When I teach Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I like to use the “illustrated edition,” which includes a set of museum and archeological photographs assembled and collated by John D. Niles, along with some of Niles’s own landscape images. It works as a kind of populist-scholarly archive, and gives the students a good sense both of the context of the poem and, importantly for me, of the constructedness of our historical sense – the fact that that the feel of any past context has to be recovered, reconstructed and reshaped in the course of translating and disseminating the poem. There is a specific archival poetics, I think, at work in this volume in particular, indicated in no small measure by the font-size of Heaney’s name, his signature, on the cover:
This is not just any version of a big old poem: this is Seamus Heaney’s text. In his afterword on the illustrations, Niles of course and rightly praises Heaney’s “outstanding” translation, but remains often quaintly aware of Heaney’s presence, as poet and intervener, in the work; noting that the Beowulf poet “often stretches reality to its limits,” he remarks appositely how Heaney “never uses a cheap word when an extravagant one will do” (220). I’m not sure how to take that, given that I don’t hear Heaney’s voice in Beowulf, through Beowulf, as either extravagant or cheap.
In an essay called “The Impact of Translation,” re-published in The Government of the Tongue (1988), Heaney assesses what for him amounts to the challenging and difficult presence, in English, of translated poems from Eastern Europe and Russia. While post-war modern poets, through to Robert Lowell, were often able, he argues, to render non-English texts “with an unbroken historical nerve,” their voices cushioned, despite the dire social upheavals of the mid-century, “by the poetic tradition inside which they worked,” poems translated, carried across, from outside that zone of homeland confidence both disrupt its comforts and, with that shake-up, revitalize its poetic potentials: “the note sounded by translated poetry from that world beyond – pitched intently and in spite of occupation, holocaust, concentration camps and the whole apparatus of totalitarianism – is so credible, desolating, and resuscitative” (43-44). Poetically appropriating the suffering of others for aesthetic or emotional gain sounds troubling to me, but – not to excuse anything – I think such appropriations are probably what any serious translation undertakes and confronts. “We,” Heaney writes, “are all the more susceptible to translations which arrive like messages from those holding their own” amid desolation (44). That “we” proleptically looks forward, for me, to the porous “we gar-dena” of Beowulf‘s first line, which, notably, Heaney elides in his translation until we reach the community of listeners in the third line of his version, “We have heard . . . .”How exactly that ethic or national collective constitutes itself in the poem is to becomes an issue rather than a given.
Such inherently difficult if seductive claims for poetic translation pervade his Beowulf, and I mean the translation itself as much as its paratext. Heaney claims to concern himself as a translator with making the voice of the Beowulf-poet sound through him, but it’s important to recognize that he doesn’t understand himself, his voice, as either disinterested or transparent. He connects himself to the Anglo-Saxon Denmark of the poem, as he notes in his introduction, by adapting its language to the “big-voiced” colloquial speech of his Northern Irish rural boyhood, the idioms of aunts and uncles. He translates the recalcitrant “Hwaet!” with which the poem begins as “So.” He recasts the formal archaism of the original into what he calls “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak”: it’s the way in which one of his relatives might start a conversation, a pitch that’s neither cheap nor extravagant, but has a weighty plainness and a throaty aural loading to which his text aspires. He builds his own verbal genetics into the translation when it comes to the Old English verb tholian, to suffer. He confesses in his intro that when he heard an aunt use the word “thole” (and the resemblance to the “tundish” episode in Joyce’s Portrait is striking here), he found a homey Anglo-Irish equivalent to an entry in C. L. Wrenn’s Beowulf glossary, a small collision of the word-hoards. While it sounds as if a temporary sharing of linguistic ethnocentrisms were allowing Heaney essentially to bring the poem home, to find an imaginative correlative in what Tolkien among others remarks as its inherent nationalism, I feel more persuaded by Richard Kearney’s reading of Heaney not as a sentimentalist of place, of home, but as a anxious lyricist of displacement, of what he calls “homecoming,” a sustained deferral: “never the actuality of an event but the possibility of an advent.”
Kearney is more sanguine, I think, about the rather lush lyricism of that deferral, and makes of Heaney a kind of late Heideggerean aesthete, melopoeically embracing the open resuscitative draft of each successive nostos, but I feel this unsettlement in Heaney’s poems – perhaps against the grain of all of their seductive vowel meadows, to which I need to confess I am nonetheless susceptible – as much more fraught and troubling, a wounded word-music that concocts its own linguistic agon as much as it wants to salve it. It’s no coincidence, for me, that it’s the word thole that pries open a crack, for Heaney, in the foreign yet familiar Anglo-Saxon linguistic sphere. Poetic translation doesn’t find its equivalents and echoes unproblematically, but enacts, in its own textures and verbal substrata, a tholing, an agon.
The opening line of the first of his “Glanmore Sonnets,” from Field Work, counterposes chthonic (maybe turfy) nostalgia with a fraught, violent and particulate narrative: “Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.” The internal, rounded assonances here – gleanings from an Ulster sound-palette (palate?) – are disturbed and unsettled by being ploughed together – o into o – and by plosives and nasalized dentals. The colon cuts a typographical furrow, a visual hiatus, off-centre, down an almost middle.The audible lyric tissue of a Heaney line, I mean, is both woven and sutured, a cut in the verbal turf, but also pulled together by being laid open, as wound, as unapprehended other. The patrilineal “digging” with which Heaney’s collected poems begins becomes here both a homing and a dehiscence. I’d like to say that this doubled unsettling of the poetic line, the furrow traced by the pen, offers a means of coming to terms with the unstable nationalism that floats through his Beowulf, but for now I want just to point to a picture associated with the illustrated edition: an image of the Tollund Man. Niles obviously includes this close-up of the iron-age sacrificial victim’s preserved head as a shout out to Heaney’s poems of the 1970s that emerged from his reading of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, and the image both connects Heaney’s poetic to the Iron Age culture of Beowulf, giving his translation a kind of anthropological-archeological authority. Niles connects the image rather tenuously to a reference in Beowulf to Hrethel’s grief for Herebeald being “like the misery felt by an old man / who has lived to see his son’s body / swing on the gallows” (lines 2444-6). More significantly, the throat of the Tollund Man –whose tarry corpse has fused with the peat in which he was cast – still bears an obvious slash wound. His voice, box iconically, has been cut open, like the turf of Heaney’s northern farmland. If he can be made to speak, can be translated, if he speaks at all, he can offer only one long, nearly inaudible, open vowel, a tenuous exhalation from the tear in his dark neck. A tholing wound.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber, 1988. Print.
—. Field Work.London: Faber, 1979. Print.
—, trans. Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
Kearney, Richard. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture. Manchester:
Manchester UP, 1988.