THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

28 September 2017

Feats in well-fashioned lines: Heaneywulf

Today, to celebrate National Poetry Day, we have a post about one of the oldest poems in the English language and its translation by the Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney.

In 1999, the Ulster poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) published a translation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to critical acclaim. ‘Heaney-wulf’, as the translation is sometimes affectionately known, is regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Heaney had been at work on the text for some time — the British Library possesses nine pages of his early manuscript draft dating from 1980 (he subsequently put the work aside before returning to it in 1995). In it, we see the poet feeling his way through his rendering of Beowulf.

Heaneywulf

A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, Additional MS 78917).

Beowulf is a complex work. The only surviving manuscript of the poem was copied c. 1000, but parts of the work seem to be much older, having been composed orally years before. The text describes a mythic, pagan past in 6th-century Scandinavia, yet the events were recorded by Christian scribes, probably in a monastic context. So, what we have in the manuscript is layers of text — a work which was probably added to and adapted over time, by different figures, in different contexts. Reading Beowulf is a bit like being a textual archaeologist — we encounter layers of composition, like layers of soil. I like to think that Heaney might have thought about the poem in the same way, too. His other verse shows an abiding interest in archaeology, in the secrets beneath the earth (as in poems like ‘The Grauballe Man’ from the collection North).  

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f151v

The opening part of the description of the scop recounting the tale of Sigemund from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 151v

Within the original poem of Beowulf itself there are two poems-within-the-poem at lines 883–914 and at lines 1070–1158. The first of these is the tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer. This story is told by a minstrel (Old English: ‘scop’) to a group of men on horse-back. The description of the episode gives us an insight into how Anglo-Saxon poetry was composed. Today we value novelty in works of art, but in Anglo-Saxon society a poet’s skill lay in his ability to use well-known formulas and to refashion them in a new context:

Hwilum cyninges þegn, 

guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig, 

se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena 

worn gemunde, word oþer fand 

soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan 

sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian 

ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, 

wordum wrixlan. 

Heaney translates this episode as:

Meanwhile, a thane

Of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,

A traditional singer deeply schooled

In the lore of the past, linked a new theme

To a strict metre. The man started

To recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s

Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,

Entwining his words. (ll. 866–73)

Heaney’s poem here gets at the very magic of his own work, his ability to link ‘a new theme/To a strict metre’, to rehearse ‘Beowulf’s/ Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines’. This is almost like a verse version of a Russian doll — this is a poem within a poem, translated by a modern poet and made into a new poem.

In the introduction to his translation, Heaney writes about how, despite the centuries separating his work from the Old English original, he was able to find a personal connection to the language of the poem. He describes coming across the Old English word ‘þolian’, transliterating the unfamiliar ‘þ’ into the modern ‘th’ and realising its similarity to an Ulster dialect word ‘thole’ which he had heard his aunt use in his youth. He says that the word was ‘a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage’. This was an historical heritage into which Heaney breathed new life.

You'll be able to read more about Beowulf  and Heaney's translation of it on the medieval section of the British Library's Discovering Literature site, which will go live early next year. Happy National Poetry Day.

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Comments

The quote opening 'meanwhile ' seems tp be incorrectly listed...try 866 - 873, which is where they are in Heaney's translation - and same line refs are quoted in other sources. 866-873 also approximate the lines in the original also. Sorry! But if anyone is looking for it, this might help.

And thanks for this post!
signed
A faithful and grateful follower for a LONG time!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.