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).