Gitta's Literary Escapades

Just another reader taking on (modern) classics, best-sellers, award-winners, non-fiction, and (guilty pleasure) chicklit armed with common sense, a brain and feminism.
Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Norton Critical Editions) - Unknown, Seamus Heaney, Daniel Donoghue Beowulf: A New Verse Translation - Seamus Heaney, Unknown

Beowulf: A Verse Translation translated by Seamus Heaney

Viking Ships at Sea

Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird
until her curved prow had covered the distance
and on the following day, at the due hours
those seafarers sighted land,
sunlit cliffs, sheer crags,
and looming headlands, the landfall they sought.
It was the end of their voyage and the Geats vaulted
over the side, out on to the sand,
and moored their ship.                    (ll. 217-26a)


Who does not know the name Beowulf, the paradigm of Anglo-Saxon heroic culture? Known for his unworldly strength, his tale reminiscent of that of Hercules, this warrior fights and slays sea-serpents and, of course, Grendel, and Grendel's mother.


Beowulf has long been of interest to scholars, to contemporary writers, and to those in the film-industry. As such, although it has made its way into popular culture, few have read the poem. The translation of my choice is that of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died at the end of August 2013. Why should you read Beowulf? Not only is it a classic, entertaining story, Heaney's translation is enthralling.


Although this story contains many features one might now consider suitable for children, I would advise parents to read through it or to find a child-friendly adaptation. Beowulf is a must-read for those who wish to gain an insight into the tradition on which Tolkien's work draws. The narrative epic poem was one of the prime sources for his writings on Middle-Earth. And no wonder; it's the epic hero at his best! Busy only with slaying monsters and brawling with the other warriors, it is also one of the most famous examples of Old English verse (although arguably not the finest).


Heaney's Translation

The beginning of Beowulf

As a translator, you have to make a couple of decisions, especially when translating poetry. And of course translating Old English verse is even more difficult, given its structure. OE poetry consists of two half-lines and uses head-rhyme (also referred to as alliteration1) and not end-rhyme.


Hwæt! We Gar-Dena     in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,     þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas     ellen fremedon!          (ll. 1-3)



These are the opening lines to Beowulf. I have emphasised which words are stressed through metre and head-rhyme. Notice the break (caesura) in the sentence which, as you can see from the manuscript page, is not found in the manuscript. They have been added by modern editors to differentiate between the a-line (first half) and the b-line (latter half). Both stressed words in the a-line may rhyme (head-rhyme) with the first stressed word in the b-line. Therefore, it is "Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum", and not "Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum".


Adopting this type of verse structure is therefore difficult and very restrictive, but somehow Heaney has managed to successfully use it almost flawlessly, unlike other translators.2


The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen or courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.
But he knowns he need never be in dread
of your blade making a mizzle of his blood
or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter --
from the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear.
He knows he can trample down you Danes
to his heart's content, humiliate and murder
without fear of reprisal. But he will find me different.
I will show him how Geats shape to kill
in the heat of battle. Then whoever wants to
may go bravely to mead, when morning light,
scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south
and brings another daybreak to the world.          (ll. 590-606)


Try reading it out loud (or listening to the audiobook). The metre is so melodious and strong; it's brilliant. Tactfully voicing Beowulf's attitude, Heaney also finds space to incorporate a cheeky chiasmus (see what I did there?) into the line "of your blade making a mizzle of his blood" found in the bl-m-m-bl alliteration. Heaney admits to have preferred "forthright delivery, which led one critic to write that:


[W]e sorely miss the craggy, bejeweled difficulty of the original in Heaney's flattened-out "directness of utterance." [...] It is both restrained and exuberant, often ironic, oblique, ceremonial, sometimes sententious.3


Aside from Heaney's excellence and display of poetic skill in adopting the conventions and features of OE poetry, he manages to convey the strength the narrator tries to bring across, and it becomes easy to imagine how poets may have recited verses such as these in mead-halls.4


Nonetheless, Heaney sometimes makes unlikely choices and overuses alliteration, fails to express the nuances of the Old English kennings, and loses the fortitude of the original.


Ɖā cōm of mōre     under mist-hleoƥum
Grendel gongan     Godes yrre baer.          (ll. 710-11)

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.


The first line is heavy with the sounds of Grendel's heavy gait, which is continued in the second line. The trod is lacking from the first translated line, and Heaney's rendition of the second line contains an assonance of "gr", "cur" and "k", instead of the "g" found in the original, which, like Chickering points out transforms Grendel 'into a sort of hyena' (p. 116) and reduces him to something with an animistic appetite, not a monster that no one has been able to stop.


Although Heaney sometimes loses sight of the sound of the original, the mood it conveys, but it is difficult to see how in modern English you can replicate that assonance satisfactorily. In my opinion, Heaney's translation, although by no means perfect, is the best I have come across in terms of imitation of rhyme. Other translators often offer literal translations which pay no attention to metre or any forms of rhyme, and care only for meaning. As with any translation, there will never be one that will be able to capture the linguistic beauty of Beowulf.



Editions: Norton Critical, Faber & Faber, and Audiobook

The essays in the Norton Critical edition are a great addition if you are reading Beowulf for academic purposes, especially Tolkien's essay 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics', which is still hugely influential for modern scholarship. If you are reading this for school or university, however, you might miss the original Old English. That is why I own an additional version, a bilingual edition published by Faber & Faber, of Heaney's translation.


Another treat, however, is the audiobook of Beowulf read by Heaney, who does a magnificent job. It is, unfortunately, abridged, but Heaney's voice, the metre of his translation, and the story itself make it a five-star experience.



Description & Where to Buy


The original poem and certain translations thereof are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free to read online or on your e-reader or Kindle at Project Gutenberg.



First published:

c. 975-1025 (date of manuscript)

Original title:



Seamus Heaney


Paperback (Norton Critical Edition, 2001)
Paperback (Faber & Faber, 2007)


256 and 218



December 2010

1-3 January 2012


0393975800, 9780393975802
0571230415, 9780571230419





Amazon USA (Norton)
Amazon USA (FF)

Amazon UK (Norton)
Amazon UK (FF)

Book Depository USA

Book Depository UK

Abebooks USA

Abebooks UK





'Viking Ships at Sea' ©James Gale Tyler can be bought on paper or canvas at Global


1 Strictly speaking, in poetry, alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant sounds: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers". However, in verse which relies upon metre (lift/stressed and dip/unstressed syllables), this often means the stress will lie on the second syllable. Ironically, the word "alliteration" itself has its stress on the "l" and not the "a". Therefore, "bold Beowulf" alliterates, whereas "between brethren" does not. The terms "alliteration", "initial rhyme", "beginning rhyme", and "head-rhyme" are often use interchangeably. In the Old English, however, the alliteration/head-rhyme often falls on past participles of weak verbs which frequently begin with "ge-" or "be-" (e.g. gefremedon, past indicative plural of fremman). The stress, though, falls on "gefremedon", not "gefremedon", like "between".  The authoritative text book on Old English is Peter S. Baker's Introduction to Old English, which can be found online or bought at Amazon USA and UK, Book Depository USA/International and UK, and AbeBooks USA and UK.


2 In May 2013, Christopher Tolkien published his father's fragmentary poem The Fall of Arthur written in alliterative verse. Christopher included an appendix explaining the basics to Old English verse. He, however, argues that alliteration is the repetition of neighbouring sounds (assonance (normally defined as the repetition of vowel sounds, not consonants)) and is not limited to the initial letters. To him, "certain" and "uncertain", therefore, is an example of alliteration and assonance, but should be avoided; for he believes Old English alliterative verse is actually head-rhyme. All in all, it's murky territory.


3 Howell Chickering, 'Beowulf and "Heaneywulf"', The Kenyon Review, n.s. 24/1 (2002), 160-78 (p. 164). Found at JSTOR.


4 Scholars have long debated whether Beowulf was orally transmitted before it was written down in the surviving manuscript, or whether it came after.

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