The New Beowulf

March 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A new translation of the epic poem “Beowulf” by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney is improbably on bestseller lists in several major U.S. cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among them. The poem was written in Old English more than 1,000 years ago. It tells the tale of theScandinavian warrior, Beowulf, who slays two hellish demons and then in old age, brave beyond reason, is fatally wounded in a battle with a fiery dragon.

The poet and translator, Seamus Heaney, was born on a farm in Northern Ireland, and now divides his time between Dublin and teaching at Harvard University. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, for what the Nobel Committee described as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Thank you for being with us, Mr. Heaney.

SEAMUS HEANEY, Poet/Translator, “Beowulf:” A pleasure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Those words from the Nobel Committee might describe “Beowulf,” too, with its ethical concerns and the past so alive in it. Have you always had an affinity for “Beowulf”?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Well, I read the poem when I was an undergraduate. I was actually made to read it as part of my English course. When I was in my teens, I actually knew the shorter Anglo- Saxon poems better, but “Beowulf” was the large, 3,000- line monster lying there at the very beginning of the tradition. And the language it was written in and the meter it was written in attracted me, partly because, as I say in the introduction to the translation, I think there’s something in the very sturdy, stressed nature of that old language that matched the speech I grew up with in Ulster, in the countryside in the 1940′s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We don’t know who wrote it. You’re not even sure exactly when it was written, are you?

SEAMUS HEANEY: No, it was written, as I said, towards the end of the first millennium, maybe in the 700′s, maybe towards the year 1000, but that’s not… we’re not very sure about that. We do know that whoever wrote it lived in two worlds, in a way– lived in a past that belonged to the Old English ancestry, that is the people who came over from Jutland and the Anglos and the Saxons and the Jutes, they came across the North Sea to England.

So they brought memories of a Scandinavian past with them. So the poet is someone with… who lived in that previous, as they say “pagan” past. And he’s also a Christian, someone who has taken in the new Mediterranean Christian culture. And the two voices, the two things are in the poem. The story of is the old, previous archaic material, and the understanding and the voice that speaks is someone who is in touch with the new Christian culture.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then how did you find the tone and the voice for your own translation? I read that a word, is it “polean,” helped you.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yeah, well, this poem is written down, but it is also clearly a poem that was spoken out. And it is spoken in a very dignified, formal way. And I got the notion that the best voice I could hear it in was the voice of an old countryman who was a cousin of my father’s who was not, as they say, educated, but he spoke with great dignity and formality. And I thought if I could write the translation in such a way that this man– Peter Scullion was his name–could speak it, then I would get it right. That’s, in fact, how I started it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you found words that had actually been words that you knew from childhood, right?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yeah, that’s right. My aunt used a word. In fact, all the people around the district, in the countryside, use words that I gradually began to realize the more I read were Anglo-Saxon words. They would say, for example, of people who had suffered some bereavement, “well, they just have to thole.” And they would say it to you when they’re putting the poultice on your hand that was burning, “you’ll have to thole this, child.”

Now thole… “Thole” means “to suffer,” but it’s there in the glossaries of Anglo-Saxon, “tholian.” So between the secret dialect speech of my home ground and the upper level discourse of the Anglo-Saxon textbook in university, there was this commerce. And I felt my own ear, my own language lived between… lived between that country-speak and learned-speak, and therefore, that I had some way of translating it, of carrying over from one to the other. I felt there was, like, a little passport into translating it, you know.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read something for us, please?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yeah, I’ll read a bit, one of my favorite little bits where it describes a poet in the Anglo-Saxon king’s hall, a minstrel singing his poem, and the poem is a story of the creation of the world.

And in this very… this very happy scene is surrounded by darkness where the monster is prowling, the monster called Grande. “Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark nursed the hard grievance. It harrowed him to hear the din of the large banquet every day in hall.

The hearth beams struck in the clearing of a skilled poet, telling what 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 and every other thing that moved.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now read a little bit of it in Anglo-Saxon for us.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Well, these are just a little, few lines at the beginning. (SPEAKING IN ANGLO-SAXON)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The metrics of it, the balancing halves of the line, explain that, because it seems to be, at least for me, what kept pulling me through it.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yeah, well the line is in two halves. But there are two stresses and two stresses “telling with mastery of man’s beginnings.” “To be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men.” “Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark.”

You’ve got the two stresses, but you will notice there’s also a little loop from one half to the other of alliteration. “Powerful prowler, a hard grievance, it harrowed him.” “A gleaming plain, girdled with waters.” “Earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men.”

The “l’s”– “earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men”– they end, “then the Almighty made the earth.” The “p”– “powerful demons prowler through the dark.” So instead of rhyming, you have those different principles for repeating the pattern line by line right through.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the world of “Beowulf”– you referred to this earlier– but this old world, the warrior.. the Germanic warrior culture that’s evoked, which is honor-bound, blood-stained, vengeance-driven…


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: …Did it seem particularly familiar to you? Was it like Ireland?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Well, no. Ireland doesn’t live by the sword and doesn’t, I mean, we’re in a kind of different cultural situation. We aren’t commanded once somebody has killed to go out and kill someone else. That isn’t the code.

But it is true that the… that what does strike the contemporary reader of “Beowulf” is that that sense of small ethnic groups living together with memories of wrongs on each side, with a border between them that may be breached. I mean, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, after Bosnia and Kosovo and so on, the feuds between the Swedes and the Gates, these little dynastic, ethnic, furious battles strike a chord.

Not, it’s not just… I wouldn’t say it was just in Northern Ireland, where there is of course an ethnic energy and a vengefulness from the past. But it’s more widespread than that. And I say in the introduction and I think it’s absolutely true, towards the end of the poem there’s a scene, a funeral scene, where a woman begins to wail and weep with her hair bound up.

And she cries out a chant of grief. And I think, instead of it being very far away, it’s actually quite close now– through paradoxically all the modern technological means of television, which bring us newsreels of sorrow right into the drawing room. And that figure of the woman wailing because of grief, because of atrocity, it’s quite familiar and very close.

And the poem, I would say, is fit for this kind of atrocious reality. The poet understands he has a veteran’s understanding that the world is not quite trustworthy and that we most be grateful for it when it is trustworthy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, Mr. Heaney, how do you explain the fact that “Beowulf,” this old, old poem with its old, old code is so popular right now? I mean, it’s number seven on the “San Francisco Chronicle” bestseller list. It’s number three, I think, in Los Angeles.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Well, I’m glad to hear that. I don’t think poetry has no tense, you know, past or present. The reality that it deals with is kind of the… what our consciousness contains and what, how we are fit for reality.

And when you get something like “Beowulf” or something like “Homer,” then you’re dealing with the clear, present reality of human understanding and human action, and as I say, it’s so true that the tense of past or present doesn’t enter. It is the truthfulness of the representation of the kind of creatures we are, I think.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Seamus Heaney, thank you very much for being with us.