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Beowulf: A New Verse Translationby Seamus Heaney
"I resignedly picked it up at last on the tail end of a history binge, telling myself, 'Okay, I'm finally going to slog through it. Just get it over with.' And I discovered all my trepidation had been for naught. This isn't an 'accessible for a scholarly book' type of read; it is just plain a good book....The work itself reads like a pint of fine winter ale, complex and intoxicating, the end arriving quick and unwelcome."
Synopses & Reviews
The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book. From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendels terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot. But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is "the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history" that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination." Sellic spell, a "marvellous tale", is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the "historical legends" of the Northern kingdoms.
"Heaney has turned to Beowulf, and the result is magnificent, breathtaking....Heaney has created something imperishable and great that is stainless — stainless, because its force as poetry makes it untouchable by the claw of literalism: it lives singly, as an English language poem." James Wood, The Guardian
"Reads very well and comes to life...[It] will have a permanent place among Beowulf translations." Fred Robinson, Yale University
"Heaney's introduction does everything it should to dust down and exhibit the poem, exploring its origins, investigating its form and establishing its structure....Heaney has caught the balance of these things brilliantly; he has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece." Andrew Motion, Financial Times
"The translation itself rides boldly through the reefs of scholarship....Beowulf, an elegy for heroism and a critique of feud and fratricide, is alive and well." Michael Alexander, The Observer
"Anglo-Saxon verse is celebrated for its alliterative riffs, its ringing and singing, and...Heaney does it full justice....Beneath the battledress, Beowulf is a peacemaker, a man who eases trouble. This fine translation is worth our trouble too." Blake Morrison, The Independent
"Heaney's excellent translation has the virtue of being both direct and sophisticated, making previous versions look slightly flowery and antique by comparison. His intelligence, fine ear and obvious love of the poem bring Beowulf alive as melancholy masterpiece, a complex Christian-pagan lament about duty, glory, loss and transience....Heaney has done it (and us) a great service." Claire Harman, Evening Standard
"Within Heaney's writing, the civic and the chthonic have always slogged it out, and this magnificent translation is no exception.... [This translation] is a marvelously sturdy, intricate reinvention, which betrays its author's poetic dabs less in its earthiness than in its airiness. It is the canny colloquialisms ('in fine fettle,' 'under a cloud,' 'blather,' 'big talk,' 'gave as good as I got') which are most Heaneyesque, not the smell of the soil.... This poet is so superbly in command that he can risk threadbare, throwaway, matter-of-fact phrases like 'of no small importance' or 'the best part of a day.' He has a casual way with the alliterative patters of the original, which helps to strip its craft of portentous self-consciousness and frees up its syntax to move more nimbly.... Heaney [is] an artist so exquisitely gifted and imaginatively capacious that only a work of such mighty scale would answer to his abilities." Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books
"[At the task of] bringing the personality of the BEOWULF-poet up from the ocean bottom...Heaney is inspired. His inspiration arises, as he explains in his introduction (itself a profound essay on the poem, and an immediate classic), from a kind of miraculous chiasmus, where the extreme of the known met and crossed the extreme of the unknown....[C]ertain poems create a kind of acoustics within which their translator can better hear his own language, the language for him most saturated with tragedy. Heaney has done just that in this brilliant millennial BEOWULF, just in time for the next century's atrocities." Dan Chiasson, Boston Book Review
"This translation does something other than bring [Beowulf] up into our time. It transports us to his and lets us wander there;after which home will never seem entirely the same.... Mr. Heaney's translation beats with a recurring pulse, from homely and concrete to elevated and back again." Richard Eder, New York Times
"There is one thing that Heaney's BEOWULF does better than any translation of the poem that I know....[T]he voice of the old Beowulf seems not so much translated by Heaney into Modern English as ventriloquized into it....In [the book's] thrilling passages, it reads better than any other translation that we have; and in its dullest passages, it is no worse than many others." Nicholas Howe, New Republic
"A faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right." —New York Times Book Review
bestseller and winner of the Whitbread Award.
Composed toward the end of the first millennium, is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel's mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath. In the contours of this story, at once remote and uncannily familiar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney finds a resonance that summons power to the poetry from deep beneath its surface. Drawn to what he has called the "four-squareness of the utterance" in ? and its immense emotional credibility, Heaney gives these epic qualities new and convincing reality for the contemporary reader.
The national bestseller and winner of the Whitbread Award. Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the classic Northern epic of a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his fated death as a defender of his people. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed in the exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels in this story to the historical curve of consciousness in the twentieth century, but the poem also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.
About the Author
Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995; he teaches regularly at Harvard University and lives in Dublin.
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