Beowulf for the big-voiced Scullions

by Tom Shippey

[Times Literary Supplement, October 1, 1999, pp. 9-10]

Seamus Heaney
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
104 pp. Faber £14.99
0 571 20113 X

In the 1997 Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, Marijane Osborn lists some twenty full or partial English translations of Beowulf, and that is by no means a complete list. Some have been produced by distinguished scholars (J.R. Clark Hall and C.L. Wrenn, E.T. Donaldson, Constance Hieatt), some by rated poets (Edwin Morgan, Burton Raffel, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Alexander). And all this is now immaterial. Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize-winner; his translation of the poem was commissioned for and is going straight into The Norton Anthology of English Literature; set for virtually every introductory course in English on the North American continent (and all undergraduates have to take them, not just English majors); and he is a Northern Irish Catholic, one of the excluded, a poet in internal exile. All this, within the power poker of American academe, gives him something like a straight flush, ace high; to which any reviewer must feel he can oppose no more than two pairs, and aces and eights at that, the Dead Man’s Hand. Like it or not, Heaney’s Beowulf is the poem now, for probably two generations.

So. This is the way Heaney starts the poem, quelling instantly the long (and tedious) academic debate about how to translate its opening word, Hwæt. He gets “so,” Heaney explains, from his Irish relations, whom he calls, in a previous poem and in the “introduction” to this one, “big voiced Scullions.” Why “big voiced”? Because, “when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty directness, phonetic units as separate and defined as the delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.” In their mouths, a sentence like “we cut the corn today,” says Heaney, “took on immense dignity”; when whey opened a statement with “So,” the idiom operated “as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and ad the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” Heaney wanted, then, to make Beowulf speakable by one of his Scullion relatives; what he loved about the poem was “a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood.”

Right, then (for as Edward Risden pointed out in his 1994 translation of the poem, “right” is the English English for Hwæt); maybe the first thing to say is that we seem here to be in the presence of two folk narratives, a personal one and an academic one. On the personal side, no one can grouch at Heaney’s relating the poem to his own experience and hearing his own history in it. He was much struck, he says, when he first read the poem at university, to realize that the strange verb þolian in the glossary, with its weird runic initial letter, was also the dialect word “thole” which he was used to hearing in completely non-academic surroundings. The word and its history (Old English to Scottish to Ulster planters to native Irish) gave him “illumination by philology,” it “opened my right of way,” it made Beowulf “part of my voice-right.”

Fair enough, and no one wants to take the voice-right away. But Heaney’s illumination is, or ought to be, pretty widespread. Ever since William Morris (at the very least), it has been noted that many Old English words, and many Beowulfian words, are unfamiliar only to educated English, with its self-imposed burden of French and Latin. From the first few lines I pull “settle,” “wax,” “dree,” “ere,” “barm,” “bairn” — Heaney has replaced drugon (= “dreed”) with “tholed,” so making one point but rejecting another. If he is under the impression that “Scullion-speak,” as he calls it, somehow preserves a native purity which other and more effete dialects of English do not, then that is a delusion: an amiable delusion, maybe, for ancestral piety is to be admired, but a dangerous one too. A hundred years ago, foolish philologists, who should have known better, were claiming that standard English was intrinsically superior to dialects because it had nicer vowels: reversing the statement makes it no wiser.

As for the academic folk narrative, that crops up perhaps in the remark about the indicative mood. Heaney is fond of indicatives. In his poem “from the Canton of Expectations” (first published in the TLS, January 24, 1986), he sees the history of his people as moving from optative to imperative, and wishes for someone “who stood his ground in the indicative; / whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens.” But is Beowulf an especially indicative poem? If one is talking real grammar, not the folk-grammar of John Major and most English department introductory courses, then the poet of Beowulf might be thought to be distinguished by his handling (among much else) of subjunctives. How does Heaney take these?

A test case is Beowulf’s early confrontation, before we even know his name, with the Danish coastguard. As Beowulf’s crew, heavily armed, stream over the bolca (the baulk, the gang-plank), the Danish warden, Hrothgar’s thane, rides down to meet them. Is he going to start shooting? Is he going to wave them through? What he does offer is a long speech, almost agonizingly balanced between threat and conciliation. Twice, for sure — you cannot always tell — he uses subjunctive verbs, switching the first time from a very plain compliment, nis þæt seldguma (“that’s no hanger-on”) to an immediately doubtful half-retraction, næfne him his wlite leoge (“unless his looks should happen to belie him”); moving the second time from the peremptory modal ic sceal (“I shall, I must”) and the definitely uncomplimentary leassceaweras (“false seers, spies”) to another retractive subjunctive, ær ge . . . fur˛ur feran (“before you should happen to go any further”). Catching the tone of the subjunctive is hard in modern English, but it is a major part of the careful, prickly dignity of armed men in the heroic world.

How does Heaney catch it? His translation of the latter part of the speech runs as follows:

Nor have I seen
A mightier man-at-arms on this earth
than the one standing here: unless I am mistaken,
he is truly noble. This is no mere
hanger-on in a hero’s armour.
So now, before you fare inland
as interlopers, I have to be informed
about who you are and where you hail from.

Heaney has switched the “unless” clause to precede the compliment, and added the bit about “truly noble.” Also, the “unless” now governs the coastguard being mistaken (which is deprecatory), not the stranger’s looks being lies (which is suspicious). “Before you fare” is pretty good, keeping the characteristic Old English “pararhythm,” but to my ear “I have to be informed” sounds apologetic. The Old English is both flatter, more uncompromising, “bigger-voiced” indeed, and at the same time more subjunctive, more open-optioned, than Heaney can get across. Beowulf is a highly aggressive poem, of course, and in the folk narrative of modern academe this translates out as “butch.” But maybe real warriors, as opposed to thugs or gangsters, had to learn complex social skills. “Foursquare” does not always seem to be the right description of how they talk.

Try another scene, a speech so oblique, though riddled with imperatives, that no reader in the early modern period understood it for sixty years and the interpretation was ignored for another forty and resisted into my own student days by scholars like Kenneth Sisam, who just did not believe that Anglo-Saxon housecarls, “men not chosen primarily for their intellectual qualities,” to use his polite formulation, could possibly have taken it in. Hrothgar’s queen Wealhtheow is speaking, after Beowulf has got rid of Grendel, and after her husband has made a perhaps rash offer to adopt Beowulf into his own family. She tells her husband, five imperatives in a row, to enjoy himself and show appropriate generosity. Then she mentions the adoption, deadpan; and — twice using very careful subjunctives — raises the possibility of her husband’s death. She never at all says the words “who is going to succeed you, who is going to inherit?”, let alone rebukes her husband for gratuitously importing a competitor to his and her sons. But it is here (and much else is there, for the speech is not over) in the gaps, in the contrasts between grammatical moods.

Heaney again:

The queen spoke:
“Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord,
raise you your goblet, entertain the Geats
duly and gently, discourse with them,
be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well
all of the boons that have been bestowed on you.
The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed
and now the word is that you want to adopt
this warrior as a son. So, while you may,
bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
before your decease.”

Wealhtheow said neither “before” nor “decease,” she said something like (and this is E.T. Donaldson), “when you must go forth,” though the “must” was subjunctive – “when you may perhaps have to.” She didn’t say the “but” in line 6 above either, and I think the “boons” she is telling her husband to “recollect” are the ones he should be giving, not the ones he has received. The Anglo-Saxon speech treads much more delicately than the modern one. Maybe we have got more four-square (or ruder), not less; though, of course, in academic folk narrative it is well known that Anglo-Saxons were just plain primitive, a distinguished professor of literature recently calling them the Falkland Islanders of the first millennium, which is rude on several levels.

How does Heaney handle, then, the most plainly indicative statements in the poem, its many gnomic sayings and maxims? It has to be said that he gets off to a bold but shaky start. Very early in the poem, the son of Scyld Scefing arrives, and the poet comments, for no apparent reason, that this is how sons should behave: they should give gifts and buy loyalty while their fathers are alive, so as to have willing support in war when they grow up. The poet ends with an uncompromisingly universal statement lofdædum sceal / in mæg˛a gehwære / man ge˛eon. This means, translating very literally, “in each one of the tribes a man must thrive (is bound to thrive?) by deeds of lof — what is lof? “Praise,” say the dictionaries — so, “by deeds of praise.” Heaney, claiming to be “attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines,” translates “Behaviour that’s admired / is the path to power among people everywhere.”

This is universal enough, and the echo of gehwære in “everywhere” is good. But who in the world could begin to go about believing it? The people of power now are financiers and politicians. Are they remarkable for “behaviour that’s admired”? Does the maxim survive contact with mention of Robert Maxwell and Bill Clinton? Were they Anglo-Saxons (or the Scullions whom Heaney cites once again as models for those lines) really as starry-eyed as that? I do not think lof means “praise” here, I think it means the other half of the exchange relationship, “generosity.” The poet is saying that men rise to the top everywhere through judicious payoffs: in his culture, with its hatred of stinginess, that is a virtue without cynical suggestion. But it has stayed true even in a quite different political culture, which is one mark of a good saying.

Heaney does not always guess wrong, or shy away from the unwelcome. I appreciate his demotic “That was one good king” for Scyld Scefing, as also “That is no good place” for the monsters’ mere, and “They were a right people” for the sleeping Danes. His “voice-right” has helped him out in another respect, too, in his dealings with what he calls, “in careful awareness of modern commentary, the poem’s “appositional” syntax. The bane of translators of Old English poetry from the lowest levels upwards is its use of variation, saying the same thing in different ways. In Old English, with its ability to indicate syntactic connections through word endings, this is a flexible and often climactic technique, but in modern English, where word-order rules, the unspoken instruction to get everything in and not leave any phrases out often leads to sentences which feel like someone pushing a line of supermarket trolleys.

Heaney deals with this sometimes (not often) by judicious cutting: more often by skilful permutation of the syntactic resources modern English still allows, mixing adverbial phrases with relative clauses, using non-finite constructions (something his own poetry has always exploited). Compare, for instance, Clark Hall and Wrenn, a self-proclaimed students’ crib, with Heaney on Hrothgar getting up. The crib is resolutely uninteresting: “the king, too, guardian of ring-hoards, came from his bed-chamber; he, famed for noble qualities, advanced majestically with a great company, and his queen with him passed over the path to the mead-hall with a company of maidens.” Compare Heaney:

the king himself,
guardian of the ring-hoard, goodness in person,
walked in majesty from the women’s quarters
with a numerous train, attended by his queen
and her crowd of maidens, across to the mead-hall.

The vocabulary is not much different, but the syntax is. One finite verb, not three; an appositional pronoun cut out; a couple of adverbial phrases relocated, a co-ordinate clause subordinated: and the trolley effect, thankfully, has disappeared. It does make the poem much easier to read at length, for which many successive cohorts of students and tutor swill be grateful.

More importantly, though, can Heaney hit the heights? I do not know if it is because the poem gets sadder towards the end, but I formed the impression that he was becoming more comfortable with his mode as time went by. There are many moments of pathos, usually understated, in the last third of Beowulf, and Heaney singles some of them out for comment in his introduction. His “Lay of the Last Survivor” is excellent, plain, like the original full of unexplained transitions and unstated regrets:

Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
by honourable men. My own people
have been ruined in war; one by one
they went down to death, looked their last
on sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody.

I am not so sure about Beowulf’s part-weary, part-proud reminiscence. How can one go wrong with Ic wæs syfanwintra, þa mec sinca baldor / freawine folca æt minum fæder genam? “I was seven winters, when the prince of treasured, / friend and lord of peoples, took me from my father”: the honorifics contrast with the little boy taken into service, a service he now means to complete in loyalty to men long dead. Heaney has, “At seven, I was fostered out by my father, / left in the charge of my people’s lord”; the little boy has become the subject of the fostering, not the object taken away. Often, it seems to me, the plain flat phrase is ducked, as in the tragedy of line 2439, when Beowulf’s uncle miste mercelses and his mæg ofscet “missed the mark and shot his brother”; in Heaney, “shot wide and buried a shaft / in the flesh and blood of his own brother.”

On the other hand, Beowulf’s three last dying speeches to Wiglaf are good — “you are the last of us, the only one left . . .” — as are Wiglaf’s own, and in particular his speech to the shirkers, where long and complex sentences are kept rolling through the appositions to the crunch lines, “now the day has come / when this lord we serve needs sound men.” Thirteen monosyllables in a row; if this is “Scullion-speak,” we need more of it.

How, finally, should one deal with the last three lines, the end of a poem sometimes described not as an epic but as a long, long dirge? In the Old English, they are both plain and complex, the last two lines being the only ones in the poem which follow each other identically in the rhythm (trochaic stress, two central stresses, trochaic stress, two central stresses) and, apart from a genitive changing to a dative, in grammar. I translate them as near as I can word for word and sound for sound. The Geats, mourning their lord, “said that he were (subjunctive), of world-kings, / of-men mildest and most loyal / to-men kindest and praise-yearnest.” “Mildest” and “kindest” (mildost, lindost) are surprising words to use of the dead hero; the fourth superlative seems (but is it?) out of line with the others. Heaney gives:

They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

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