Heaney’s Great “Beowulf” Translation

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney, whom I almost got to meet once but didn’t, has died. Although I am far from an expert on his poetry, I can testify to one area where I have witnessed his power. His translation of Beowulf has made the poem popular with my students.

I first recount the story of my non-meeting. Thanks to our resident poet Lucille Clifton, Heaney was scheduled to give a poetry reading at St. Mary’s in the mid-1990s. The weather turned nasty the day he was supposed to come, however, and at the last minute he cancelled his trip, promising to come later in the year.

Had he come, he would have stayed in St. Mary’s for a full week because we were hammered by a major snowstorm that closed everything, including roads and airports, for days. I would have been able to hike over to where he was staying each day, bringing him whatever he needed. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, he went on to win the Nobel Prize later in the year, at which point he was too famous for us and he never visited. Oh well.

Thankfully, I at least have his translation of Beowulf.  It used to be, when I taught E. T. Donaldson’s 1966 prose translation, that the poem went over like a lead balloon with my students. Their interest picked up when I switched to Burton Raffel’s poetic version, but Heaney’s translation hit the poem out of the park.

And not only with my students. The Irish poet somehow managed, against all expectations, to put Beowulf on the New York Times bestseller list in 2000. Literature professors everywhere were stunned.

So to honor Heaney, let’s look at how he describes the bard in the poem, with whom he clearly identifies. In the following scene, everyone is exhilarated over Beowulf’s recent victory over Grendel:

At times the war-band broke into a gallop,
letting their chestnut horses race
wherever they found the going good
on those well-known tracks. 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 meter. The man started
to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s
triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
entwining his words.

It is harp music such as this, however, that riles up Grendel—as we hear in this gorgeously rendered passage:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendor He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

In Beowulf, the realm of beauty goes up against the realm of destruction. And even though destruction sooner or later gets its man–even though by the end Beowulf, like Heaney, lies in state–ultimately poetry emerges the victor. The poem tells of Beowulf’s people building a funeral mound with a light that will guide sailors through dark seas. Heaney’s poetry will function as such a light for a long time to come.

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  • Jason

    “Instead, he went on to win the Nobel Prize later in the year, at which point he was too famous for us and he never visited. Oh well.”
    “Oh well” is the right phrase, but “too famous for us” might be off the mark.
    Two years ago I heard a hilarious story about getting Seamus Heaney down from Harvard to Bridgewater State to give a talk. Without getting into the liquidy details, it seems that even after the Nobel Prize Heaney was, well, not a snob.
    Or maybe I was just taken in by a great storyteller.

  • farida

    Robin,
    In another life, I once attended a reading by Seamus Heaney. But I was much too young and too ignorant to appreciate it. Although I remember rushing to hear him read his poetry because we had read one or two of his poems in class. I distinctly remember learning the words “peat” and “bog” in that class and my literature teacher explaining it all. May he rest in peace.

  • Robin Bates

    Maybe instead of “too famous,” I should say too expensive, Jason. We were getting him at a cut rate based on his friendship with Lucille Clifton and we couldn’t afford him anymore after the prize. Yes, I’ve heard that he’s very down to earth (or down to peat).


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