Sunday, May 18, 2008


I flew out to Hartford, CT last week; the plan was that my parents would meet me at the airport a couple of hours after I arrived and we would drive to Smith (at Northampton, MA) to visit daughter Caitlin, and then drive up to Hanover NH to visit my niece Cassie, a first year resident at Dartmouth Medical Center. Well, we eventually got to do all of that, and we had a lovely time, but my planned three hour layover in Chicago and unplanned additional 2.5 wait for Mom and Dad in Hartford gave me lots of reading and working time.

So I started and finished a book that'd I'd been meaning to read for quite some time: the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. Please don't berate this poor former English major for not reading Beowulf until after the movie, which I must say was alternatively entertaining and embarrassingly awful. (Hint: in the book, Grendel's mother bears little resemblance to Angelina Jolie.)

Heaney's translation lived up to its stellar reputation--no surprise. Heaney is my favorite living poet. I was struck by one passage in his translation notes:
...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.
Read aloud (and, like Hopkins, much of Beowulf is best read aloud) this passage, describing Grendel's defeat:
He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,/limping and looped in it. (975-976)
Pure Hopkins; not just for the imaginative choice of words and alliteration, but also for the rhythm and cadence of the poetry. For sheer beauty of language, there are few poets who surpass Hopkins at his best. And so, in celebration of the season which finally, FINALLY, seems to have arrived, from Hopkins' poem Spring:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightenings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.


Anonymous said...

Oh I love that you're writing about Beowulf!!!! The most impressive “Beowulf” film that I have seen is “Beowulf and Grendel”, filmed in Iceland in 2005. It is worth watching for the magnificent scenery alone! The film went, not the way of Magic and Shape-shifting, as the most recent version did, but steeped itself in the harsh imagery of Norse landscape and a bitter fight for survival in a forbidding land. The film-makers brought the mythic tale down to a more human scale, and I really liked what they did.

Heaney’s beautiful translation was the talk of our Anglo Saxon course at Cambridge last summer, and a copy was prominently displayed on the mantle in our classroom. But our thoroughly Anglo Saxon professor, Andy Orchard, a medieval scholar who excels in Anglo Saxon, Old Norse, German, and Latin, gave a talk on the language of Beowulf one evening. I’m going to have trouble condensing what he said, but I distinctly remember his closing sentence regarding Heaney's translation: It’s beautiful poetry, but it’s not Beowulf. The gist being that the Anglo Saxon original is tougher, harder to grasp, and that Beowulf should not be made easy to read because even in its original form it was not easy to read. Anglo Saxon poetry is meant to be grappled with by its very nature.

In a way, the two film versions do the same thing. The Icelandic version is harsh and gritty and mean, sometimes, but as close as one can imagine to tenth century life. The latest version is slick and beautiful and wondrous…but it’s not Beowulf. Patbracewell

Sara Latta said...

That's an interesting perspective, Pat. Although you have to admit that the pre-Heaney translations of Beowulf have long been the bane of many an English major. Now I MUST see the Icelandic Beowulf.