one of the foundation works of poetry in English. The fact that the English language has changed so much in the last thousand years means, however, that the poem is now generally read in translation and mostly in English courses at schools and universities. This has contributed to the impression that is was written (as Osip Madelstam said of The Divine Comedy) ‘on official paper’, which is unfortunate, since what we are dealing with is a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language. Its narrative elements may belong to a previous age but as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.
The poem was written in England but the events it describes are set in Scandinavia, in a ‘once upon a time’ that is partly historical. Its hero, Beowulf, is the biggest presence among the warriors in the land of the Geats, a territory situated in what is now southern Sweden, and early in the poem Beowulf crosses the sea to the land of the Danes in order to rid their country of a man-eating monster called Grendel. From this expedition (which involves him in a second contest with Grendel’s mother) he returns in triumph and eventually rules for fifty years as king of his homeland. Then a dragon begins to terrorize the countryside and Beowulf must confront it. In a final climatic encounter, he does manage to slay the dragon, but he also meets his own death and enters the legends of his people as a warrior of high renown.
We know about the poem more or less by chance, because it exists in one manuscript only. The unique copy (now in the British Library) barely survived a fire in the eighteenth century and was then transcribed and titled, re-transcribed and edited, translated and adapted, interpreted and taught, until it has become an acknowledged classic. For decades it has been a set book on English syllabuses at university level all over the world. The fact that many English departments require it to be studied in the original continues to generate resistance, most notably at Oxford University, where the pros and cons of the inclusion of part of it as a compulsory element in the English course have been debated regularly in recent years.
For generations of undergraduates, academic study of the poem was often just a matter of construing the meaning, getting a grip on the grammar and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon, and being able to recognize, translate and comment upon random extracts that were presented in the examinations. For generations of scholars too the interest had been textual and philological; then there developed a body of research into analogues and sources, a quest for stories and episodes in the folklore and legends of the Nordic peoples that would parallel or foreshadow episodes in Beowulf. Scholars were also preoccupied with fixing the exact time and place of the poem’s composition, paying minute attention to linguistic, stylistic and scribal details. More generally, they tried to establish the history and genealogy of the dynasties of Swedes, Geats and Deanes to which the poet makes constant allusion; and they devoted themselves to a consideration of the world-view behind the poem, asking to what extent (if at all) the newly established Christian religion, which was fundamental to the poet’s intellectual formation, displaced him from his imaginative at-homeness in the world of his poem – a pagan Germanic society governed by heroic code of honour, one where the attainment of a name for warrior-prowess among the living overwhelms any concern about the soul’s destiny in the afterlife.
However, when it comes to considering Beowulf as a work of literature, one publication stands out. In 1936, the Oxford scholar and teacher J.R.R. Tolkien published an epoch-making paper entitled ‘"The Monsters and the Critics", which took for granted the poem’s integrity and distinction as a work of art and proceeded to show in what this integrity and distinction inhered. Tolkien assumed that the poet had felt his way through the inherited material – the fabulous elements and the traditional accounts of an heroic past – and by a combination of creative intuition and conscious structuring had arrived at a unity of effect and a balanced order. He assumed in other words, that the Beowulf poet was an imaginative writer rather than some kind of back-formation derived from nineteenth-century folklore and philology. Tolkien’s brilliant literary treatment changed the way the poem was valued and initiated a new era – and new terms – of appreciation.
It is impossible to attain a full understanding and estimate of Beowulf without recourse to this immense body of commentary and elucidation. Nevertheless, readers coming to the poem for the first time are likely to experience something other than mere discomfiture when faced with the strangeness of the names and the immediate lack of known reference points. An English-speaker new to The Iliad or The Odyssey or The Aeneid will probably at least have heard of Troy and Helen, or of Penelope and the Cyclops, or of Dido and the Golden Bough. These epics may be in Greek and Latin, yet the classical heritage has entered the cultural memory enshrined in English so thoroughly that their worlds are more familiar than that of the first native epic, even thought it was composed centuries after them. Achilles rings a bell, not Scyld Scyfing. Ithaca leads the mind in a certain direction, but not Heorot. The Sibyl of Cumae will stir certain associations, but not bad Queen Modthryth. First-time readers of Beowulf very quickly rediscover the meaning of the term ‘the Dark Ages’, and it is in the hope of dispelling some of the puzzlement they are bound to feel that I have added the marginal glosses that appear in the following pages.
Still, in spite of the sensation of being caught between a ‘shield-wall’ of opaque references and a ‘word-hoard’ that is old and strange, such readers are also bound to feel a certain ‘shock of the new’. This is because the poem possesses a mythic potency. Like Shield Sheafson (as Scyld Scyfing is known in this translation), it arrived from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond. In the intervening time, the poet conjures up a work as remote as Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon, as commanding as the horn-pronged gables of King Hrothgar’s hall, as solid and dazzling as Beowulf’s funeral pyre that is set ablaze at the end. These opening and closing scenes retain a haunting presence in the mind; they are set pieces but they have the life-marking power of certain dreams. They are like the pillars of the gate of horn, through which the wise dreams of true art can still be said to pass.
What happens in between is what W.B. Yeats would have called a phantasmagoria. Three agons – three struggles in which the preternatural force-for-evil of the hero’s enemies comes springing at him in demonic shapes; three encounters with what the critical literature and the textbook glossaries call ‘the monsters’ – in three archetypal sites of fear; the barricaded night-house, the infested underwater current and the reptile-haunted rocks of a wilderness. If we think of the poem in this way, its place in world art becomes clearer and more secure. We can conceive of it re-presented and transformed in performance in a bunraku theatre in Japan, where the puppetry and the poetry are mutually supportive, a mixture of technicolor spectacle and ritual chant. Or we can equally envisage it as an animated cartoon (and there has been at least one shot at this already), full of mutating graphics and minatory stereophonics. We can avoid, at any rate, the slightly cardboard effect that the word ‘monster’ tends to introduce, and give the poem a fresh chance to sweep ‘in off the moors, down through the mist-bands’ of Anglo-Saxon England, forward into the global village of the third millennium.
Nevertheless, the dream element and overall power to haunt come at a certain readerly price. The poem abounds in passages that will leave an unprepared audience bewildered. Just when the narrative seems ready to take another step ahead, it sidesteps. For a moment it is as if we have been channel-surfed into another poem, and at two points in this translation I indicate that we are in fact participating in a poem-within-our-poem not only by the use of italics, but by a slight quickening of pace and shortening of metrical rein. The passages comprise lines 883–914 and 1070–158, and on each occasion a minstrel has begun to chant a poem as part of the celebration of Beowulf’s achievements. In the former case, the minstrel expresses his praise by telling the story of Sigemund’s victory over a dragon, which both parallels Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel and prefigures his fatal encounter with the wyrm in his old age. In the latter – the most famous of what were once called the ‘digressions’ in the poem, the one dealing with a fight between Danes and Frisinas at the stronghold of Finn, the Frisian king – the song the minstrel sings has a less obvious bearing on the immediate situation of the hero, but its import is nevertheless central to both the historical and imaginative worlds of the poem.
The ‘Finnsburg episode’ immerses us in a society that is at once honour-bound and blood-stained, presided over by the laws of the blood-feud, where the kin of a person slain are bound to exact a price for the death, wither by slaying the killer or by receiving satisfaction in the form of wergild (the ‘man-price’), a legally fixed compensation. The claustrophobic and doomladen atmosphere of this interlude gives the reader an intense intimation of what wyrd, or fate, meant not only to the character in the Finn story but to those participating in the main action of Beowulf itself. All conceive of themselves as hooped within the great wheel of necessity, in thrall to a code of loyalty and bravery, bound to seek glory in the eye of the warrior world. The little nations are grouped around their lord; the greater nations spoil for war and menace the little ones; a lord dies, defencelessness ensues; the enemy strikes; vengeance for the dead becomes an ethic for the living, bloodshed begets further bloodshed; the wheel turns, the generations tread and tread and tread – which is what I meant above when I said that the import of the Finnsburg passage is central to the historical and imaginative worlds of the poem as a whole.
One way of reading Beowulf is to think of it as three agons in the hero’s life, but another way would be to regard it as a poem that contemplates the destinies of three peoples by tracing their interweaving histories in the story of the central character. First we meet the Danes – variously known as Shieldings (after Shield Sheafson, the founder of their line), the Ingwins, the Spear-Danes, the Bright-Danes, the West-Danes, and so on – a people in the full summer of their power, symbolized by the high hall built by King Hrothgar, one ‘meant to be a wonder of the world’ The threat to this superb people comes from within their own borders, from marshes beyond the pale, from the bottom of the haunted mere where ‘Cain’s clan’, in the shape of Grendel and his troll-dam, trawl and scavenge and bide their time. But it also comes from without, from the Heathobards, for example, whom the Danes have defeated in battle and from whom they can therefore expect retaliatory war (see lines 2020-69).
Beowulf actually predicts this turn of events when he goes back to his own country after saving the Danes (for the time being, at any rate) by staving off the two ‘reavers from hell’. In the hall of his ‘ring-giver’, Hygelac, lord of the Geats, the hero discourses about his adventures in a securely fortified cliff-top enclosure. But this security is only temporary, for it is the destiny of the Geat people to be left lordless in the end. Hygelac’s alliances eventually involve him in deadly war with the Swedish king, Ongentheow, and even though he does not personally deliver the fatal stroke (two of his thanes are responsible for this – see lines 2484–9 and then the lengthier reprise of this incident at lines 2922–3003), he is known in the poem as ‘Ongentheow’s killer’. Hence it comes to pass that after the death of Beowulf, who eventually succeeds Hygelac, the Geats experience a great foreboding and the poem closes in a mood of sombre expectation. A world is passing away, the Swedes and others are massing on the borders to attack and there is no lord or hero to rally the defence.
The Swedes, therefore, are the third nation whose history and destiny are woven into the narrative, and even though no part of the main action is set in their territory, they and their kings constantly stalk the horizon of dread within which the main protagonists pursue their conflicts and allegiances. The Swedish dimension gradually becomes an important element in the poem’s emotional and imaginative geography, a geography that entails, it should be said, no clear map-sense of the world, more an apprehension of menaced borders, of danger gathering beyond the mere and the marshes, of mearc-stapas ‘prowling the moors, huge marauders / from some other world’.
Within these phantasmal boundaries, each lord’s hall is an actual and a symbolic refuge. Here are heat and light, rank and ceremony, human solidarity and culture; the duguþ share the mead-benches with the geogoþ, the veterans with their tales of warrior-kings and hero-saviours from the past rub shoulders with young braves – þegnas, eorlas, thanes, retainers – keen to win such renown in the future. The prospect of gaining a glorious name in the wœl-rœs (the rush of battle-slaughter), the pride of defending one’s lord and bearing heroic witness to the integrity of the bond between him and his hall-companions – a bond sealed in the glo and gidd of peace-time feasting and ring-giving – this is what gave drive and sanction to the Germantic warrior-culture enshrined in Beowulf.
Heorot and Hygelac’s hall are the hubs of this value system upon which the poem’s action turns. But there is another, outer rim of value, a circumference of understanding within which the heroic world is occasionally viewed as from a distance and recognized for what it is, an earlier state of consciousness and culture, one that has not been altogether shed but that has now been comprehended as part of another pattern. And this circumference and pattern arise, of course, from the poet’s Christianity and from his perspective as an Englishman looking back at places and legends that his ancestors knew before they made their migration from continental Europe to their new home on the island of the Britons. As a consequence of his doctrinal certitude, which is as composed as it is ardent, the port can view the story-time of his poem with a certain historical detachment and even censure the ways of those who lived in illo tempore:
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
Offerings to idols, swore oaths
That the killer of souls might come to their aid
And save the people. That was their way,
Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
They remembered hell.
At the same time, as a result of his inherited vernacular culture and the imaginative sympathy that distinguishes him as an artist, the poet can lend the full weight of his rhetorical power to Beowulf as he utters the first principles of the northern warrior’s honour-code:
It is always better
To avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
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.
In an age when ‘the instability of the human subject’ is constantly argued for if not presumed, there should be no problem with a poem that is woven from two such different psychic fabrics. In fact, Beowulf perfectly answers the early modern conception of a work of creative imagination as one in which conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order; and this reconciliation occurs, it seems to me, most poignantly and most profoundly in the poem’s third section, once the dragon enters the picture and the hero in old age must gather his powers for the final climactic ordeal. From the moment Beowulf advances under the crags, into the comfortless arena bounded by the rock-wall, the reader knows he is one of those ‘marked by fate’. The poetry is imbued with a strong intuition of wyrd hovering close, ‘unknowable but certain’, and yet, because it is imagined within a consciousness that has learned to expect that the soul will find an ultimate home ‘among the steadfast ones’, this primal human emotion has been transmuted into something less ‘zero at the bone’, more metaphysically tempered.
A similar transposition from a plane of regard that is, as it were, helmeted and hall-bound to one that sees things in a slightly more heavenly light is discernible in the different ways the poet imagines gold. Gold is a constant element, gleaming solidly in the underground vaults, on the breasts of queens or the arms and regalia of warriors on the mead-benches. It is loaded into boats as spoil, handed out in bent bars as hall-gifts, buried in the earth as treasure, persisting underground as an affirmation of a people’s glorious past and an elegy for it. It pervades the ethos of the poem and adds luster to its diction. And yet the bullion with which Waels’s son Sigemund weighs down the hold after an earlier dragon-slaying triumph (in the old days, long before Beowulf’s time) is a more trustworthy substance than that which is secured behind the walls of Beowulf’s barrow. By the end of the poem, gold has suffered a radiation from the Christian vision. It is not that it yet equals the riches in the medieval sense of worldly corruption, just that its status as the ore of all value has been put in doubt. It is lyne, transitory, passing from hand to hand, and its changed status is registered as a symptom of the changed world. Once the dragon is disturbed, the melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the last movement of the poem enter the hoard as a disabling and ominous light. And the dragon himself, as a genius of the older order, is bathed in this light, so that even as he begins to stir, the reader has a premonition that the days of his empery are numbered.
Nevertheless, the dragon has a wonderful inevitability about him and a unique glamour. It is not that the other monsters are lacking in presence and aura; it is more that they remain, for all their power to terrorize, creatures of the physical world. Grendel comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite. And while his mother too has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness. As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength. The poet may need them as figures who do the devil’s work, but the poem needs them more as figures who call up and show off Beowulf’s physical strength and his superb gifts as a warrior. They are the right enemies for a young glory-hunter, instigators of the formal boast, worthy trophies to be carried back from the grim testing-ground – Grendel’s hand is ripped off and nailed up, his head severed and paraded in Heorot. It is all consonant with the surge of youth and the compulsion to win fame ‘as wide as the wind’s home, / as the sea around cliffs’, utterly a manifestation of the Germanic heroic code.
Enter then, fifty years later, the dragon – from his dry-stone vault, from a nest where he is heaped in coils around the body-heated gold. Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him. He is at once a stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air, no painted dragon but a figure of real oneiric power, one that can easily survive the prejudice that arises at the very mention of the word ‘dragon’. Whether in medieval art or modern Disney cartoons, the dragon can strike us as far less horrific than he is meant to be, but in the final movement of Beowulf he lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm, more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae.
Grendel and his mother enter Beowulf’s life from the outside, accidentally, challenges which in other circumstances he might not have taken up, enemies from whom he might have been distracted or deflected. The dragon, on the other hand, is a given of his home ground, abiding in his under-earth as in his understanding, waiting for the meeting, the watcher at the ford, the questioner who sits so sly, the ‘lion-limb’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might have called him, against whom Beowulf’s body and soul must measure themselves. Dragon equals shadow-line, the psalmist’s valley of the shadow of death, the embodiment of a knowledge deeply ingrained in the species – the knowledge, that is, of the price to be paid for physical and spiritual survival.
It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise. Beowulf’s mood as he gets ready to fight the dragon – who could be read as a projection of Beowulf’s own chthonic wisdom refined in the crucible of experience – recalls the mood of other tragic heroes: Oedipus at Colonus, Lear at his ‘ripeness is all’ extremity, Hamlet in the last illuminations of his ‘prophetic soul’:
No easy bargain
Would be made in that place by any man.
The veteran king sat down on the cliff-top.
He wished good luck to the Geats who had shared
His hearth and his gold. He was sad at heart,
Unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.
Here the poet attains a level of insight that approaches the visionary. The subjective and the inevitable are in perfect balance, what is solidly established is bathed in an element that is completely sixth-sensed, and indeed the whole, slow-motion, constantly self-deferring approach to the hero’s death and funeral continues to be like this. Beowulf’s soul may not yet have fled ‘to its destined place among the steadfast ones’, but there is already a beyond-the-grave aspect to him, a revenant quality about his resoluteness. This is not just metrical narrative full of anthropological interest and typical heroic-age motifs; it is poetry of a high order, in which passages of great lyric intensity – such as the ‘Lay of the Last Survivor’ (lines 2247-66) and, even more remarkably, the so-called ‘Father’s Lament’ (2444-62) – rise like emanations from some fissure in the bedrock of the human capacity to endure:
It was like the misery endured by an old man
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall…
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.
Such passages mark an ultimate stage in poetic attainment; they are the imaginative equivalent of Beowulf’s spiritual state at the end, when he tells his men that ‘doom of battle will bear [their] lord away’, in the same way that the sea-journeys so vividly described in lines 210-28 and lines 1903-24 are the equivalent of his exultant prime.
At these moments of lyric intensity, the keel of the poetry is deeply set in the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and far-sightedly in the element of pure comprehension – which is to say that the elevation of Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down-to-earth. And nowhere is this more obviously and memorably the case than in the account of the hero’s funeral with which the poems ends. Here the inexorable and the elegiac combine in a description of the funeral pyre being got ready, the body being burnt and the barrow being constructed – a scene at once immemorial and oddly contemporary. The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo; her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to the comfortless future. We immediately recognize her predicament and the pitch of her grief and find ourselves the better for having them expressed with such adequacy, dignity and unforgiving truth:
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.
2 ABOUT THIS TRANSLATION
When I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast, I studied Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems and developed not only a feel for the language, but a fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterized the poetry. Consequently, when an invitation to translate the poem arrived from the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, I was tempted to try my hand. While I had no great expertise in Old English, I had a strong desire to get back to the first stratum of the language and to ‘assay the hoard’(line 2509). This was during the middle years of the 1980s, when I had begun a regular teaching job in Harvard and was opening my ear to the unmoored speech of some contemporary American poetry. Saying yes to the Beowulf commission would be (I argued with myself) a kind of aural antidote, a way of ensuring that my linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor. So I undertook to do it.
Very soon, however, I hesitated. It was labour-intensive work, scriptorium-slow. I proceeded dutifully like a sixth-former at homework. I would set myself twenty lines a day, write out my glossary of hard words in longhand, try to pick a way through the syntax, get the run of the meaning established in my head and then hope that the lines could be turned into metrical shape and raised to the power of verse. Often, however, the whole attempt to turn it into modern English seemed to me like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer. What had been so attractive in the first place, the hand-built, rock-sure feel of the thing, began to defeat me. I turned to other work, the commissioning editors did not pursue me, and the project went into abeyance.
Even so, I had an instinct that it should not be let go. An understanding I had worked out for myself concerning my own linguistic and literary origins made me reluctant to abandon the task. I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables – ‘The spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father digging. I look down…’ – and in the case of the second line there was alliteration linking ‘digging’ and ‘down’ across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.
This was not surprising, given that the poet who had first formed my ear was Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a chip off the Old English block, and the earliest lines I published when I was a student were as much pastiche Anglo-Saxon as they were pastiche Hopkins: ‘Starling thatch-watches and sudden swallow / Straight breaks to mud-nest, home-rest rafter’, and so on. I have written about all this elsewhere and about the relation of my Hopkins ventriloquism to the speech patterns of Ulster – especially as these were caricatured by the poet W. R. Rodgers. Ulster people, according to Rodgers, are ‘an abrupt people / who like the spiky consonants of speech / and think the soft ones cissy’, and get a kick out of ‘anything that gives or takes attack / like Micks, Teagues, tinkers’ gets, Vatican’.
Joseph Brodsky once said that poets' biographies are present in the sounds they make and I suppose all I am saying is that I consider Beowulf to be part of my voice-right. And yet to persuade myself that I was born into its language and that its language was born into me took a while: for somebody who grew up in the political and cultural conditions of Lord Brookeborough’s Northern Ireland, it could hardly have been otherwise.
Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language that I should by rights have been speaking but I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary, and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, therefore, the little word was – to borrow a simile from Joyce – like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/and, and this was an attitude that for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question – the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history and literary tradition in Ireland.
Luckily, I glimpsed that possibility of release from this kind of cultural determination early on, in my first arts year at Queen’s University, Belfast, when we were lectured on the history of the English Language by Professor John Braidwood. Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word ‘whiskey’ is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, urphilological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me. The Irish/English duality, the Celtic/Saxon antithesis were momentarily collapsed and in the resulting etymological eddy a gleam of recognition flashed through the synapses and I glimpsed an elsewhere of potential that seemed at the time to be a somewhere being remembered. The place on the language map where the Usk and the uisce and the whiskey coincided was definitely a place where the spirit might find a loophole, an escape route from what John Montague has called ‘the partitioned intellect’, away 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. And I eventually came upon one of these loopholes in Beowulf itself.
What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning ‘to suffer’, the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. ‘They’ll just have to learn to thole,’ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered through an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across unto Ulster with the planters, and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish, and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line, ‘Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole’, my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. The far-flungness of the word, the phenomenological pleasure of finding it variously transformed by Ransom’s modernity and Beowulf’s venerability made me feel vaguely something for which again I only found the words years later. What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multi-cultural odyssey was the feeling that Osip Madelstam once defined as a ‘nostalgia for world culture’. And this was a nostalgia I didn’t even know I suffered until I experienced its fulfillment in this little epiphany. It was as if, on the analogy of baptism by desire, I had undergone something like illumination by philology. And even though I did not know it at the time, I had by then reached the point where I was ready to translate Beowulf. þolian had opened my right of way.
So, in a sense, the decision to accept Norton’s invitation was taken thirty-five years before the invitation was actually issued. But between one’s sense of readiness to take on a subject and the actual inscription of the first lines, there is always a problematic hiatus. To put it another way: from the point of view of the writer, words in a poem need what the Polish poet Anna Swir once called ‘the equivalent of a biological right to life’. The erotics of composition are essential to the process, some prereflective 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.
I called them ‘big-voiced’ because when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as ‘We cut the corn today’ took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon:
Hwæt w Gr-Dena in gar-dagum
Þod-cyninga þrym gefrnon,
H p æþelingas ellen fremedon
Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because 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. 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.
I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remembered the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique. What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world that gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life that are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralizing’. These so-called ‘gnomic’ parts of the poems have the cadence and force of earned wisdom, and their combination of cogency and verity was again something that I could remember from the speech I heard as a youngster in the Scullion kitchen. When I translate lines 24-5 as ‘Behaviour that’s admired / is that path to power among people everywhere’, I am attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines. But then the evidence suggests that this middle ground between oral tradition and the demands of written practice was also the ground occupied by the Beowulf poet. The style of the poem is hospitable to the kind of formulaic phrases that are the stock-in-trade of oral bards, and yet it is marked too by the self-consciousness of an artist convinced that ‘we must labour to be beautiful’.
In one area, my own labours have been less than thorough-going. I have not followed the strict metrical rules that bound the Anglo-Saxon scop. I have been guided by the fundamental pattern of four stresses to the line, but I allow myself several transgressions. For, example, I don’t always employ alliteration, and sometimes I alliterate only in one half line. When these breaches occur, it is because I prefer to let the natural ‘sound of sense’ prevail over the demands of the convention: I have been reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness.
In general, the alliteration varies from the shadowy to the substantial, from the properly to the improperly distributed. Substantial and proper are such lines as
The fórtunes of wár fávoured Hróthgar (line 64)
the híghest in the lánd, would lénd advíce (line 172)
and fínd fríendship in the Fáther’s embráce (line 188)
Here the caesura is definite, there are two stresses in each half of the line and the first stressed syllable of the second half alliterates with the first or the second or both of the stressed syllables in the first half. The main deviation from this is one that other translators have allowed themselves – the freedom, that is, to alliterate on the fourth stressed syllable, a practice that breaks the rule but that never nevertheless does bind the line together:
We have héard of those prínces’ heróic campáigns (line 3)
and he cróssed óver into the Lórd’s kéeping (line 27)
In the course of the translation, such deviations, distortions, syncopations and extensions do occur; what I was after first and foremost was a narrative line that sounded as if it meant business and I was prepared to sacrifice other things in pursuit of this directness of utterance.
The appositional nature of the Old English syntax, for example, is somewhat slighted here, as is the Beowulf poet’s resourcefulness with synonyms and (to a less extent) his genius for compound-making, kennings and all sorts of variation. Usually – as at line 1209, where I render ða ful as ‘frothing wave-vat’, and at line 1523, where beado-loma becomes ‘battle-torch’ – I try to match the poet’s analogy-seeking habit at its most original; and I use all the common coinages for the lord of the nation, variously referred to as ‘ring-giver’, ‘treasure-giver’, ‘his people’s shield’ or ‘shepherd’ or ‘helmet’. I have been less faithful, however, to the way the poet rings the changes when it comes to compounds meaning a sword or a spear, or a battle or any bloody encounter with foes. 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.
There was one area, however, where certain strangeness in the diction came naturally. In those instances where a local Ulster word seemed either poetically or historically right, I felt free to use it. For example, at lines 324 and 2988 I use the word ‘graith’ for ‘harness’, and at 3026 ‘hoked’ for ‘rooted about’, because the local term seemed in each case to have special body and force. Then, for reasons of historical suggestiveness, I have in several instances used the word ‘bawn’ to refer to Hrothgar’s hall. In Elizabethan English, bawn (from the Irish bó-dhún, a fort for cattle) referred specifically to the fortified dwellings that the English planters built in Ireland to keep the dispossessed natives at bay, so it seemed the proper term to apply to the embattled keep where Hrothgar waits and watches. Indeed, every time I read the lovely interlude that tells of the minstrel singing in Heorot just before the first attacks of Grendel, I cannot help thinking of Edmund Spenser in Kilcolman Castle, reading the early cantos of The Faerie Queene to Sir Walter Raleigh, just before the Irish would burn the castle and drive Spenser and Munster back to the Elizabethan court. Putting a bawn into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history that has to be clearly acknowledged by all concerned in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / again and again and again’.
(Line numbers given above refer to this translation, not to the Anglo-Saxon text.)