Seamus Heaney and Beowulf

heaneySeamus Heaney and Beowulf

By M.J. Toswell

Cahier Calin. Makers of the Middle Ages. Essays in Honor of William Calin, edited by Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Kalamazoo: Studies in Medievalism, 2011)

Introduction: Anglo-Saxonists everywhere should celebrate, perhaps annually in a brief offering of gifts at a local temple, the remarkable fact that Seamus Heaney completed his commissioned translation of Beowulf and published it in 1999, creating the first breaking wave of what was already a gradual tidal swell of interest in the text. Perhaps they should also celebrate the decision of that year’s Whitbread panel, which came down to the vote of the Texan model Jerry Hall, who famously decided that Heaney’s Beowulf offered more to posterity than the first Harry Potter novel and awarded him the prize. As a recent Nobel prizewinner, Heaney brought star factor to publication of a new translation of a 3182-line poem surviving in a manuscript written nearly a thousand years earlier. The idiosyncrasies of his work remain deservedly ignored in the oceanic surge of gratitude that we should pour out upon him. The breaking wave turned out to be the one the surfers call the avalance, the biggest wave of the set. The following waves, a plethora of movies, graphic novels, and even the odd opera, might qualify as corduroy, the surfer term for a series of waves coming in close formation.

But in retrospect, the Heaney version of Beowulf was the monster wave coming after very few harbinger waves, an unexpected avalanche, the best break of the series. And yet, the idiosyncrasies of Heaneywulf, as if often termed, niggle at us. Heaney himself describes the register of his translation as evoking his uncles in northern Ireland, with their slow, somewhat methodical and deep-voiced statements about life on the farm where Heaney grew up Mossbawn. The language of the translation is imbued with Celticisms – the hall at Heorot is a “bawn,” and the warriors wear “graiths” rather than body-armour.

It is a hard life, and Heaney presents it well, reaching for stately grandeur in the speeches of the characters, melodrama during the encounters with the creatures who harry the lives of the Geats and Danes, and elegant but precise exposition of the source text through most of the poem. Heaney uses a flexible tetrameter line with alliteration, evoking the Old English poetic style without being hampered by its details. The language is heightened, with extra caesuras to mark the syntax as somewhat archaic; thus the poet depicts the ship that awaits Scyld Scefing at the beginning of the poem: “A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, iceclad, outbound, a craft for a prince.” The translation is literal and nostalgic, accurate and evocative.

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See also: What Seamus Heaney Did to Beowulf : An Essay on Translation and Transmutation of English Identity

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