October 7, 2008

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

Beowulf. What is not to love about this story. Monsters! Heros! Water Journeys! Treasure! Faithful friends! I love love love Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Here is the opening:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute.

Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation, He knew what they had tholed,
by long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned.
Shield had fathered a famous son:
Beow's name was known through the north.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.

Shield was still thriving when his time came
and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping.
His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
a chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice clad, outbound, a craft for their prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I have never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out oer the waves.
And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load.

Then it fell to Beow to keep the forts.
[ . . .]

You can hear Seamus Heaney reading the "Prologue" from Beowulf. This site shows how different translators dealt with the old English. Even if you are quite sure Beowulf is boring and you are never-ever-ever-no-way going to be interested, go listen to Heaney read the Prologue in his warm fuzzy accent.

If you have a son, make sure he gets to listen too. That reminds me, I think I will review Wild at Heart next.


  1. I'm not so interested in Beowulf, but maybe in the future, if I have a boy?

  2. I wasn't either, but this translation is so pretty. If you like word-crafting, you may surprise yourself by enjoying Beowulf.

  3. Isn't it amazing what a difference a new/different translation can make? I've been wanting to read this Seamus Heaney translation for awhile now.


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