Following are selections from Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Beowulf, with excerpts from Mr. Heaney’s introduction.
The poem called Beowulf was composed some time between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century of the first millennium, in the language that is today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is a heroic narrative, more than three thousand lines long, concerning the deeds of a Scandinavian prince, also called Beowulf, and it stands as one of the foundation works of poetry in English. The fact that the English language has changed so much in the last thousand years means, however, that the poem is now generally read in translation and mostly in English courses at schools and universities. This has contributed to the impression that it was written (as Osip Mandelstam said of The Divine Comedy) “on official paper,” which is unfortunate, since what we are dealing with is a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language. Its narrative elements may belong to a pre-vious age but as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.
The poem was written in England but the events it describes are set in Scandinavia, in a “once upon a time” that is partly historical. Its hero, Beowulf, is the biggest pres-ence among the warriors in the land of the Geats, a territory situated in what is now southern Sweden. Early in the poem Beowulf crosses the sea to the land of the Danes in order to clear their country of a man-eating monster called Grendel. From this expedition (which involves him in a second contest with Grendel’s mother) he returns in triumph and eventually rules for fifty years as king of his homeland.
Then a dragon begins to terrorize the countryside and Beowulf must confront it. In a final climactic encounter, he does manage to slay the dragon, but he also meets his own death and enters the legends of his people as a warrior of high renown.
BEOWULF FIGHTS WITH THE DRAGON
Hard by the rockface that hale veteran,
a good man who had gone repeatedly
into combat and danger and come through,
saw a stone arch and a gushing stream
that burst from the barrow, blazing and wafting
a deadly heat. It would be hard to survive
unscathed near the hoard, to hold firm
against the dragon in those flaming depths.
Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
unburdened his breast and broke out
in a storm of anger. Under the grey stone
his voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, the time was over
for peace and parleying. Pouring forth
in a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
burst from the rock. There was a rumble underground.
Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior
lifted his shield: the outlandish thing
writhed and convulsed and vehemently
turned on the king, whose keen-edged sword,
an heirloom inherited by ancient right,
was already in his hand. Roused to a fury,
each antagonist struck terror in the other.
Unyielding, the lord of his people loomed
by his tall shield, sure of his ground,
while the serpent looped and unleashed itself.
Swaddled in flames, it came gliding and flexing
and racing towards its fate. Yet his shield defended
the renowned leader’s life and limb
for a shorter time than he meant it to:
that final day was the first time
when Beowulf fought and fate denied him
glory in battle. So the king of the Geats
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. Beowulf was foiled
of a glorious victory. The glittering sword,
infallible before that day,
failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have.
For the son of Ecgtheow, it was no easy thing
to have to give ground like that and go
unwillingly to inhabit another home
in a place beyond; so every man must yield
the leasehold of his days.
It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise. Beowulf’s mood as he gets ready to fight the dragon—who could be read as a projection of Beowulf’s own chthonic wisdom refined in the crucible of experience—recalls the mood of other tragic heroes: Oedipus at Colonus, Lear at his “ripeness is all” extremity, Hamlet in the last illuminations of his “prophetic soul”:
no easy bargain
would be made in that place by any man.
The veteran king sat down on the cliff-top.
He wished good luck to the Geats who had shared
his hearth and his gold. He was sad at heart,
unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.
Here the poet attains a level of insight that approaches the visionary. The subjective and the inevitable are in perfect balance, what is solidly established is bathed in an element which is completely sixth-sensed, and indeed the whole, slow-motion, constantly self-deferring approach to the hero’s death and funeral continues to be like this. Beowulf’s soul may not yet have fled “to its destined place among the steadfast ones,” but there is already a beyond-the-grave aspect to him, a revenant quality about his resoluteness. This is not just metrical narrative full of anthropological interest and typical heroic-age motifs; it is poetry of a high order, in which passages of great lyric intensity—such as the “Lay of the Last Survivor” and, even more remarkably, the so-called “Father’s Tale”—rise like emanations from some fissure in the bedrock of the human capacity to endure:
It was like the misery endured by an old man
who has lived to see his son’s body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is useless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child has gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall….
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.
Such passages mark an ultimate stage in poetic attainment; they are the imaginative equivalent of Beowulf’s spiritual state at the end, when he tells his men that “doom of battle will bear [their] lord away.”