Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, and the Great Hall: That Was One Good King

Seamus Heaney's passing yesterday left me empty.  I listened to his voice and read his words so often as to feel I had lost a friend.

Below, the opening of #seamusheaney 's incomparable translation of #BEOWULF :

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,

a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Cue the synchronicity police: The greatest living English-language poet died just a few days after an important archaeological discovery relating to his masterwork. 

A few days ago, this link shared news of an extraordinary recent discovery in Denmark: the physical site of the location of the great hall where the ancient monarchs ate meat, drank mead, celebrated their victories, mourned their losses. The poem tells us that the noises of feasting there attracted the murderous beast Grendel (and, perhaps, the beast within men). Remnants of the beams of the old mead-hall were found near Copenhagen, along with many artifacts.  I wonder what Heaney made of that. Perhaps they'll find the dragon next.

In the realm of English letters, the king has just passed. That was one good king. You can hear him reading his never-to-be-forgotten translation of the great poem here: