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Heaney's "Beowulf," Merwin's Dante

By Jeffrey Gantz

APRIL 17, 2000: 

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 252 pages, $25.

Purgatory translated by W.S. Merwin (Alfred A. Knopf), 392 pages, $30.

Nothing promotes a classic like a celebrity translator. Robert Pinsky became a superstar (and Poet Laureate) after his version of Dante's Inferno came out in 1995; even though numerous worthy translations had previously plumbed the Ninth Circle, Pinsky's The Inferno of Dante flew off the shelves like a bat out of Hell. Now two more famous poets have entered the lists. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney's Beowulf has already climbed to #11 on the New York Times Book Review's Fiction List. And W.S. Merwin's rendering of Dante's Purgatorio comes with a jacket blurb from Pinsky proclaiming that "At last the Purgatorio can be read as a work of art. . . . W.S. Merwin's gorgeous, accurate rendering is worthy of its great original."

With its anonymous chain-mail-figure seen from the rear on the dust jacket (a fitting image in view of how little we know about the poet, the time and place of composition, and, for that matter, the protagonist) rather than the ubiquitous Sutton Hoo helmet, Heaney's Beowulf treads its own hron-rad ("whale road," i.e., sea). The gold torque of an introduction glitters and gleams, locating Beowulf concisely ("The poem was written in England but the events it describes are set in Scandinavia, in a 'once upon a time' that is partly historical") and explaining why it's more than just the three agons with Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, why the Finnsburh episode (lines 1070-1158) detailing a battle between Danes and Frisians is no digression because Beowulf also "contemplates the destinies of three peoples [the Danes, who are beset by Grendel; the Götar, whose champion Beowulf goes to the rescue; and the Swedes] by tracing their interweaving histories in the story of the central character." The Swedes, Heaney continues, "constantly stalk the horizon of dread within which the main protagonists [Danes and Götar] pursue their conflicts and allegiances. The Swedish dimension gradually becomes an important element in the poem's emotional and imaginative geography, a geography which details, it should be said, no very clear map-sense of the world, more an apprehension of menaced borders, of danger gathering beyond the mere and the marshes. . . . Within these phantasmal boundaries, each lord's hall is an actual and a symbolic refuge."

Grendel and his mother are metaphors for the shadowy forces -- whether monsters or men in mail or mere mortality -- that threaten the hearth and the human companionship of high halls like Hrothgar's Heorot. But the dragon, Heaney suggests, is the demon within, its delight in gold mirroring heroic society's, and so it becomes our hero's doom: " . . . in the final movement of Beowulf, he [the dragon] lodges himself in the imagination as wyrd rather than wyrm, more a destiny than a set of reptilean vertebrae." Weaving text with subtext, Heaney portrays Beowulf as all mettle and mystery. He defeats three monsters and rules with grace and generosity. Yet he has neither wife nor children; for all his might he can protect neither King Hygelac from the Franks nor Hygelac's son, Heardred, from the Swedes; and at the end his retainers desert him.

After the poetic pyrotechnics of this brief introduction, the translation -- which comes with the original text on the facing page -- is just the slightest bit disappointing. Heaney studied Beowulf as an undergraduate at Queen's University in Belfast, so he's got the chops, and he details his preference for a "big-voiced" Beowulf and "forthright delivery" while reserving the right to let "the natural 'sound of sense' prevail over the demands of the [alliterative] convention." The result is tough but a little prosy. It has greater weight and precision than the popular older translations of Charles W. Kennedy (Oxford, 1940), Edwin Morgan (California, 1952), David Wright (Penguin, 1957), Burton Raffel (New American Library, 1963), Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford, 1982), and Constance B. Hieatt (New American Library, revised 1982). Yet Frederick Rebsamen (HarperCollins, 1991) carves out the kind of bold, gleaming poem one might have expected from Heaney. Rebsamen re-creates the demanding form of the original, two beats to each half line, with the first beat of the second half-line alliterating with one or both beats in the first half-line; and his Beowulf reads like the original in a way that Heaney's does not. Just compare the excerpts given in the box on page 14. Rebsamen does take liberties: in line 29, the words "his bones unburned" do not appear in the original, though since Scyld's men are carrying his body onto the ship, it's a natural inference.

There's also Howell D. Chickering Jr.'s 1977 version (Anchor), which like Heaney's (but not Rebsamen's) comes with the original text. (Full-disclosure advisory: Chickering was my Old English professor many years ago at Amherst.) The translation is more formal than Heaney's but less alliterative than Rebsamen's; the real treasure here is the more than 200 pages of background material, including a guide to Old English pronunciation (unaccountably omitted by FSG) and verse form. Still, Heaney's lucid, lambent introduction is worth $25 all by itself, even for those who don't know Beowulf from Steppenwolf, and the book's design, with its huge running BEOWULF footers and page numbers and narrative glosses at the side, is both original and handsome. You can add Rebsamen's small volume for just $5 more and then, if you find you have the victory songs of the Spear-Danes in your blood, go on to Chickering.

W.S. Merwin's Purgatorio also bears a superb dust jacket -- Gustave Doré's depiction of Virgil and Dante ascending the mountain -- and includes the original text, but there the similarity to Heaney's Beowulf ends. Merwin's introduction is focused on himself: he begins by explaining at length how he found just the right translation for a line in Inferno and ends by giving us his versions of Cantos 26 and 27 from that poem, leaving some eight pages for discussion of Purgatorio, not nearly enough. The notes too are skimpy, leaving us to climb Dante's mountain of history and theology with no Virgil.

As for the translation, notwithstanding Pinsky's enthusiasm and Knopf's jacket pronouncement that "this shimmering new interpretation of Dante's great poem of sin, repentance, and salvation will immediately be established as the definitive translation for our time," it's hard to see what Merwin has to offer that predecessors like John D. Sinclair, Dorothy Sayers, John Ciardi, Charles S. Singleton, C.H. Sisson, Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, James Finn Cotter, and Peter Dale (all currently available in paperback) don't. I didn't find his translation particularly poetic -- whereas Sayers and Dale re-create Dante's terza rima, with its interlocking rhyme scheme, Ciardi devises a "dummy" terza rima, and Sisson, Mandelbaum, Musa, and Cotter at least give us iambic pentameter, Merwin offers no explanation of his approach beyond saying, "I wanted to keep whatever I made by way of translation as close to the meaning of the Italian words as I could make it, taking no liberties. . . . And I hoped to make the translation a poem in English." There's the occasional rhyme, and you could describe the verse as a very loose iambic pentameter (one indeed more honored in the breach than in the observance); but to my ear, Merwin lacks grace -- just compare his version of Dante's reunion with Bea-trice with Sayers's (see box below). He isn't even always accurate: the first line given below begins with the words "Io vidi già," which mean "I have seen": Dante is telling us that the arrival of Beatrice is like veiled sunrises he has seen, and that's how previous translators render it. Merwin's "I saw" suggests Dante is telling us he saw the sun rise at that moment in Purgatory, which is not the case at all.

Credit Knopf with providing a facing-page original text (as FSG did for Pinsky's Inferno), but you can get that from Sinclair, Singleton, or Mandelbaum and still have money left over for the swinging English terza rima of Sayers (with her lucid grasp of Dante's theology) or Dale (the entire Commedia in one volume). This is one book you can't judge by the handsome cover: Merwin doesn't show us any stars.

BEOWULF 28-36:


His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down his law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver.


They bore their savior back to the sea
his bones unburned as he bade them do
child of the mist who chased their mourning
loved and led them through the long winters.
Ready at seashore stood a ring-prowed ship
icy and eager armed for a king.
They braced him then once bright with laughter
shaper of hall-songs on the ship's middle-board
hard by the mast.



I saw at the beginning of the day
it was all the color of roses to the east
and a clear sky made beautiful the rest,

and the face of the sun emerged shaded
so that, through the mists that tempered it
the eye could rest for a long time upon it.

So, in a cloud of flowers rising
from the angelic hands and again falling
into the chariot and around it,

wearing an olive wreath on a white veil,
a lady appeared to me, in a green mantle,
and her garments were the color of living flame.


Oft have I seen, when break of day was nigh,
The orient flushing with a rose-red gleam,
The rest of heaven adorned with calm blue sky,

Seen the sun's face rise shadowy and dim
Through veils of mist, so tempering his powers,
The eye might long endure to look on him;

So, even so, through cloud on cloud of flowers
Flung from angelic hands and falling down
Over the car and all around in showers,

In a white veil beneath an olive-crown
Appeared to me a lady cloaked in green,
And living flame the colour of her gown.

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