His city-wandering, urbane poems free-fall almost entirely without punctuation, cool and gently ironic in tone, matter-of-fact in their phrasing, in an almost anti-poetic resistance to drama that began in his post-war youth: The whole of Europe was one huge mattress and heaven the ceiling of a no-star hotel. Not that night….
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Crying in desperation. A homosexual. But Knibbe is a far from conventionally elegiac poet. We mumble like Jews. The day is white as dough.
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Wijnberg and Toon Tellegen are fresh in several senses of the word, translations of new full collections, both highly original in their imagining and narrations. What are you doing, Ghalib, besides saying what it is like here once again? As if someone in the dark wants to hear that. Support Honours. Vertical Divider. But there is another, outer rim of value, a circumference of understanding within which the heroic world is occasionally viewed as from a distance and recognized for what it is, an earlier state of consciousness and culture, one that has not been altogether shed but that has now been comprehended as part of another pattern.
As a consequence of his doctrinal certitude, which is as composed as it is ardent, the port can view the story-time of his poem with a certain historical detachment and even censure the ways of those who lived in illo tempore :. Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed Offerings to idols, swore oaths That the killer of souls might come to their aid And save the people. That was their way, Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts They remembered hell. It is always better To avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world Means waiting for our end. Let whoever can Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, That will be his best and only bulwark. A similar transposition from a plane of regard that is, as it were, helmeted and hall-bound to one that sees things in a slightly more heavenly light is discernible in the different ways the poet imagines gold. Gold is a constant element, gleaming solidly in the underground vaults, on the breasts of queens or the arms and regalia of warriors on the mead-benches.
It pervades the ethos of the poem and adds luster to its diction. By the end of the poem, gold has suffered a radiation from the Christian vision. It is not that it yet equals the riches in the medieval sense of worldly corruption, just that its status as the ore of all value has been put in doubt. It is l ne , transitory, passing from hand to hand, and its changed status is registered as a symptom of the changed world. Once the dragon is disturbed, the melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the last movement of the poem enter the hoard as a disabling and ominous light.
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And the dragon himself, as a genius of the older order, is bathed in this light, so that even as he begins to stir, the reader has a premonition that the days of his empery are numbered. Nevertheless, the dragon has a wonderful inevitability about him and a unique glamour. It is not that the other monsters are lacking in presence and aura; it is more that they remain, for all their power to terrorize, creatures of the physical world. And while his mother too has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness.
As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength. Enter then, fifty years later, the dragon — from his dry-stone vault, from a nest where he is heaped in coils around the body-heated gold. Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him. Whether in medieval art or modern Disney cartoons, the dragon can strike us as far less horrific than he is meant to be, but in the final movement of Beowulf he lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm , more a destiny than a set of reptilian vertebrae.
It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise. No easy bargain Would be made in that place by any man. The veteran king sat down on the cliff-top. He wished good luck to the Geats who had shared His hearth and his gold.
He was sad at heart, Unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain. Here the poet attains a level of insight that approaches the visionary.
He begins to keen And weep for his boy, watching the raven Gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help. The wisdom of age is worthless to him. Morning after morning, he wakes to remember That his child is gone; he has no interest In living on until another heir Is born in the hall… Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed And sings a lament; everything seems too large, The steadings and the fields. Here the inexorable and the elegiac combine in a description of the funeral pyre being got ready, the body being burnt and the barrow being constructed — a scene at once immemorial and oddly contemporary.
The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo; her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to the comfortless future. We immediately recognize her predicament and the pitch of her grief and find ourselves the better for having them expressed with such adequacy, dignity and unforgiving truth:. On a height they kindled the hugest of all Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared And drowned out their weeping, wind died down And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house, Burning it to the core.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief; With hair bound up, she unburdened herself Of her worst fears, a wild litany Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, Slavery and abasement.
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Heaven swallowed the smoke. Consequently, when an invitation to translate the poem arrived from the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, I was tempted to try my hand. This was during the middle years of the s, when I had begun a regular teaching job in Harvard and was opening my ear to the unmoored speech of some contemporary American poetry. Saying yes to the Beowulf commission would be I argued with myself a kind of aural antidote, a way of ensuring that my linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor.
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So I undertook to do it. Very soon, however, I hesitated. It was labour-intensive work, scriptorium-slow. I proceeded dutifully like a sixth-former at homework. I would set myself twenty lines a day, write out my glossary of hard words in longhand, try to pick a way through the syntax, get the run of the meaning established in my head and then hope that the lines could be turned into metrical shape and raised to the power of verse.
Often, however, the whole attempt to turn it into modern English seemed to me like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer. What had been so attractive in the first place, the hand-built, rock-sure feel of the thing, began to defeat me. I turned to other work, the commissioning editors did not pursue me, and the project went into abeyance. Even so, I had an instinct that it should not be let go. An understanding I had worked out for myself concerning my own linguistic and literary origins made me reluctant to abandon the task. I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics.
Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start. This was not surprising, given that the poet who had first formed my ear was Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have written about all this elsewhere and about the relation of my Hopkins ventriloquism to the speech patterns of Ulster — especially as these were caricatured by the poet W. Joseph Brodsky once said that poets' biographies are present in the sounds they make and I suppose all I am saying is that I consider Beowulf to be part of my voice-right.
Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language that I should by rights have been speaking but I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary, and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry.
For a long time, therefore, the little word was — to borrow a simile from Joyce — like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. And I eventually came upon one of these loopholes in Beowulf itself.
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What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. It was as if, on the analogy of baptism by desire, I had undergone something like illumination by philology. And even though I did not know it at the time, I had by then reached the point where I was ready to translate Beowulf. The erotics of composition are essential to the process, some prereflective excitation and orientation, some sense that your own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language.
And this is as true for translators as it is for poets attempting original work.