Friday, February 1, 2019

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

Today 'The Living Dead' refers to two poets: the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of the Old English epic Beowulf, and the great contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) who translated it in 1999 – by no means the only translation but surely the defintive one to date. This comparison of translations certainly settles it for me, even though the author of the article prefers another. He does allow that Heaney's is at least the most popular.

Translations are tricky things!  What struck me when I came across this one in my local library was the immediacy and colloquialism of the language, which makes it exciting stuff – as I'm sure it was for its first audiences, hearing rather than reading it. It also manages to be wonderful (and apparently effortless) poetry as well as adhering to the characteristics of the Old English verse it was first written in.

It's much too long to post here, even if I could find a postable copy.  Here is the beginning of it, a longish excerpt which gives you the idea.

And here, so you can experience it as its original author intended, is Heaney himself reciting it on YouTube – an absolute treat, but you need to give it your full attention:




This is Part 1, which is probably enough, or more than enough, for one sitting. You can easily find Part 2 on YouTube when you're ready to continue. Such early epic poetry was the television drama of its age – or the cinema, with a whole community sitting together and listening – but the visuals were supplied by their imaginations, based on how vividly it was written and how enthrallingly it was told.

I hope you enjoy revisiting our origins! The name of Beowulf's author is long forgotten, but his words live on in new translations for different eras.

Seamus Heaney's own poems are likely to live on a long time too, and are well worth discovering via his Amazon page or sites like Poetry Foundation. I'm glad he also brought Beowulf to life for me in a way others did not succeed in doing.

I'm not in the business of selling books here, and I certainly don't stand to gain from it, but I must mention that if you should want to buy the book, this version (the one I found at my library) has the most beautiful photographic illustrations on facing pages of the text, as you can see if you use the 'Look inside' feature at Amazon and persevere past the first few pages.



Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for this excellent article Rosemary. I have long been a fan of the Beowulf poem. Seamus Heaney's translation is one of my "best books".

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  2. It is cool to think of a time when peoples' drawing room entertainment was poetry and music. Thank you for this explanation, Rosemary. So interesting, to contemplate poetry written in Olde English.

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    1. Well, I'm certainly glad we get it in translation! I once heard a young woman recite something in Old English. While it sounded wonderful, it was incomprehensible.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this, Rosemary. I remember reading some of Beowulf in high school....not the entire thing. I enjoyed listening to part of the recording you shared, just to get a flavor of it, and it does sound like a wonderful translation! You find such fascinating things to share, Rosemary.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. I try to present a variety of material.

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  4. Saving this for a free hour after the weekend, and so delighted for the choice. I've been meaning to go back to this classic for years. And I love Seamus's voice. Thank you.

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  5. I listened to a little and enjoyed the voice as well. I usually dislike hearing poetry read.It kills most poetry for me. I noted the kennings used.Beautiful poetic devices. I wrote a poem once using kennings.It has inspired me to write another.Thank you.

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  6. This is awesome! Thank you for bringing this fascinating resource to my attention. I had touched on Beowulf in University, as it is the first known English poem of note. I recall that it was a real slough to try and wrap my head around. By comparison this translation/reading is like coming into the light. What a wonderful recording!

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    1. Yes, it's even something of a relief, isn't it? Like, 'AT LAST I get it!'

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