Seamus Heaney is a fine poet, but his Beowulf and I have sailed past each other for ten hopeless years. When I skim his translation, I drift, and the audio version only lulls me to sleep, despite its potent brogue. Having failed to enjoy Heaney’s Beowulf as a poem all its own, I had hoped that the book might at least appeal to reluctant readers who’d otherwise flee from medieval lit. Instead, Heaney’s Beowulf is, I’d bet, one of the least-finished bestsellers of the last 25 years, while its omnipresence has overshadowed more recent attempts to draw readers into a lost heroic age.
One such Beowulf, the 2004 Longman Cultural Edition, comes packed with a timeline, a glossary, genealogies, and snippets of primary sources. At its core is a translation by Alan Sullivan and his partner, Timothy Murphy, whose respect for formal poetry dictated the guidelines Sullivan enumerates in his introduction:
(1) It would be written in four-beat lines, like the original, though differing somewhat in metrical detail. (2) It would follow a loosened variant of the Scop’s Rule, alliterating three times in most lines, but using other patterns of alliteration as well. (3) It would employ modern syntax, with some inversion for rhetorical effect. (4) Words of Germanic origin would be chosen preferentially.
Their boundaries set, Sullivan and Murphy spin a translation that evokes the craftsmanship of the original poem without the stringency of an antiquarian exercise. Here’s Beowulf and his men bidding farvel to Denmark:
They boarded their vessel, breasted the deep,
left Denmark behind. A halyard hoisted
the sea-wind’s shroud; the sail was sheeted,
bound to the mast, and the beams moaned
as a fair wind wafted the wave-rider forward.
Foamy-throated, the longboat bounded,
swept on the swells of the swift sea-stream
until welcoming capes were sighted ahead,
the cliffs of Geat-land. The keel grounded
as wind-lift thrust it straight onto sand.
The harbor-guard hastened hence from his post.
He had looked long on an empty ocean
and waited to meet the much-missed men.
Heaney’s version of this same passage is a lovely bundle of lines—but Heaney, by his own admission, is “less than thorough” regarding meter and confesses that his alliteration “varies from the shadowy to the substantial, from the properly to improperly distributed.” By contrast, Sullivan and Murphy find power in form. Read their translation aloud, as I have since finding it in the library last month, and you hear—and feel—diction constrained by rules and traditions, restlessness evident in every line, the entire translation all the more vibrant and immediate for it.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes dropped by Fresh Bilge, Alan Sullivan’s blog about poetry, religion, politics, weather, and sailing. Since I share only the first of those five interests, I’ve never been one of Sulivan’s regular “rare readers,” but a few weeks ago I went to drop him a note telling him him how much I was enjoying his Beowulf—but I was too late. Alan Sullivan died on July 9, 2010, after a long battle with leukemia.
Blogger Brendan Loy has written a heartfelt appreciation of Alan Sullivan. Here’s Sullivan’s death announcement and obituary, plus a selection of his poetry. Here’s Timothy Murphy conducting a far-ranging interview of Alan Sullivan in Able Muse magazine, in which Sullivan discusses being critiqued by Richard Wilbur and implores would-be poets to pry themselves away from the campus:
I would add a more general comment that introversion and bookishness have harmed the estate of poetry. Teachers who encourage these traits do their students no favors. Better to foster the natural curiosity of the young, press them to acquire general knowledge, demand accuracy and precision in language, and promote monomanias as escape hatches from the self.
That advice, and the above translation of Beowulf’s leave-taking, aren’t a half-bad way for a poet to be remembered: as a man who knew the difference between worda ond worca, and made the best of both.