Tag Archives: Seamus Heaney

Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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Poetry in the garden

I sit in my cottage garden in the sun, for an hour, reading poems. I am looking for poems on the theme of ‘journeys’ to share with the poetry group that meets in our local library next week. Some people write poems on the theme, or find them from within their previous works. I don’t write poetry, but I am enjoying browsing through my shelves, and look forward to reading it aloud. It’s a special pleasure.

97 poetry in gdnThe sun is mild, occasionally obscured by clouds. No mechanical, man-made sounds reach me, just the droning of the bees in the hedge behind me, the arguments of the rooks who live in the trees by the old people’s home, and the clicking of plastic guttering in the sun.

I work through my pile, getting distracted by the pleasure of the task and by poems not about journeys.

I try the anthology called Staying Alive, which has a whole section on journeys and the road, and I note Adrienne Rich’s poem. This is the first line

A wild patience has brought me this far

I had remembered it as a wild impatience, which was more appealing to my ambitions and character when I first encountered the poem in the ‘70s. The rhythm is better in my version I think. But I must slow down and read the poem more closely. A wild patience? The lines of the childhood chant come into my head, which associates patience with good girls in an adult view.

Patience is a virtue

Virtue is a grace.

Grace is a little girl

Who didn’t wash her face.

That puts patience in her place for me. How can patience be wild? The juxtaposition of these words begins to create ripples in my head.

I move on to Robert Frost, Stopping in Woods, and recall walking in Robert Frost’s woods a few years ago on a visit to Amherst (when I also visited Emily Dickinson’s house). It was May, so there was no snow and no ponies. I read this poem to a group of travellers on Stewart Island, on Christmas Day a couple of years later – also no ponies and no snow but miles from home. Stewart Island is about as far south as normal people can travel without being in Antarctica.

97 Poetry booksAnd then I meet again Michael Donaghy’s poem Machines about writing poetry, cycling and harpsichord music. It starts …

Dearest, note how these two are alike:

This harpsichord pavane by Purcell

And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

Then I loose myself in an anthology of poems by women in the 1930s. I marvel again at the steadfastness, endurance and perceptions of that generation of women who flourished between the wars. I find a poem by Winifred Holtby called Trains in France, the sounds of trains haunting the night, reminding her of wartime trains transporting people to and from the Front.

I move on to Billy Collins who can always be relied upon to write quirky, witty and intelligent poems about everyday things. I find two that I might read to the poetry group: Passengers and Walking across the Atlantic. I always enjoy the last three lines of Walking across the Atlantic.

97 b collins' feet

Drowsiness begins to infect me and I imagine lying on the lounger on the lawn all afternoon, reading, as the bees drone, the rooks caw and all seems well with this corner of England.

In my head, words are singing, like poetry when it is read aloud. In my head my own words become poetic, lyrical and full of intelligent observations. My mood is violently broken by a call on my mobile phone about PPI.

These are the poems I finally chose:

  • Walking across the Atlantic and Passengers by Billy Collins.
  • Trains in France by Winifred Holtby.
  • But I might add Honeymoon Flight by Seamus Heaney for the imagery of sewing that he uses to write about marriage.
  • And Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, which presents the world and its people from a fresh, Martian, perspective.

Have you any suggestions of poems connected with journeys?

 

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On not blogging about poetry

Your blog covers everything – except poetry, my sister told me when I was reviewing bookword earlier this year. I find it hard to believe but this is my 50th post and this is my half-century response to her implied challenge.

The death of Seamus Heaney last week was an occasion for considerable public acclaim of his work, and a reminder that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1995. Paul Muldoon, fellow Irish poet, gave a moving tribute on In Tune on BBC Radio3. Heaney had a gift, he said, to connect the reader with the writer, and to give back the world of things and the things of the world, seeing them as if for the first time. He allowed in people who were not ordinarily interested in poetry.

50 anthol

I love reading poetry. I am very fond of anthologies. As a (former) Londoner I always enjoyed the serendipity of Poems on the Underground. I often dip into the two volumes of Poem for the Day. Again the randomness of the day’s poem is part of its delight. To read The Nation’s Favourite Poems (of which Rudyard Kipling’s If was the ‘clear and unassailable winner’ in the poll conducted in 1995) is to revisit poetry lessons at school. I have good memories of mutual pleasure in poems with my American penfriend, chosen from Palgrave’s Treasury. My sister also likes anthologies (suggested them for her Desert Island Books) and sent this photo.

50 H's poetry

And I have had great pleasure, too, in reading what poets write about poetry. These books have made good travelling companions. Roger Housden’s 10 poems to change your life introduced me to two poems I often reread: Mary Oliver’s The Journey and Derek Walcott’s Love after Love. I got a great deal out of Ruth Padel’s two books: 52 ways of looking at a poem and The Poem and the Journey and sixty poems to read along the way. In fact I think I will dip into both of them again.

50 on poetry

Recently I have read Glyn Maxwell On Poetry. In his review Adam Newey in the Guardian said it was the best book about poetry he’s ever read. I enjoyed the humour, the creativity and the technical details with which it explores form, rhyme patterns, line breaks and so on. It’s all a far cry from the kind of solemn incantation that school poetry encouraged.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
(From Casablanca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, 1826)

According to Glyn Maxwell poetry, although a human activity, has been ‘unnecessary for almost all of creation’ (p10). Just pause a moment and notice the work of that word ‘almost’. When was the time that poetry was necessary? Is it now? Let’s hope it’s now, in our time. Maxwell takes the reader through some of his reflections on poetry, on poems, on the writing and reading of poems, a meander that is sometimes playful, sometimes teasing, passionate, fervent and unsettling.

He approaches poetry as both sensual and intellectual, an intellectual journey to enhance the senses, a sensual journey to be spiced with intellectual appreciation. The TLS reviewer seemed to think it fell short of being a decent course on writing poetry, but I did not read it as a how to write book. And that’s partly because I don’t write poetry.

I don’t write poetry. I try not to say I can’t write poetry, but I don’t seem to make any progress when I try to learn to write the stuff. I am still dissuaded by the criticism I received when I was 17, from a published poet. He didn’t agree that my poems were prize winners, and suggested I had written ‘chopped up prose’. After nearly half a century I am still bruised.

50 poets

I can’t memorise poems. But I have lots that mean something to me: Philip Larkin The Years; Mary Oliver, Wild Geese; Yeats, The Dancer and the Dance; Alice Oswald Dart … I revisit these with pleasure and anticipate many yet unknown.

I suspect that stillness is needed to enjoy poems. I don’t have much in my life. Don’t expect many blogs on poetry but I can’t help asking myself: would I be a better reader of poetry if I wrote more? Would I be a better writer of poetry if I read more?

What would you say to persuade me to try writing poetry? Would you take the trouble? What poetry do you like?

 

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