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DAVID KENNEDY - JUNE 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Timothy Steele
Cynthia Haven interviews Timothy Steele and discusses metrical poetry, New Formalism and Walt Whitman.

David Kennedy
David Kennedy reviews a new translation of the timeless classic, Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney.

Paul Hamill
Read his epic poem, "Meeting the Giant," about the mythical Cardiff Giant in Cooperstown, New York.

John Kinsella
The Magic Circle: The next chapter in John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series.

David Kennedy

David Kennedy was born in Leicester, England, in 1959. He co-edited The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1993) and is the author of New Relations: The Refashioning Of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren 1996). A selection of translations from Max Jacob’s surrealist classic Le Cornet à Dés (The Dice Cup), in collaboration with Christopher Pilling, is forthcoming from Atlas later this year. He lives in Sheffield and is a Contributing Editor to The Cortland Review.
David Kennedy - Book Review

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Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US$25.00
ISBN 0 374 11119 7

Syd Allan’s Alternative Beowulf Translations Web site lists and extracts from eighteen different translations, two children's versions, and the Beowulf comic books by Gareth Hinds. It also announces that it will shortly be adding extracts from a further twelve translations. Several of the existing versions are by acclaimed poets such as Edwin Morgan and Kevin Crossley-Holland, and one is by Professor Michael Alexander whose 1966 anthology, The Earliest English Poems, has introduced generations of readers to such rich and strange works as ‘The Ruin’ and ‘The Dream of the Rood.’ Seamus Heaney’s Whitbread Prize-winning version is the result of a commission by the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. As this suggests and Heaney’s informative introduction makes clear, this new version tells us as much about academic and cultural politics as about the art of literary translation. Indeed, Heaney’s introduction has the effect of prefacing an epic poem with some mythological stories of its own.

The first of these is the history of the reception of Beowulf as a work of imaginative literature as opposed to an historical artifact. Heaney rightly dates the beginning of this history to an essay J. R. R. Tolkien published in 1936, entitled 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics', which took for granted that Beowulf was a coherent work of the imagination. This was in marked contrast to earlier generations of scholars who were obsessed with proving that the kings and places mentioned in the poem had really existed or with trying to establish the identity of the author. However, the date of Tolkien’s paper is highly suggestive in itself, for it locates the beginning of the modern reception of Beowulf in the same period as such books as F. R. Leavis’s New Bearings In English Poetry and I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism. Beowulf, as we now understand it, is inextricable from the moment when the study of English Literature finally emerged from the twilight of nineteenth-century extrinsic historicism, i.e. a mode of criticism which argued that history provided the facts that determined interpretation. This has the curious effect of making a poem composed somewhere between the seventh and tenth centuries in what is effectively a foreign language into a distinctly twentieth-century artefact. It is perhaps almost too tempting to speculate on connections between the date of Tolkien’s article and political events in Europe that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War. Nonetheless, it is not impossible that the failure of efforts for international peace in the 1920's and 1930's and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin threw into sharper relief Beowulf’s story of stable communities banding together to defeat an apparently unstoppable evil.

Community is at the heart of the second mythological story that Heaney’s introduction relates. It is a story that Heaney has told many times before and describes how a young lad from a marginalised group inside a dispossessed nation found the imaginative means to, in Salman Rushdie’s memorable phrase, ‘write back to the centre’. Heaney’s translation enacts a further figuring of the journey he has made from his origins to his current destination. The difficulty with telling the story in the context of Beowulf is that it works to distort the poem’s cultural position. Heaney seems intent on portraying Beowulf as part of a centralised, dominant, imperialist English culture. However, he has already made the point that the poem is virtually meaningless even to educated readers in comparison with, say, Homer or Virgil. As Heaney rightly points out, ‘Achilles rings a bell, but not Scyld Scfing. Ithaca leads the mind in a certain direction, but not Heorot.’ (p.xii). As long ago as 1977, when I was an English literature undergraduate, Anglo-Saxon literature only survived as part of United Kingdom degree courses at a few of the older universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and London. The earliest English poetry I studied, apart from the early medieval lyrics of ‘Anon’, was Chaucer and the fourteenth-century "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." One also feels bound to point out, as the English critic and poet Donald Davie did many years ago, that the idea of a centre allegedy located in London and Oxbridge has had little meaning for the English themselves. The cover illustration of Heaney’s version, in which a chainmailed head and torso through which human features are barely discernible stares forbiddingly out at the reader, only seems to reinforce the poem’s alien nature.

However, Heaney’s obsessive recharting of what he has called ‘the thrilling line’ between origin and destination, between one’s own speech and literary language, are essential to his art. We are forced to say, in everyday speech, ‘it works for him’. Getting Beowulf to ‘work for him’ also explains Heaney’s decision to use what he calls ‘a familar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father’s, people whom I had once described in a poem as “big voiced Scullions.”‘ Heaney’s Beowulf, therefore, uses Ulster words such as ‘kesh’, ‘graith’ and ‘bawn’. Heaney tells us that ‘the local term in each case seemed to have special body and force’, and he explains the use of ‘bawn’ in a detailed passage which is worth quoting in full:

...for reasons of historical suggestiveness, I have in several instances used the word ‘bawn’ to refer to Hrothgar’s hall. In Elizabethan English, bawn (from the Irish bó-dhún, a fort for cattle) referred specifically to the fortified dwellings which English planters built in Ireland to keep the dispossessed natives at bay, so it seemed the proper term to apply to the embattled keep where Hrothgar waits and watches. Indeed, every time I read the lovely interlude that tells of the minstrel singing in Heorot just before the first attacks of Grendel, I cannot help thinking of Edmund Spenser in Kilcolman Castle, reading the early cantos of The Faerie Queene to Sir Walter Raleigh just before the Irish burned the castle and drove Spenser out of Munster back to the Elizabethan court. Putting a bawn into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all concerned in order to render it ever more “willable forward / Again and again and again.”

The quotation at the end of the passage is from Heaney’s own poem ‘The Settle-Bed’, a work which portrays the inexorable fatalisms of life in Northern Ireland. At first sight, the paragraph is astonishing in its apparent gratuitousness and irrelevance. Heaney, it seems, is not only turning his translation into an advertisement for himself but is forcing Beowulf into a context to which it clearly does not belong. The world depicted in the poem is pre-modern, one of warring feudal groups—who often seem more like gangs of adventurers than actual tribes - not a place of sophisticated, multi-layered dialectical encounters between coloniser and colonised. However, it is important to remember that the defining concern of Heaney’s own poetry has always been how to represent and bring to articulation his own community. The group of men feasting and drinking in the mead-hall becomes an emblem of community that portrays both its stability and its vulnerability, the precarious nature of the relationship between inside and outside. This is made plain in the passage which relates the challenge the watchman makes to Beowulf and the Geats when they land in Denmark:

“What kind of men are you to arrive
rigged out for combat in coats of mail,
sailing here over the sea-lanes
in your steep-hulled boat? I have been stationed
as lookout on this coast for a long time.
My job is to watch the waves for raiders,
any danger to the Danish shore.
Never before has a force of arms
disembarked so openly - not bothering to ask
if the sentries allowed them safe passage
or the clan had consented. 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.”
(p.19; lines 241-250)

Despite the apparently primitive and often ultra-violent world of the poem, this passage makes clear that, as the early twentieth-century scholar F. J. Snell pointed out, the language of the poem is concerned with what he termed ‘courtly style’, a style in which the portrayal of ‘splendour and etiquette’ are uppermost. Heaney catches perfectly the almost mutually self-destructive combination of barely-veiled aggression and scrupulous courtesy. The watchman’s speech is a careful balancing act which sets out to cover every eventuality. It is a form of language which is almost designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever ensues after the speech, whether violent or peaceful, will be seen to fit naturally into an existing and ongoing history of relations between tribes. Reading this back into Heaney’s justification of ‘bawn’ seems to suggest that one reason for his interest in the project may have been the convergence between Beowulf and his own ideas about language as the container of community and history. The careful balance of the watchman’s challenge shows how language not only describes kinship and social groupings but actively performs and creates them. It becomes possible to see how language might, in Wittgenstein’s resonant formulation, be ‘a form of life’, and, inevitably, the wary interdependence of different communities portrayed in Beowulf suggests convergences with the situation in Northern Ireland.

In the context of my earlier point about community and the precarious nature of the relationship between inside and outside, one of the most striking things about Heaney’s highly readable version is the way that readability works to foreground the poem’s continual movement between interior and exterior, between ‘us’ and other, and the fraught relation between the two. The effect is to give the poem a dynamic of diastole and systole, of expansion and contraction, of speeding up and slowing down of action. It emphasises how the world of the poem is vulnerable to the workings of fate or what the Anglo-Saxons called wyrd. The protagonists of the poem ride out from the security of the mead-hall to do battle with whatever threatens their community and then return to it, but as the balancing act of the Danish watchman’s speech make clear, even within the mead-hall, old feuds and wrongs can simmer to boiling point. This is made explicit in part of the speech Beowulf makes on his return home to his king Hygelac in which he expresses doubts about the Danish king Hrothgar’s plan to resolve an old feud by betrothing one of his daughters to the king of the Heathobards. Beowulf imagines the possibility of a murder's taking place during the marriage feast and the resulting war. This reinforces the feeling throughout the poem that everything is uncertain in the most uncertain of all possible worlds and perhaps suggests a further convergence with our own times. Heaney makes reference in his introduction to recent horrific events in Kosovo and Rwanda, two places where, yet again, civilization has proved to be a thin veneer quickly stripped by hatred. As with his justification of ‘bawn’, the reference seems, at first sight, gratuitous and clumsy, but by the time one reaches the end of Beowulf, one understands that this is perhaps a large part of the poem’s enduring fascination.

The readability of Heaney’s version also highlights another aspect of the poem: the way that action is described by the poet but also, in a passage immediately following, related by one of the participants who proceeds to locate his account in the larger history of his own people and of heroic deeds in general. This has the effect of showing us culture-in-action in a very special way because such passages show us a people fashioning themselves right in front of us. And, again, this inevitably causes one to reflect on the nature of cultural activity in one’s own society and time, to wonder about the nature of the stories we tell ourselves. This is perhaps Heaney’s true achievement: he has made Beowulf into a story we can tell ourselves. This becomes clearer if we contrast his introduction with that of an earlier translator David Wright. Wright produced a highly readable prose version in 1957, which was reprinted several times in the 1970's and was, in fact, my first introduction to the epic. Wright argued that Beowulf ‘affirms the human being in a world where everything is transient, whether life, happiness, power, or splendour’. Now, this is exactly what the poem doesn’t do. The action of the poem makes clear time and time again that this transience is invoked by the actions of human beings. It tells us much about the workings of Heaney’s imagination and the nature of his poetic interests that he has brought out this aspect of the poem for the contemporary reader without modernising the fact that, in the words of F. J. Snell, the poem’s ‘art [...] is utterly unlike that to which we are accustomed in modern literatures’ and that it reveals ‘a world of ideas and experiences strangely remote from modern life’.


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© 2002 The Cortland Review