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13.03.14, Meyer, trans. Hadbawnik, ed. Beowulf

13.03.14, Meyer, trans. Hadbawnik, ed. Beowulf

Translating Beowulf has become a popular literary activity in the last few decades, and the resulting collection of versions of the poem fills a shelf in one's library. The range of styles represented in the verse translations, however, is narrow in relation to the range of styles found in modern poetry generally. While radical transposition into a modern idiom characterizes John Gardner's prose novel Grendel, for instance, verse translations tend to be conservative. [1] Even Seamus Heaney's Beowulf--sometimes teased as Heaneywulf by purists--follows the plot faithfully and renders the meter in one running column of free-verse lines. [2] But Beowulf is a palimpsest of many sorts (no, not literally--no one run to the manuscript with a UV light) and engages a tradition of which the existing Old English corpus is but a tiny sliver. Its textuality is not monolithic, and multiple approaches to the poem are not only justified but necessary. Tolkien showed this to be true when he rehabilitated the poem for aesthetic appreciation, and multiple subsequent revolutions in scholarship have proven worthwhile and illuminating. [3] Therefore, amid the quibbling I may do below, I want to support emphatically the impulse to innovate that gave rise to Meyer's translation in 1972, and the audacity of spirit that has brought the translation, finally, to publication.

Meyer's translation was brought to light after forty years by the poet David Hadbawnik, who writes the preface and whose interview with Thomas Meyer is included in an appendix. Thus, the governing spirit of the volume is that of a certain branch of modern poetry, not Anglo-Saxonism. An introduction by Daniel Remein of the BABEL Working Group (with input from Eileen Joy, Roy Liuzza, and Haruko Momma, in addition to Hadbawnik) typifies these commitments, as it begins with an overview of the history of the poem, its manuscript, and early scholarship, but is largely taken up with an account of two mid-twentieth century schools of experimental poetry (Projectivism and Objectivism) and their influence on the present translation. I am not complaining about bringing new voices into dialogue with the Anglo-Saxon past (far, far from it), but the myopic focus on modern schools of poetry distracts from the truly exciting engagements that Meyer's experimentation makes with Beowulf's textuality. I will get to these virtues forthwith, as they are compelling, but I want to note here that they relate to the original poem's traditional (oral-derived) poetics, which is precisely the yawning gap in Remein's account of Anglo-Saxon criticism. Remein jumps from the New Critics, exemplified by Stanley Greenfield and Arthur Brodeur (with a brief mention of Francis Magoun as foil), to modern theory, spearheaded by Gillian Overing and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. For the period in between, he mentions a vague "historicist and patristic orientation" (11). Thus, in Remein's telling, the history of Beowulf scholarship goes from Germanic historicism to New Criticism, exegetical criticism, and modern theory, with the tidal wave of oral-formulaic/oral-traditional inquiry begun by Magoun but more rigorously developed by the late John Miles Foley, Alain Renoir, Jeff Opland, Mark Amodio, and others completely ignored. In other respects, Remein's background to the poem is both scholarly and helpful, but this is an egregious distortion of scholarly history, apparently in favor of the writer's own interests and commitments. Another example of this kind of distortion is the omission of the Heaney translation, which has been enormously popular and influential, and which is discussed in the printed interview with Meyer, from the bibliography of translations. It seems somewhat ironic--perhaps graceless is the word--to efface the Heaney in this way given the adventurousness of the present translation and the likelihood that reactions to it will be strong--or worse, nonexistent.

Meyer's translation of Beowulf is extremely interesting. Hadbawnik calls it an "experimental poetic adventure that the poem has long deserved" (2), and I wholeheartedly agree. In contrast to the uniform style employed by most verse translations, Meyer's translation is a heterogeneous collection of modern styles, a hotch-potch of formal strategies, all seeking to render the aliveness of the poem for an Anglo-Saxon audience in a way that might be comparably alive for a modern one. Where the original is, undoubtedly, stylistically uniform as a specimen of the strict Anglo-Saxon meter (whose exact constraints still elude scholarly consensus) and poetic tradition, Meyer's translation seeks not to reproduce that uniformity, but instead to transpose the aural experience of the original--which would have been vivid on account of multiple repetitions of parallel verse types and themes, the storehouse of the tradition--into a visual, typographical one. As Meyer is quoted in his interview with Hadbawnik, "instead of the text's orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual...Every translation I'd read felt impenetrable to me with its block after block of nearly uniform lines. Among other quirky decisions made in order to open up the text the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965" (264).

And open up the text he does. Among the liberties taken with the poem is Meyer's interpolation of ancillary material, such as a story of the Bear's Son loosely adapted from Hrolfs saga kraka and a reworking, with extra details not found in the poem, of the Offa and Thryth digression, which takes place after the poet mentions Hygelac's queen, Hygd. [4] These additions and emendations may make scholars grumpy, and they are at first disorienting (as though Beowulf were not itself a disorientation machine), but they profoundly relate to the textuality of the original. The Bear's Son story comes, for instance, right after the "Homer nods" detail in the second part of the poem (Meyer divides the poem into two geographies, "Oversea" and "Homelands") that mentions how Beowulf, before his exploits among the Danes, had been little regarded, contra the way we have seen him treated before he sets sail in the first part of the poem (the translations are mine):

Hean wæs lange

swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,

ne hyne on medobence micles wyrðne

dryhten Wedera gedon wolde;

swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,

æþeling unfrom. (lines 2183b-2188a) [5]

He had long been despised

as the sons of the Geats thought him no good,

nor did the lord of the Weders wish to do

him much honor on the meadbench;

they thought very much that he was lazy,

a feeble prince.

Compare this to the earlier lines 194-204:

þæt fram ham gefrægn Higelaces þegn

god mid Geatum, Grendles dæda;

se wæs moncynnes mægenes strengest

on þæm dæge þysses lifes,

æþele ond eacen. Het him yðlidan

godne gegyrwan; cwæð, he guðcyning

ofer swanrade secean wolde,

mærne þeoden, þa him wæs manna þearf.

ðone siðfæt him snotere ceorlas

lythwon logon, þeah he him leof wære;

hwetton higerofne, hæl sceawedon.

Hygelac's thane, good among the Geats,

heard from home about Grendel's deeds;

he was the strongest of mankind,

in those days,

noble and formidable. He ordered himself

a good ship prepared, said he would seek

over the swanroad the war-king,

famous lord, since he had need of men.

That journey the wise men

begrudged him little, though he were beloved by them;

they encouraged the brave one, consulted omens.

Meyer renders the detail of the first passage, "A noble warrior now, / he was once thought a fool" (169), and on the next page begins the story of the Bear's Son, who had been born to a human woman and thought no good by his brothers, until the day he slew a monster and proved his worth. While the story does not resolve the contradiction regarding Beowulf's early reputation from a linear, narrative point of view, it does provide a poetic elaboration or embellishment entirely in keeping both with the poem's appositive, additive style and with its frequent mode of digressing in order to comment upon key moments in the narrative. Rather than attempting resolution, the Bear's Son digression provides an alternate narrative, a little tale in which a variant of the main character, Beewolf, does experience precisely the trajectory from worthless to worthy. The analogue is a parallel universe of sorts, an alternate reality, and its existence here in the text is very similar to the existence of, for example, the tale of Sigmund or the story of Finn or other examples large and small of the poet's moving from a narrative moment to a parallel that can tell upon it.

Similarly, Meyer's rendering of the story of Offa and Thryth engages with the spirit and technique of the original in another embellishing digression--even while it does violence, in my view, to the structure of the contrast the original poem's digression intends between Hygd and Thryth. Meyer's digression provides an analogue for narrative confusion in the way that the Bear's Son story provides an analogue for the slacker who makes good. Using tag lines similar to those the original poet uses throughout Beowulf ("I have heard"; "we have heard"), Meyer brings in related matter from the convoluted Offa tradition, some of which is contradictory. [6] He stages the poet's grappling with the contradictions--"But then I've also heard" (162)--only to end up with a comment that applies as much to his own engagement with the Old English poem as it does to the local moment of conflicting stories about Offa, and to the original poet's grappling with his source material:

To card such a tangle

is no poet's job.

A good story is

a good story. (162)

This is not only an "ars-poetical" justification for Meyer's freedom with the original but also a critical comment on the nature of the original as primarily aesthetic, as a poem--and further still, if we wish to take it there, as an oral-derived poem, drawing on and even creating its own "tangles." As Meyer treats his source material, so did the Beowulf poet. It is an audacious claim of poetic kinship, and one I am entirely willing to grant a good poet who has engaged so deeply, in his own way, with the original.

With adventure does come risk, and both successes and failures befall Meyer's adventure. For an example of the failures, the performative, annunciatory hwæt is rendered "HEY," with "now hear" coming after, for a combined "HEY now." This just puts the Beowulf poet in bellbottoms with no aesthetic payoff, and in the interview we learn indeed that this choice was inspired by a production of Show Boat (267-8). In terms of successes, there are moments of sheer poetic eloquence, such as the brilliant pentameter line that summarizes the building of the Scylding dynasty: "the tribe thrives with each man's rewarded deed" (41). And the scop's creation song that so enrages Grendel is made to cut and swoosh like a sword in the air, as

loud sweet

harp notes

cast song's sharp shape, craft

unfold the airs

& fill the ears

with all origins -- (45)

Elsewhere, Meyer renders a homiletic passage on the vain appeals of the pagan Danes to heathen gods in effectively blocky (that is, rigid, correct) stanzas, and the layout of these stanzas forms a cross (50). Such visual play can be effective, and then sometimes it seems extraneous, cartoonish, as when the description of a sword, "remnant of older days / engraved with their history" looks graphically like a sword:




This is the kind of modernist visual experimentation that does not go beyond cuteness, and cuteness is certainly not the tone appropriate to the poem. A film could capture the visual wonder of gazing at an old object here, but approximating the old object using typographic symbols generates no wonder, just, as I say, cuteness, momentary novelty. I have similar thoughts about the run-together words that Meyer uses, as Gardner's Grendel uses them, to convey Grendel's distress once he meets Beowulf's grip (89-90). In general, though, the stylistic differentiation Meyer uses to contrast different speakers (Unferth speaks alliteratively--he is "all talk"; Beowulf speaks in more genuine free verse; Hrothgar speaks in long, stately lines, often tetrametric like a hymn) is ingenious and effective. It gives a modern reader some access to the effect of formal elements in the original poem, elements such as formulaic systems, type-scenes, and ominous tag lines, that would be perceived amid the stream of speech in performance, embedded in the fabric of the verse.

Thus, the license Meyer takes is at its best, alive and at its worst, capricious and arbitrary. There are a few cringe-worthy typos, such as the redundant past-participle ladened (unless the word is supposed to be overburdened, or laden, with an extra morpheme--a stretch) (172) and "Brave Offa / whose stroked marked / the Eider as Angles' boundary" (160), which is incomprehensible to me and therefore I naturally assume to be an error (stroked for stroke). On page 68 Weland is mistaken for a place, even though in the glossary of names (which is rather fanciful) he is correctly identified as the mythical smith. Two further typos include "chart their coarse" (234) and "that earthsnake whose loathed shaped / would never whir" (235). And I can see no reason for changing the gender of Freawaru's thane (þegn) whom Beowulf envisions being killed once revenge breaks out within Ingeld's household (line 2059). According to Meyer's version, the dead thane is one of Freawaru's ladies (168)! This joins other choices, such as the scenes of Wealhtheow being rendered in prose blocks, that drain the poetic potency of the poem's women, who in the original mediate the vast and dangerous tensions between kin groups.

Among the lovely touches of the volume is its cover design, which bears a Mad Men-esque graphic of a human silhouette falling through space between two longships: mid-twentieth-century man falling between the ancient (i.e., temporally removed, alien) longships, themselves vehicles of geography, of metaphor, of plot. And the longships are open towards one another (the one on top is upside-down), each capable of implying a version of the poem, with the title in fact hovering right in the middle, Beowulf identified not with one authoritative version or time or place, but constituted within a dialogic space between.


1. John Gardner, Grendel (Vintage, 1989).

2. Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (W.W. Norton, 2001).

3. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.

4. See The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, trans. Jesse L. Byock (Penguin Classics, 1999).

5. All quotations from the Old English Beowulf are from Klaeber's Beowulf 4th edition, ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (University of Toronto Press, 2008).

6. For discussion of the very confusing Offa tradition in relation to Beowulf, see the commentary in ibid., pp. 222-4.