Beowulf in the Yard

The morning after Beowulf wrenches off Grendel’s arm—thus purging the Danish royal hall of its unwelcome visitor—King...

The morning after Beowulf wrenches off Grendel’s arm—thus purging the Danish royal hall of its unwelcome visitor—King Hrothgar’s men trace the bloody tracks left by the monster in its retreat. On their way back they praise Beowulf’s heroism and speak of those qualities that distinguish him as a potential king despite his youth. Suddenly, one of them improvises a eulogy:

                                    a thane

of the king’s household, a carrier of


a traditional singer deeply schooled

in the lore of the past, linked a new


to a strict metre. The man started

to recite with skill, rehearsing


triumphs and feats in well-fashioned


entwining his words.

Scholars interested in the oral performance of Old English poetry have often singled out this passage as a contemporary description of an Anglo-Saxon scop going about his business. Although no doubt idealized, it shows that the poet’s skill was measured in the expert reworking of traditional elements. His immersion “in the lore of the past” reminds us that what gave medieval audiences the keenest aesthetic pleasure was the familiar made fresh again. Artistic originality, in the sense we have come to know it after the Romantics, would have seemed an oddly peculiar quality to strive for. Even the anonymity of Hrothgar’s court poet is somehow appropriate, because he fashions himself as the mouthpiece of a tradition that stretches back count­less generations. Beowulf’s recent exploit becomes his “new theme,” which he spontaneously recounts by means of old formulas, entwined by the alliterating syllables and the looping syntax of the Germanic poetic line. In describing the thane’s performance, the passage offers a self-reflex­ive moment in Beowulf, since the entire Old English poem celebrates “Beo­wulf’s/tri­umphs and feats in well fashioned lines.”

It also offers a self-reflexive moment for Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation of Beowulf, from which these lines are quot­ed. But there is a twist. Unlike Hrothgar’s thane, who applies the ancient meter to a new theme, Heaney takes for his theme the most traditional text in English and fashions a verse line which, though resonant with the old, is innovative at every turn.

One of the more challenging tasks in teaching Old English has been moving the students beyond the mechanics of translation to gain a sense of the poetry’s suppleness. The Old English poetic line is divided into two halves, each with its own precise rhythmical pattern. Alliteration “links” each half-line in a manner roughly analogous to rhyme in later English verse. Adding to the students’ difficulties is a free syntax and an archaic poetic vocabulary that includes many compounds. In a typical phrase-by-phrase glossary-driven translation, the original poetry is not only lost, but all traces of it can be obliterated in the sheer effort of trying to gain a sense of the literal meaning. Bits of syntax are shifted on top of one another like bricks that don’t quite fit together.

Heaney’s Beowulf succeeds in preserving the flow without sacrificing the vigorous alliterative rhythm of the original lines. In the passage quoted above, for example, the alliteration strikes the ear as unobtrusive yet insistent in the k-sounds in “king’s” and “carrier,” the d’s and s’s of “traditional singer deeply schooled,” the l’s of “lore” and “linked,” and so on. There is never a sense that an odd collocation of words was settled on for the convenience of alliteration. Heaney’s meter is not “strict” in the same way as Beowulf’s, but the lines divide naturally into two phras­es, many of which exactly duplicate the rhythmical patterns of Old English verse. What strikes me as Heaney’s greatest tribute to the artistry of the original is the use of enjambment, where sentences spill over from one line to the next, creating a pleasant tension between the aural linking within each line and the syntactic flow from the end of one to the beginning of the next. Even some of the best translations of Beowulf before Heaney reinforce the misconception that the lines were heavily end-stopped, the rhythm lurching painfully from clause to clause and line to line like a wounded monster. The real Beo­wulf is far more elastic and complex.

A feature of Beowulf’s language that is difficult to imitate without sounding contrived is the use of compounds, some as ordinary as “household,” but others met­aphorically allusive. The poetic devices known as kennings, like “swan’s road” for “ocean” or “sea wood” for ship are merely the most famous of such compounds, and they form key elements in the rhythm and alliteration. Heaney dips into the storehouse of modern English compounds like “bare-faced” and “heartsore,” but occasionally he innovates some new ones that a medieval scop would be proud to use. To refer to the Swedish king Ongentheow’s “feud-calloused hand” is to reveal a great deal about his violent career, especially at the moment when the aging hand “could not stave off the fatal stroke.” When Grendel’s torn-off arm is brought back to Heorot as a trophy, it is a “blood-caked claw.”

The naturalness of such compounds is consonant with other virtues of Heaney’s Beowulf. Everyone who works with English etymology is aware of the way individual words carry the history of the language with them, even those with a cutting-edge sheen to them, like “upload.” What is true of words is no less true of rhythm and phrasing, so that Heaney’s “innovation” of a poetic line made up of rhythmical phrases linked by alliteration is really a rediscovering of what English has always had. It is not a trick of a clever mimicry supplanting the “authentic” language. By the same token, the word-hoard and cadences that Hea-
n­ey revives are not easy to obtain.

He found them, he reveals in the introduction, already present in some of his early poetry, such as these lines reproduced using the conventions of Old English verse:

the spade sinks    into gravelly ground:

My father, digging.    I look down.

Recalling such lines years later, Heaney recognized features of the Old English that he studied as an undergraduate in Queen’s University, Belfast, and which emerged unbidden from time to time in his poems. He also found the right poetic voice in his memory of some of his father’s relatives, whom one of his poems described as “big voiced Scullions.” When such men spoke, he recalls in his introduction, “the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinct­ness.…A simple sentence such as ‘We cut the corn to-day’ took on an immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it.” He wanted his Beo­wulf “to be speakable by one of those relatives.” What does it mean that a text as foundational in the English literary canon as Beowulf finds its poetic voice in the ancestral language of Heaney’s Ulster?

The “Irish thumbprints” can be subtle: most of the lines use a poetic idiom that would be at home in any variety of English. In the first 150 lines, only two words that can be considered distinctly Hiber­no-English appear, but they are enough to serve as important reminders. The first, “tholed,” is a verb meaning “suffered,” which Heaney remembers that “older and less educated people” used when he was a child. The second is “bothies,” an Irish word that Heaney uses for the small huts or cottages outside Hrothgar’s main hall, Heorot. Each of them signals in different ways what might be called Heaney’s reappropriation of English. It turns out that “thole” has Old English roots, and that it was introduced into Ireland through the English of the Ulster plantation settlers in the seventeenth century. The word was dialectal at the time, and since then has been replaced almost everywhere by the French import, “suffer.” “Bothy,” by contrast, is a straightforward borrowing from Irish. Between the two, Heaney signals that his Ulster dialect is both ancient and innovative, a viable medium that has as much affinity with the Old English once spoken in Winchester or Kent or Northumbria as any other variety of English. Couched in an alliterative line, Heaney’s “thole” and “bothy” say that no current dialect, however prestigious, has a proprietary claim on the English language. The equivalence of linguistic heritage overwhelms any claim of local origin or authenticity. What started off as a language of conquest has achieved cultural independence.


Seamus Heaney is not the first Harvard professor to translate Beowulf. In fact one of the earliest translations anywhere was attempted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, LL.D. 1859, who as a professor of Romance languages in 1838 published a few dozen lines in the North American Review within a long article on “Anglo-Saxon Literature.” Some years earlier he had laboriously taught himself Old English, and for the purposes of his review “tried to write a pleasant and agreeable paper” which might induce more people to study it. In a letter to his father he admits, “I now feel confident I have done it well; knowing the whole ground.” The article shows a philologist’s close engagement with language and a poet’s insight into the formal features of the alliterative line, “its frequent inversions, its bold transitions, and abundant metaphors.” After such a promising start, however, he produces a disastrously literal translation, part of which reads,

…And first went forth.

The ship was on the waves,

boat under the cliffs.

The barons ready

To the prow mounted

The streams they whirled

The sea against the sands

The chieftains bore

On the naked breast

Bright ornaments,

War-gear, Goth-like

The men shoved off,

Men on their willing way,

The bounden wood.

His effort resembles nothing so much as a beginning student’s glossary-driven, word-for-word translation which is neither faithful to the original (“first” should be translated “time”) nor idiomatic modern English. It would be charitable to excuse Longfellow by pointing to the primitive state of philology or by suggesting he sacrificed the literal sense in an effort to emphasize other features, such as vocabulary or the rhythm of poetic half-lines. Whatever the reason, Longfellow is not “confident” that he has “done” Beowulf well, contrary to what he wrote to his father. Immediately following the translation is an apology: “We fear, that many of our readers will see very little poetry in all this; for which we shall be very sorry.” He finds other Old English prose and verse “more ambitious” in style—a startling judgment until one recalls that Beo­wulf was still an antiquarian’s curiosity in 1838.

By the 1960s, when the English department’s William Alfred, Ph.D. ’54, later Low­ell professor of the humanities, tried his hand at a translation, Beowulf had been firmly established in the literary canon. Alfred came well-prepared for the task; he wrote his doctoral thesis on Old Testament themes in Old English poetry, and he had earned critical acclaim as a playwright thanks to the success of Hogan’s Goat on Broadway. The combined skills of philologist and playwright, which made his Beowulf classes legendary among generations of Harvard students, are evident in every passage:

Then, across the wave’s swell, very like a bird, sped by the wind, the boat went sailing, collared with foam, till on schedule, on the second day, its well-lashed prow had reached the point where those sailors caught sight of land, sea-cliffs shimmering, towering bluffs, spits nosing far out to sea.

The prose is sure of itself, both in its idioms and the accuracy of translation. Every phrase faithfully corresponds to the original text so that anyone seeking a literal translation can use it with confi­dence. Touches of poetic images never let the reader lose sight of the metaphorical language of Beowulf: the ship is likened to a bird, the sea-spray becomes a collar encircling the bow, the promontories “nose” their way out into the water. Yet along with the salt air there is still a whiff of the glossary in some of the diction (“very like a bird”), which one would rarely find in ordinary English prose. And the frequent use of commas, a residue of the original half-lines, gives a halting rhythm to the prose. In balancing the demands of literal accuracy and idiomatic prose, Alfred finds himself leaning in favor of the former.

To come to such a conclusion is no criticism of Alfred’s translation, which admirably succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. But it shows how every translation negotiates a set of relationships among the original, the translator, and the audience. If Longfellow wrote for an audience that was curious about a strange and ancient language, Alfred crafted a readable and reliable translation for students that did not stray too far from the original. Heaney has something else in mind, which is the daunting task of translating poetry into more poetry. The passages quoted from Longfellow and Alfred are consecutive in Beowulf, lines 210-224, which Heaney renders:

Time went by, the boat was on water,

in close under the cliffs.

Men climbed eagerly up the gang-


sand churned in surf, warriors loaded

a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear

in the vessel’s hold, then heaved out,

away with a will in their wood-

wreathed ship.

Over the waves, with the wind

behind her

and foam at her neck, she flew like a


until her curved prow had covered

the distance

and on the following day, at the due


those seafarers sighted land,

sunlit cliffs, sheer crags

and looming headlands, the landfall

they sought.

The lines ask less to be judged according to literalness or idiomatic smoothness than as verse that draws us in to an ancient story by its own touches of artistic virtuosity. The collar of foam, for example, is missing—or rather the metaphor finds itself shifted to “wood-wreathed” in an earlier line and faintly suggested by the feminine pronoun in “foam at her neck.” Although the lines rely on alliteration and compounds for their structure, they never reach the point of self-indulgence. The craft of Heaney’s verse line is to make ar­tifice seem natural, so that the syntax of the sea-journey, for example, sails along as swiftly and effortlessly as the ship.


While Heaney may not have the philological credentials of William Alfred, he has done his homework well. He worked from his own word-for-word translation of the original, and the final version never strays far from it. The first few lines, though, deliberately recast a complex sentence as two, as if to warn any reader looking for a crib to go elsewhere:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had

 courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’

heroic campaigns.

The Old English begins with the famous words:

Hwæt w¯e G¯ar-Dena   in ge¯ar-dagum

    †¯eod-cyninga   †¯rym gefr¯unon

h¯¯u ¯a 憯elingas   ellen fremedon.

Alfred’s prose renders it, “Listen. We have learned the song of the glory of the great kings of the Danes, how those princes did what was daring.” His commitment to a literal translation of this opening flourish leads Alfred to repeat “of the…of the…of the,” which Heaney’s recasting allows him to avoid. (Readers should be warned that the Old English on the facing pages of  Heaney’s translation has no scholarly authority; at best it provides a constant “ye Olde English” reminder of the original poem.) Heaney also hits upon a wonderful translation for the opening word, which has been the despair of many glossators. His “So” comes from the Scullions, who would use it to “obliterat[e] all previous discourse and narrative” before launching in a new direction. It has just the right kind of attention-grabbing fi­nality.

One of the most difficult tasks in a verse translation must be sustaining the effort in every part of the poem, especially in this case where the work was done in several intervals over the years. Beowulf is a long and intricately wrought poem, and it would be understandable if Hea­ney’s muse dozed off now and again. But I found myself drawn to the way the translation picks up the very features that I admire in the original. For example, the sea-voyage passages such as the one quoted earlier move with a similar energy and richness of metaphor in both versions.

Heaney also has a gift for conveying the direct speech that takes up a very large proportion of Beowulf’s 3,182 lines. If the world of the poem is primitive, it is not a hairy-chest­ed hack-’em-up with dialogue delivered in monosyllables (as a recent feature film, The Thirteenth Warrior, would have us believe). There are moments of great solemnity and refinement. Courteous behavior is vital to a warrior’s reputation. The dialogue and speeches can be affectionate, inspiring, elegiac, taunting, philosophical, prophetic. Even a simple description can come across with an electric charge. After Gren­del’s mother has raided Heorot and made off with a favorite retainer, Hrothgar tells Beowulf what “country people” have reported about the two “marauders”:

They are fatherless creatures,

and their whole ancestry is hidden

in a past

of demons and ghosts. They dwell


among wolves on the hills, on wind­-

swept crags

and treacherous keshes, where cold


pour down the mountain and disap-


under mist and moorland.

If Beowulf has an overarching message it is not about the hero’s bravery or virtue, but rather the collective imperative to sustain culture in the face of human and supernatural forces of disintegration. The three monsters may be the most terrifying, but the poem also warns of the less fantastic dangers of feuds, dynastic struggles, greed, pride, and unchecked anger. As “a traditional singer deeply schooled/in the lore of the past,” the Beowulf-poet creates a verbal world that idealizes a heroic life that was already ancient in the eighth century. Yet by the end the idealization gives way to a harder reality. After Beowulf has died of the wounds received in killing the dragon, his tribe anticipates its own annihilation at the hands of enemies. In spite of Beowulf’s exemplary status, the poem refuses to end with reassuring optimism and instead casts a cold eye on the capacity of humans to live according to their ideals. Today its message of human limitations resonates as much as it ever has. For Seamus Heaney, Beowulf is not merely an opportunity to showcase his prodigious talents as a poet. What he chose to translate also matters a great deal. It shows that he is “deeply schooled” in many things beyond the art of poesy.


Professor of English and American literature and language Daniel G. Donoghue is teaching a graduate seminar on Beowulf this semester. Among his current projects is a Norton critical edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.






…And first went forth.

The ship was on the waves,

boat under the cliffs.

The barons ready

To the prow mounted

The streams they whirled

The sea against the sands

The chieftans bore

On the naked breast

Bright ornaments,

War-gear, Goth-like

The men shoved off,

Men on their willing way,

The bounden wood.

Then went over the sea-waves,

Hurried by the wind,

The ship with a foamy neck,

Most like a sea-fowl,

Till about one hour

Of the second day

The curved prow

Had passed onward

So that the sailors

The land saw,

The shore-cliffs shining,

Mountains steep,

And broad sea-noses.





The time allotted passed day by day.

The vessel was launched on the

waves, that boat, in the lee of the bluff.

Fully equipped, the men boarded

her by the prow.

The tides turned, the sea churned

against the sand.

Fighting men were carrying their

bright, handsome trappings into

the hull of the ship, their splendid

war-gear; soldiers were shoving

off, men on a voyage to their

liking, shoving the lasted timbers off.

Then, across the wave’s swell, very

like a bird, sped by the wind, the

boat went sailing, collared with

foam, till on schedule, on the

second day, its well-lashed prow

had reached the point where those

sailors caught sight of land, sea-

cliffs shimmering, towering bluffs,

spits nosing far out to sea.






Time went by, the boat was on water, in close under the cliffs.

Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,

sand churned in surf, warriors loaded

a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear

in the vessel’s hold, then heaved out,

away with a will in their wood-wreathed


Over the waves, with the wind behind


and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird

until her curved prow had covered the


and on the following day, at the due


those seafarers sighted land,

sunlit cliffs, sheer crags

and looming headlands, the landfall they sought.


As the inaugural Stratis Haviaris Lecturer, Seamus Heaney will read from his own poetry on Thursday, April 6, at 5:30 p.m. in Lowell Lecture Hall, 17 Kirkland Street. Tickets for the general public are $20. The new lectureship honors the longtime curator of the Poetry and Farns­worth Rooms in the Harvard College Library, who will retire this June.

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