From Ring Hoard
I've posted about my ambivalent relationship with Old English before (The three-part Caedmon's Dream, here, here, and here). But that drab and baggy monstrosity Beowulf has been slouching around recently, following the death of Seamus Heaney, so -- if only to get another stamp on my "certified contrarian" loyalty card -- I thought I might add a dissenting note to the hagiographic outpourings that have ensued.
Now, just to be clear: I think Heaney was an excellent poet. Many of his poems are very good indeed. A few are classics that will probably endure as long as English is a readable language and poetry understood as a means of expression. That's pretty much how it goes for a "major" poet. He also seems to have been a nice, approachable man, relatively uninfected by ego (which is not generally how it goes) despite the whisperings about "famous Seamus" -- poets are notoriously poisonous in their rivalries. It's true, however, that he did love being on TV, and talking about and reading out his own work. To adapt an old Irish joke, he may not have been an actual celebrity, but if the celebrities were short-handed, he'd certainly have pitched in.
But this is what I wanted to say: I don't think Heaney's version of Beowulf is much good. If I'm honest, I think it's pretty poor. It's clumsy, literal, unexciting, earnest, and adds nothing other than a smattering of dialect words to the various existing translations. I cannot understand why it has acquired the reputation it has. I think it's probably a case of people wanting something to be good so badly that it has overwhelmed their judgement.
From Ring Hoard
Well, it had sounded so promising. I remember the publicity interviews on the arts programmes, and even on the daily news bulletins (pay attention, it's that "famous Seamus" again). Heaney was going to use vocabulary and rhythms that linked Anglo-Saxon to modern English via the dialect and lived landscape of rural Northern Ireland. What a prospect! After all, his "bog bodies" poems are among his most interesting; perfect encounters of subject and words that haul deep antiquity into the immediacy and ambiguity of the present day. "Poised between the Bible and folk wisdom, between the Light Ages and the Dark Ages - and at the same time pulverisingly actual in its language. He has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece", opined Andrew Motion of the outcome. Crikey! Though, frankly, anyone who considers the original Beowulf a "masterpiece" is already halfway to self-deception.
I received a copy of Heaney's version as a Christmas present in 1999, and tried and failed several times to enjoy it. Later, someone also gave me the audio CD, but even hearing it read in Heaney's glum sing-song voice didn't help either. It simply fails to catch fire. It plods. Not surprising, as the original is a pretty damp and dull thing, too. Don't believe me? Try reading it. No wonder they felt they had to sex up Grendel's Mother for a film version.
This is a shame, because there is clearly a need for some new work that captures something of the grim glitter of Old English at its best, and that can re-invent it for a contemporary audience in the way that Christopher Logue's War Music has re-invented Homer. Now, it's just possible that a poem recently published by CB editions, J.O. Morgan's At Maldon, may be nearer the mark. I remember reading the Old English fragment The Battle of Maldon as an undergraduate, and thinking it would make a terrific graphic novel -- nervous but resolute Saxon home team vs. shield-biting Viking invaders, set in the Thames Estuary back in its day as one of the dark places of the earth. I've ordered a copy of At Maldon, and I'll let you know if it hits the target, or flops short into the tidal mud.
There is something there in Beowulf, of course. If you can get past his trademark sparkly-eyed enthusiasm, TV historian Michael Wood made a programme for BBC Four (Michael Wood on Beowulf -- it appears to be available here on YouTube) which comes very close to conveying the Anglo-Saxon spirit. Though he, too, succumbs to the desire for Beowulf to be a great poem, rather than what it is -- time-worn hunks of formulaic huffing and puffing lashed together with bits of narrative twine, and draped with some pretty unconvincing Christian garments. Surely an honest, modern appraisal has to conclude that Beowulf is not a masterpiece, but a scarecrow. Seamus Heaney, I'm sorry to say, did not rise to a challenge that perhaps Stephen King (or possibly Peter Jackson) might be better fitted to face.
From Ring Hoard
Curiously, this all reminded me of a piece by Seamus Heaney in the Guardian in October 2003, describing the compilation of The School Bag, the successor anthology to Heaney and Ted Hughes' Rattle Bag. I should simply quote it:
We began with a translation of a short sixth-century Irish poem about the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In it, the new religion and the new age it ushers in appear in the figure of a mitre-wearing bishop, and this strange wedge-like head-gear reminds the poet of the sharp edge of an adze, so the poem in English goes by that title -- "Adze-head":
Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with a hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impiety
from a table in front of his house;
all his people will answer:
"Be it thus. Be it thus."
Now there is an ancient poem in a modern version that works.