Old Poems and New

During my first year at university, I had the chance to study the basics of translation studies, and became interested in the creative process that lies behind translation. As my final project for that course, I translated a poem from French – a nerve-wracking task, seeing as my tutor was then translating Verlaine… Sadly, I don’t have the rights to that poet’s work, so I’m unable to show you that attempt!

The poem I’m posting today isn’t a translation, but it’s not exactly an original either – more a translation of an impression. (Yes, I’m studying Impressionism too!). A few years ago I discovered Beowulf through Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation – the translation which moved Beowulf from an old English poem of academic interest to a core text on the literary canon. In translating Beowulf, Heaney took on the challenge of uniting his masterful style with the voice of a poet over a thousand years deceased – whose name, even, is lost to history. I don’t speak Old English, but Heaney’s ability and skill has made Beowulf accessible to me, and I suspect, thousands of others. More than that, Heaney made me love Beowulf, and want to know more about the original story – the mark of a good translation.

So what can I add to that? Well – I can’t. Both the Beowulf poet and Heaney are simply too good. But that doesn’t mean that Beowulf’s story is closed; if anything, the accessibility of a good translation opens it up to re-imaginings and new interpretations (including that Hollywood film, which I don;t intend to see). This poem is my impression of a section of the poem, written from my memory of reading those events – it is not a transliteration, or an original translation. It is also an ode to the superb style of both poets. In his introduction, Heaney describes the metric and lexical choices made in both original and translation to bind the poem together, such as using four stressed syllables in each line instead of a regular number of syllables. I have chosen not to follow these rules exactly, because I had a clear idea of the poem I wanted to write, and didn’t feel up to the challenge of writing with all the constraints of Anglo-Saxon literature… However, I have tried to pay homage to this style, paying attention to the voice of the poem, and using alliteration to bind the lines together, as both original and translation do. I suspect my line length is somewhat longer than Heaney’s, as I’ve used between four and six stressed syllables per line (I think. I haven’t checked), but hopefully the sound should be reminiscent of the original.

Essay out of the way – here’s the actual poem…

Grendel’s Mother

‘Grendel’s mother,
Monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.
She had been forced down into fearful waters,
The cold depths, after Cain had killed
His father’s son, felled his own
Brother with a sword.’ ~ Seamus Heaney, Beowulf

Before Beowulf made the lake red with blood
of the mother whose son he had slain days before,
their God betrayed his eldest son, the beast Grendel,
to the sword of the Shielding Prince, the Geat whose arm
had torn that fearsome arm from its root, until Heorat’s hall
was freed of his terror, and again the thanes could feast
till morning, drinking until they slept as the dead.
Then their silence was as the night when Grendel came,
and the sound of their feasting no longer echoed
in the marsh where Grendel lay, waiting for his death.

Yet in her watery den, a full day’s descent
below the triumphant hall where Beowulf sat in state
Grendel’s mother heard the music of that long night, clear
as the hunting horn’s call to the stag, and lay holding
the broken body of Grendel. His wounds were laid bare
to the salty water – he had passed pain, like a sleeper
passes dreams into the depths of slumber. The call
dived down like Beowulf himself, coming to kill.
In her grief the grey lake was grave enough for both
their bodies, left unburied in the bloody water.

At long last this creature of Cain’s aborted line
lay in the lake-belly, her hated flesh untouched
by the blind fish swimming about the dark nadir.
Above, the hero Beowulf ascended, arms
unbloodied, the heavens welcoming their son back
to the hallowed ground of Heorat, where the Danes
praise their God’s grace to man, and his judgement on beast.
And with her dimming eyes the dying mother sees
him going, another son rising where her son
has set, rising to the skies where only God enthroned
watches her go, and Abel’s sons reclaim their birthright.