Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate poet and human extraordinaire, passed away today. Here’s a lovely obituary from the New York Times. I was first introduced to his work through his translation of Beowulf. In the introduction, which is the clearest explanation of Beowulf I’ve ever read, he says, speaking of his role as translator:
And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those [big-voiced] relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.
Hweat wé Gár-Dena in geár-dagum
þéod-cyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú thá æÞelingas ellen fremedon.*
Conventional renderings of hweat, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and–more colloquially–“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was:
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.
Heaney drew on his culture and heritage as he found a way to bring Beowulf to contemporary readers, yet he was able to still honor the essence of Beowulf itself. The result is a jewel of literature, whether it is an exact translation of each word or not. And as someone with literary ambition who also feels the pull of her ancestors very strongly, I am grateful for his example, of how he was able to see ancestry as an advantage rather than a burden. I fell in love with Heaney over that “so.”
I have friends who love Heaney better, or more, who have really immersed themselves in his poetry and mindset, who have practiced respectful, kenotic reading, emptying themselves of their own preconceptions insofar as they are able in order to better understand the writer. I admire this. But for me, Heaney will always be the person who first introduced me to the beauty of Beowulf and not just its history (sorry, Ms. Schulten). He is the first author who showed me that literature is personal, and it’s ok to bring yourself to the text, both as a reader and a writer. The poem below is one of my favorites of his, because it reminds me of his work with Beowulf and it talks about place and all kind of other things I love to think about. I think we are poorer by losing him, but I am grateful for the beauty, insight, and compassion he offered with his art while he was here.
by Seamus Heaney
I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed stream
were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue
was buoyant with hindsight–
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatred and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’
(from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996.)
*This Anglo-Saxon transliteration is totally butchered. The word processing program I’m using doesn’t have the appropriate characters, and I’m not aware of the appropriate substitutes, so I’ve just made do as best I can. If you need to see the original words of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon, it would be to your advantage to look at an actual copy of Beowulf.