It is inevitable I suppose when a superstar poet (if there is such a thing) decides to translate a classic that it is hailed as a major success. The translation is now a decade old and on its anniversary I have re-read it. I remember being excited that a poet of Heaney’s stature should have come up with a new translation. It was more interesting still perhaps because a lot of the impetus seemed to have been informed by a Catholic Irishman’s ambivalent feeling towards the English language. It is a famous ambivalence that has produced some of the best writing in English that now exists. This desire to absolutely master and then if possible transcend the language of colonisation. It is of course personified in James Joyce. Seamus himself goes into his personal experience of this in the introduction to the Faber edition. It is significantly not an ambiguity faced by English writers. And my exemplar is a contemporary of Joyce’s, D.H. Lawrence.
English writers though may clearly be ambivalent in their feelings towards England itself, as Lawrence himself was. And there is evidence that English writers now experience some of the same feelings as those writers from previously colonial nations. I can do no better than direct you to a brilliant essay by Heaney himself called ‘Englands of the Mind’ in his collection ‘Finders Keepers’. The essay describes three different views of England from three of its finest 20th Century poets, Hughes, Hill and Larkin, all filtered through the interested lens of an observing Irishman.
What of this gifted poet’s Beowulf?
From the first I was provoked into being slightly against by the decision to use the Old Norse patronymic ‘son’ as opposed to the Old English patronymic ‘ing’. So we have the famous ancestor of the Scyldings as ‘Shield Sheafson’. It seems more appropriate to an historical novel funnily enough than to a serious poetic translation of Beowulf. Then, illogically, we meet the ‘Shieldings’, presumably because ‘Shieldsons’ sounds stupid poetically in addition to being incorrect. Scyld Shefing may sound silly or obscure but it has one essential ingredient. It is accurate. I think we can all cope with the perceived oddity.
The first word ‘So!’ is a translation of the infamous Anglo-Saxon ‘Hwaet!’, a modern gloss of which might be ‘stop gassing and listen up!’, and it is highly dubious. Heaney draws a comparison with the way the ‘Big Scullions’ (friends of his father) used to sit around the kitchen table and signal the start of a declaration or a story with a booming ‘So…’ . I don’t doubt it was an imperative to listen rather than a casual beginning but for me at the very outset a wrong note is struck. To be fair nobody has sorted this problem; but I don’t think Seamus has succeeded I think he has failed like everybody else.
The real difficulty I have with this translation is precisely the quality underlined by a misty eyed reviewer from the Irish Times on the back cover. I quote: ‘…a miraculous mix of the poem’s original spirit and Heaney’s voice’. It is indeed too much like Seamus himself however fine that might be.
Heaney uses a loose modern alliterative method appropriate enough to the formalities of Old English verse which used a four stress per line non-rhyming alliterative system where all vowels alliterated. My favourite verse translation is the one by Michael Alexander, who was Professor of English Literature at St Andrew’s University and for all I know might still be. It is available in Penguin Classics. The construction expresses the slowed advance of Anglo-Saxon oral poetic practice and seems to me more convincing of dark age feeling than the sacrifice for pace that Heaney makes. Here I quote again the same person from the Irish Times, ‘its energetic, relentless driving forward…’ This sounds like a review of an up to the minute thriller. It is calculated to attract and I’m sure does so.
Nothing wrong with that; except it is not Beowulf as the Anglo-Saxon scop probably intended. The Anglo-Saxon audience seems to have delighted in imaginative delaying tactics that were a matter of oral poetic necessity but out of which developed a characteristic style. The delay not only took the form of digression but was a part of the language itself. To paraphrase Michael Alexander the poetry was a mirror of the the knotwork seen in the decorative arts.
Professor Alexander has also the advantage of being a scholar of Anglo-Saxon rather than a fine poet struggling ‘scriptorium slow’ as Seamus so memorably puts it. Heaney himself admits to oftentimes ignoring more learned advice and this is naturally forgiveable in the licence of making poetry; but the result is a chimera perhaps more pleasing to fans of Seamus Heaney than to fans of the old poem.
Not that any of this really matters, except perhaps to Penguin Books who brought out an updated edition of Michael Alexander’s excellent verse translation, in order to compete and gain sales in the publicity bruhaha surrounding the Seamus version. I believe the great poet himself came to Sutton Hoo as part of the marketing.
Translations of this Old English epic are legion. There is even a Brazilian comic book adaptation which may well be superior in every way to a digitally enhanced Ray ‘what xxxx can I punch next’ Winstone thinking he was part of a ‘Viking’ epic.
Ah well, each to his own. I leave you with a short extract from Michael Alexander.
… The door gave way,
toughened with iron, at the touch of those hands.
Rage inflamed, wreckage bent, he ripped open
the jaws of the hall. Hastening on,
the foe then stepped onto the unstained floor,
angrily advanced: out of his eyes stood
an unlovely light like that of fire.’
… 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,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.’
Heeeeeere’s Grendel! (c’est moi).