Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

I walked through a museum a few years ago and noticing that a lot of the older paintings were, as far as I could tell, pretty bad. Even taking changes in styles and conventions into account, I got the definite impression that these were painters of minor skill. And I wondered whether a painting that managed to survive for enough years would eventually end up in a museum, even with nothing else to recommend it. I figured that it probably would, and that there was nothing much wrong with this. Museums don't attempt to present only mankind’s highest achievements; they have a responsibility to catalogue as well as celebrate. And a mediocre painting is probably much more indicative of the style of an era than a brilliant one.

Literature, as far as I can tell, recognizes no similar obligations. A so-so novel from 1759 gathers no additional luster because of its age, except maybe for a social historian. Which is why, frankly, I am extraordinarily puzzled by the survival and continued acclaim accorded to Beowulf. Children everywhere are forced to read it — many more, I suspect, than the Iliad or the Odyssey. I see the Heaney translation on bookshelves everywhere. I picked it up recently, and other than a phrase here and there (usually a striking description of something) I found nothing that seemed to me like real poetry.

It was also impossible to enjoy as an adventure story. I could never get a handle on what anything looked like and, rather often, couldn't figure out what was actually going on. Has anyone read the fight scenes? Grendel’s size kept varying in my mind from roughly the size of a large man to thirty feet tall. I had an enormously hard time figuring out the choreography: when arms were ripped off, how blows were dealt. It was frustrating in the same way as the incompetently edited fight scenes in most Hollywood action movies. Everything is described but nothing seems to make sense together. You don’t encounter confusion like this in Homer. Every once in a while you wonder why something is being said at all, and it’s clear that there are conventions that you might not understand, but it is always clear what happens — on the battlefield, in conversation; everything is fully and concretely imaged.

In Beowulf, I felt like I was dealing with the infancy of storytelling, in a civilization that had only the barest interest in human nature. I wondered continually why I was reading it at all. Then I would flip to the back of the book and read the effusive praise about Heaney’s translation, with various notables saying that he had made it work, at last, as an English-language poem.

Now, I don’t know old English, so let me just judge what I’m capable of understanding. Here is a quote:
The bloody swathe that Swedes and Geats cut through each other was everywhere.
Does this seem like nit-picking? A swathe cannot be everywhere. It is a wide belt-like line (as in one cut by scythe, the dictionary tells me) -- a swathe that is everywhere is no longer a swathe. Is this line in the original? I feel like it must be; it has the same imprecision and nebulousness as the fight scenes. These are people that do not know how to tell a story yet, and if Heaney occasionally stumbles I would say that it is largely because Beowulf is not worth lavishing much care on.

There was a single passage, lasting a few pages, that was almost up to the standard of the Homeric epics -- it was, unsurprisingly, about power, and how once people achieve it they tend to get lazy and overconfident, and let it slip away. Managing power appears to be one of the few things this society was interested in, besides drinking mead and chopping each other up, and they thankfully got a few lines of lasting verse out of it.

How this book sold so well is an immense puzzle to me. Who would ever want to re-read it? If you wish to bother with it, I recommend getting it from the library once, filling in this gap in your historical knowledge, and leaving it at that.

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