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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation Hardcover – February 15, 2000
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There are endless pleasures in Heaney's analysis, but readers should head straight for the poem and then to the prose. (Some will also take advantage of the dual-language edition and do some linguistic teasing out of their own.) The epic's outlines seem simple, depicting Beowulf's three key battles with the scaliest brutes in all of art: Grendel, Grendel's mother (who's in a suitably monstrous snit after her son's dismemberment and death), and then, 50 years later, a gold-hoarding dragon "threatening the night sky / with streamers of fire." Along the way, however, we are treated to flashes back and forward and to a world view in which a thane's allegiance to his lord and to God is absolute. In the first fight, the man from Geatland must travel to Denmark to take on the "shadow-stalker" terrorizing Heorot Hall. Here Beowulf and company set sail:
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,After a fearsome night victory over march-haunting and heath-marauding Grendel, our high-born hero is suitably strewn with gold and praise, the queen declaring: "Your sway is wide as the wind's home, / as the sea around cliffs." Few will disagree. And remember, Beowulf has two more trials to undergo.
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...
Heaney claims that when he began his translation it all too often seemed "like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer." The poem's challenges are many: its strong four-stress line, heavy alliteration, and profusion of kennings could have been daunting. (The sea is, among other things, "the whale-road," the sun is "the world's candle," and Beowulf's third opponent is a "vile sky-winger." When it came to over-the-top compound phrases, the temptations must have been endless, but for the most part, Heaney smiles, he "called a sword a sword.") Yet there are few signs of effort in the poet's Englishing. Heaney varies his lines with ease, offering up stirring dialogue, action, and description while not stinting on the epic's mix of fate and fear. After Grendel's misbegotten mother comes to call, the king's evocation of her haunted home may strike dread into the hearts of men and beasts, but it's a gift to the reader:
A few miles from hereIn Heaney's hands, the poem's apparent archaisms and Anglo-Saxon attitudes--its formality, blood-feuds, and insane courage--turn the art of an ancient island nation into world literature. --Kerry Fried
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
Verse translation, however, is of necessity an imprecise art; poetry is too tightly bound to the language of its creator for a valid direct transposition to another tongue. Anglo-Saxon verse relied upon strong alliteration and a balance of stressed syllables rather than the use of rhyme and formally patterned meter as in later English poetry. The contemporary translator has a formidable and delicate challenge to transform "Beowulf" into a poem suited for today while remaining loyal to its ancient timbre. Although I greatly admire Ruth P.M. Lehmann's 1988 translation for its steadfast replication of the tone and cadence of the Old English original, there is truth in what another "Alliteration is a key element in Old English metrics ... but long stretches of it in Modern English will stupefy the most ardent reader". At times the beat and alliteration of Lehmann's verse threatens to overwhelm the present-day listener, becoming a deadening drumbeat. Yet, if the translator strays too far from the Anglo-Saxon structure in attempting to create something palatable for present taste, then the result inevitably lacks the bardic flavor at the heart of the poem.Read more ›
And everything means something. Heaney mentions in his introduction that he wanted every word to have weight; he's succeeded.
The introduction alone, incidentally, is worth the price of the book. Reading how Heaney sees poetry and the English language is a privilege; he's one of our best living poets. Also, though I don't read Old English, I did appreciate the bilingual edition, just for reference's sake.
I highly recommend this edition. Whether the reader is new to the poem or not, it's fresh and meaningful here.
I've tried to do my own alliterative translations: Mr. Heaney's translation comes as a delight for a number of reasons. Chief among them is this: he's the best poet to tackle BEOWULF since the original -scop-. Even 20 years after my grad school days, I read Old English. Heaney has produced a translation that is profoundly moving. If he sometimes diverges from the four-stress alliterative pattern, with the third stress being the main one, it's by design -- and he's explained it. He spares us the most convoluted kennings, but gives us, instead, the tautness, the spaces between the words, the pauses for thought, tension, and what Tolkien and Auden referred to as the Northern Thing -- the austere combination of faith and darkness that is Wyrd. It's a solid translation and a fine poem in Heaney's hands.
And it consoles me for not having a full translation by Tolkien and that John Gardner never lived to translate BEOWULF as he had hoped.
It is also delightful to consider that, for the first time since the death of T.S. Eliot, poetry is going to the top of the best-seller lists.
Mr. Heaney, although he is not a ring-giver, rings true, and has given us a great gift.
I've always admired the tough beauty of his poetry; his lines tend to stomp about, a brawl of consonants, irredeemably masucline. What better interpreter, than, for the hypermacho world of Beowulf, where the men gnaw on bones and gulp down their mead and stagger off to fight monsters and get eviscerated. I'm not mocking the saga-- it's awfully good fun, and I'm pleased to see it's selling so well. Heaney's favorite themes, violence and memory, lurk in the heart of Beowulf.
Very nice to see a Nobel laureate refusing to rest on his laurels.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I hadn't read this since my Freshman college year. This is an excellent translation and I think I got much more out of reading it this time.Published 2 months ago by Jim Wildman
Great!!!!!! One of the classics. I am still struggling with ancient English while I read it. Seamas was a master of English literature. Read morePublished 4 months ago by angus
i would give it 5 stars if my [used] copy hadn't come with some moronic liner notes. seamus heaney is the best.Published 4 months ago by Alanna Zaritz
What a thoughtful, lovely addition to my personal library! This copy came with a handwritten note from the sender, and an article clipping about the translation. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
This is a great book that will help you to understand Beowulf 100 percent better. If you are taking a English literature course and would like to have a better understand of the... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
Seamus Heaney is my favorite translation of Beowulf. If you are new to Beowulf this is the version to begin with.Published 8 months ago by Steve C.
Worth the money! Better than checking out at the library.Published 8 months ago by Michelle Cassidy
Best translation of Beowulf ever written. The music and rhythm come through in contemporary English as beautifully as it must have in Old English.Published 20 months ago by K. Glaes