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.