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‘Voice-Right’: Heaney’s Beowulf

This review of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf appeared in The Reader Number 6, Spring/Summer, 2000.

‘Voice-Right’: Heaney’s Beowulf
Whitbread Book of the Year (Faber and Faber, £14.99)

by Sarah Coley

Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is gauntly modern and satisfying poetry, from another world. The poem has in Heaney’s words a ‘hand-built, rock sure feel’ and yet at the same time his lines are expansive with a yearning for elements that are not so easy to encounter. It’s what Heaney elsewhere calls ‘the ore of longing’. So the solidly crafted world of Danish kings, gold hoards and minstrelsy keeps opening unpredictably onto regions remote from human influence, making exhilarating reading. It’s as though you had to grow aware of and experience two dimensions at once. And Heaney’s inclination is to set his words so starkly as to allow the direct opposing pull of those separate forces. The will to let these forces abut shows up in comparison to other translations, Edwin Morgan’s, for example, one other modern poet to undertake the work. Beowulf starts with the sea-burial of Shield, a great king of the Danes. Morgan’s version appears here first:

They carried him down to the restless sea,
His beloved retainers, as he himself had asked
While words served him.

Now Heaney:

His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them.

In Morgan’s translation, the lines have a lingering nineteenth century beauty and appeal. ‘Beloved retainers’ serve Shield, while, in flat terms, Heaney’s ‘warrior band’ act in obedience to one who ‘laid down the law’. It is the stiff, underlying matter of power and survival, the code that keeps the group intact against the harsh natural world that makes them act rather than love. Morgan’s ‘restless sea’ has a human character that ‘the sea’s flood’ in Heaney does not possess. The biggest difference in the two versions though is in the way they take up the corpse. Morgan’s ‘carried’ sounds effortless both in physical terms and in its effect upon the ear–in fact you don’t notice the word. But Heaney’s word ‘shouldered’ is surprising, elbowing attention, rough and wholly to the purpose. There’s the jostle and struggle of real men in the sea that won’t allow you to forget what they’re about. The primitive weight and the painful burden are taken with a bare respect that has to outlast the manhandling.

It is the open contrast of the forces that is striking in Heaney’s version: ‘they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood’. At one end of the line there’s the finite action of men, at the other the unstored impulse of the sea. What they are doing is plain. In graphic human terms they are giving him back to a force more potent and profound than their own–one not in sympathy with their earthly priorities. It is that stubborn human deed set against (or towards) the unacquaintable greatness of inhuman forces that gives Heaney’s translation its particular impulse.

The openness of the ordinary to the exceptional is characteristic of Seamus Heaney’s later work both in Seeing Things and in The Spirit Level, so it is perhaps not surprising that, having had the Beowulf project at the back of his mind for ten years or so, he should have undertaken the translation now, or that he quotes from his own poem ‘The Settle Bed’ to head his introduction to the poem:

And now this is ‘an inheritance’ –
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward
Again and again and again.

The solid hand-grasped wood of the settle bed, ‘Upright, rudimentary’, yields purchase on a wholly new sphere and grants an almost visionary energy: ‘will-able forward // Again and again and again’. To understand that transformation it is important to gauge what Heaney means by ‘inheritance’; especially since in his introduction to Beowulf the poet lays claim to it as ‘part of my voice-right’, part of his inheritance too.

One of the most sheerly encouraging statements of recent years was made by Heaney in acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), when he spoke of poetry providing ‘an order where we can at last grow up to what we stored up as we grew’. Treat that statement to slow seriousness for a moment. It’s as if the self itself were suddenly an excitement. Inheritance would not then be just continuousness but rather a leap into the past and into the future at once. It’s a vivid, vigorous experience but it is also a complex idea because it has involved in it both the processes of discovery (the moment of growth) and the actual event (the store that was started long ago), so that vision is inseparable from action. The promise of the full momentinseparable from the long ago.

Heaney’s ear is attuned to more than individual growth. What he says in relation to his personal history is kin to his thought about the poem. It is a chief strength of this translation of Beowulf that the poet actively owns the poem. Heaney makes the Danes speak in the tones of his rougher relatives (‘the big voiced scullions’ from ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’) and exults over the scraps of Old English that have survived into (his aunt’s) modern usage. He takes up Tolkien’s view of Beowulf as real, readable, personal poetry: ‘Tolkien assumed that the poet had felt his way through the inherited material… That the Beowulf poet was an imaginative writer rather than some kind of back-formation derived from nineteenth century folklore and philology’. For the original poet, Christian, writing at some point between the mid-seventh and the tenth centuries, the pagan world of Beowulf was already an heroic past, demanding his imaginative engagement. Heaney writes familiarly of the need to ‘feel his way through the inherited material’. It is a growing up to what was stored up. His Beowulf has an immediacy of direct dealing that demands a like response from the reader.

What is the particular quality that Heaney brings? It has to do with what I called yearning before. That is not quite the accurate word but there is a decisive instinct in Heaney’s later books that leads him to look for meaning away from the centre of what can be readily guaranteed. Feeling his way through the inherited material for Heaney is a matter of air-trusting recklessness. As where, for example, Beowulf anticipates his death:

He was sad at heart,
unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.
His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain:
it would soon claim his coffered soul,
part life from limb. Before long
the prince’s spirit would spin free from his body.

It is a surprising, almost physical thinking in which the coherence of realisation, of life itself, holds for a moment in a poise that is already aware of the counter impulse. It is as though the encounter of forces when the retainers shouldered their king out to sea had risen to be a part of consciousness in the one who must die, a specific sense, ‘unknowable but certain’. The life-unshaping inevitability of death is guested for a piercing moment as a felt subjective truth. The active offset of the lines is richly Heaney’s own, not there in the other translations I have read. It’s the definite weight of fate’s presence that is awe-inspiring, as if the spirit’s stored energy to ‘spin free’ balanced the ability to sense, making death the direct counterweight to awareness.

The experience of the human dimension facing the unknown here has a positive value but more typically in Beowulf and in the Anglo-Saxon world the moments of encounter with the world beyond man’s making are purely negative. The hand-built solidity that Heaney loves in the poem is asserted in direct defiance to the hostile world that lies beyond human order. It is as if craft or effort might stave off the ruinous power of time and mortality. There are many forms of the willed permanence of man in Beowulf – the mead-hall meant by Hrothgar ‘to be a wonder to the world for ever’, the stores of crafted gold, the ancient codes of loyalty. The minstrel sings of creation and order in the mead hall, to the fury of Grendel the outcast monster who hears him:

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…

Grendel is the immediate and lurid threat to the hall’s security, coming through darkness to displace order with his chaos of blunder and (wonderful phrase) ‘wound-slurry’. But the Beowulf-poet plants another more subtle enemy. As if by inseparable thought in the midst of the hall’s description ‘finished and ready’ he suddenly observes what will come here: ‘the killer-instinct / unleashed among inlaws, blood-lust rampant’. One thing that Heaney does extremely well is to get full value from those compound words. It’s rough and thinking stuff when ‘unleashed’ connects to ‘in-laws’, the cleanest possible movement of thought. It is not just the outcast Grendel but forces present in those who mesh the group together, the inlaws, that threatens the ‘clear song’ of the hall-world.

In a world where man-made creation stands against desolation of the indifferent world beyond, poetry has a strange status. It gives permanence and status, as for Beowulf, spreading and enhancing his reputation after he has defeated Grendel and his (the monster’s) mother. Yet at the same time it lets in elements that men might want to expel. As for example where the minstrel’s song breaks back unsignalled into the moment, leaving the terrible future apparently alongside the present joy. (Geats are the tribe to which Beowulf belongs):

Geat corpses
covered the field.
Applause filled the hall.

The impulses of memory and of anticipation, unlike the other assertions of human order, point out the vulnerability of the apparent stronghold. It is as if some sense were already lent to the undermining forces of the beyond or could not help participating in them.

For Heaney the whole poem is fringed by and related to the beyond, by which he means not merely the distant but also the imminent, ‘unknowable but certain’. He stresses that the strangeness of Beowulf to modern ears is not merely the result of our remoteness from that epic world (the dragons, barrows, and boar-shapes flashing over golden cheek-guards). Rather the poem’s strangeness lies in its ‘mythic potency’:

Like Shield Sheafson… [the poem] arrives from somewhere beyond the
known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again
like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond.

The important and shape-giving thought is that though this seems a bleak state, as if life were simply the moment between two phases of the beyond, one must commit and live in one’s impermanence:

In the intervening time, the poet conjures up a work as remote as
Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon, as commanding as the
horn-pronged gables of King Hrothgar’s hall, as solid and dazzling as
Beowulf’s funeral pyre that is set ablaze at the end.

During ‘the intervening time’ the conjured world of the poem grows familiar to the reader until what was at first ‘as remote as Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon’ is mourned in echo at the conclusion in the ‘solid and dazzling… funeral pyre’. Between the two burials that frame the poem, the world has grown real, solid and dazzling, and is given continuance too, ‘set ablaze at the end’, like a beacon or memory.

This process that we go through as modern readers of the ancient poem, the being drawn into a sense of relationship or involvement, is related to the path that Beowulf has to follow too. Heaney points out an important development in the poem which starts with a young man’s chosen conflict (Beowulf crosses the sea to take on Grendel) and ends with his tackling an inevitable enemy in his old age (the dragon that threatens Beowulf’s own people). Life may be fleeting but it is serious and personal. So it is that despite the oddness of the world to us, the keenest voices of Beowulf are piercingly familiar. As in the passage that tells of the king whose boy accidentally killed his other son:

That offence was beyond redress, a wrongfooting
of the heart’s affections; for who could avenge
the prince’s life or pay his death-price?
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 worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is 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.

This is an inescapable agony, still there in the morning, that is given in a language that trips you into attention with its sheer lyrical intelligence, its ‘wrongfooting / of the heart’s affections’ and the painfully lifted thought that wisdom is no use. It is as though you had to grow aware of and experience two dimensions at once – both that impartial universe (Hardylike, if that helps to situate it) where human feeling falls short of active effect and also the life where ‘longing’ survives loss. If Beowulf is a poem to be inherited, its inheritance is in feeling and that, centrally, is what Heaney wishes poetry to do, to make us feel. He won’t allow it that these voices are the past: ‘The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo’. The final inescapable moment of loss yields the gain of connection, that voice-right.


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