Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beowulf (Trans. Seamus Heaney)

The melancholy murk of the dark ages closes in around me when I read Heaney's utterly compelling translation of our first native epic. There are but a few points of symbolic illumination: Hrothgar's hearth, the wyrm's breath, the hero's pyre.

I can't remember being this fascinated and entertained when I read the poem at school. It's packed with wonderful observations like "Foreign places yield more to one who is himself worth meeting," but the best of all I'll have to quote in full.

In a society where every death has a price, a were-geld, fratricidal murder is particularly destabilising:

That offence was beyond redress, a wrongfooting
of the heart's affections; for who could avenge
the prince's life or pay his death price?
It was like the misery endured by an old man
who has lived to see his son's body
swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
and weep for his boy, watching the raven
gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone; he has no interest
in living on until another heir
is born in the hall, now that his first-born
has entered death's dominion for ever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.

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