28 September 2017
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.
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).
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,
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.
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