Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BEOWULF, translated by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was one of my favorite contemporary poets, and I've long considered his 'bog people' poems of the 1970s ("Punishment," "Bog Queen," etc.) among the strongest English-language poems of the past 50 years. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read his translation of Beowulf and found it largely unimpressive. Oh, there are some very good lines, some places where Heaney pulls marvelous modern poetry out of the old Anglo-Saxon. Heaney's "havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere"(l.594) probably can't be bettered; there's a wonderful harsh music in the alliteration, and the vowels seem to gasp at the carnage they signify. Similarly, Heaney has his horde of slaughtered sea monsters "...sleeping / the sleep of the sword..."(l.565-6), a phrase that sings like sunlight on calm water, despite its surely deliberate echoing of a modern cliché, "the sleep of death." But elsewhere in Heaney's translation, this sort of thing ceases to be an echo and becomes a blatant tendency to translate Anglo-Saxon verse into contemporary American cliché. At lines 26-27, for example, Heaney tells us "[Scyld] was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping." Questionable Christianization aside, that 'when his time came' is a vapid 20th-century funeral home euphemism, and Heaney's 'crossed over' is even worse, making the Beowulf poet sound like a Californian guru of the afterlife. Later, Heaney has Hrothgar refer to Aeschere as "my right-hand man"(l.1326), a truly jarring anachronism, akin to having Hrothgar call him 'my main man' or 'my soul brother.' These examples leapt out at me, but Heaney's text is riddled with flat, uninspired, and/or clichéd lines. So I can't agree with Andrew Motion's blurbed contention that Heaney "has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece." At times, in fact, Heaney has taken the first major work of English literature and turned it into a bit of a mess.

What is the best modern translation of Beowulf? This is not a rhetorical question; the four translations I've read over the years have failed to impress me as poetry, and I would sincerely like to learn of a better one. I've sampled Tolkien's, but it seems too pedantically literal, a donnish crib. Maybe now, almost a generation after Heaney's attempt, it's time for another poet to try her hand. Someone needs to build a better Beowulf. Famous Seamus seems to have left the job undone.


tj said...

You are right about the need of newer translation. I had once admired Heaney's trans., believed it satisfyingly thick with coarse and meshy language. But it does at times tend to fall flat.

I can enjoy this:

the whole party
Sat down to watch. The water was infested
With all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
And monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff,
Serpents and wild things such as those that often
Surface at dawn to roam the sail-road
And doom the voyage.

But I prefer to chew less of this:

But Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
The wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
On His care and favor.

Cacophonaut said...

You mention "questionable Christianization", but in fact the Beowulf poet *was* Christian: "That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV [the archival name of the manuscript on which the poem survives] were Christian is beyond doubt; and it is equally certain that Beowulf was composed in a Christianised England, since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries"[1]

I should also point out that the phrase "right-hand man" is far from colloquial. It is, in fact, at least as old as the psalms: "Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself" [2], which the Beowulf poet would have certainly read, and therefore may indeed be a literal translation. This is not the only instance in which the Bible scribes use the right hand to mean righteous and indispensable. More speculatively, it is possible that the term dates from the typical placement of an adviser or councilor's seat by the royal throne.

But you are right. Another translation is needed, but not because Heaney's falls short (all translations fall short, ultimately). The work of translation is never done; there can be no definitive, final translation. The best we can hope for is attempt upon attempt, through the refracting edges of which we might better glimpse the original... you know, without going out and learning Old English.


[1] (Yeager, Robert F. "Why Read Beowulf?". National Endowment For The Humanities. Retrieved 2007-10-02)
[2] Psalm 80:17

BRIAN OARD said...


Thanks for your comment.

I found Christianization questionable not because the writer of the British Museum manuscript may or may not have been a Christian (and there is also, of course, a question as to what the phrase "to be a Christian" may have meant in such a time, place, may have meant anything from pragmatic conversion to absolute doctrinal rigidity), but because the poem clearly mixes Christian and pre-Christian elements and any faithful translation should reflect this mixture. As for Heaney's use of the phrase "right-hand man," I understood the reference, but the phrase itself, the wording, is colloquial late 20th century American English, and I found it jarring. It took me out of the poem in an unpleasant, uninteresting way.

Cacophonaut said...

Yes, I see your point. I suppose it is a touch imperfect, although I have never found it jarring myself; certainly less so than the other three. You're spot on about Tolkien, by the way. I was so excited by the release of his version considering his position as something of a giant among Beowulf scholars (I'm sure you have read his "The Monsters and the Critics"), only to be disappointed in a big way.

As to the Christian elements, I always saw the orthodox pronouncements of the author as the final court of appeal, as it were, in the conveyance of pagan rite and ritual, although of course this is bound up with the practically irresolvable question of authorship. Whether the poet was an individual or, as some contend of Homer, a lineage of court poets working in an oral tradition, he/they were certainly poets of a Christian court, and would have tempered their art accordingly. Intentional fallacy? Yeah, a bit of it, but hey.

Your blog is damn good by the way. Especially the posts on Proust and Picasso.