On Translating Beowulf

Three battered exercise-books and an old text
have lain in a quiet corner of the room
that is the jumbled glory-hole of my mind
for fifty years.
In attics, garages,
boxes and dusty shelves, in villages, towns,
grim single rooms, chaotic family houses,
in the West and East of the world, still huddled together,
they have had a place in the moving caravan,
the farcical roadshow of my here-and-there,
the breathing wildweed garden of where I am.

And in a cavern that I cannot see,
its floor a sky of stars, that by some means
I ramble in, and touch the words of others,
still since the first light, there has been a pulse,
a constellation traced out once and left,
not quite forgotten, a dim outline, waiting.

I open the black hardcover text. Loose pages
half-protrude, the spine is bare. Inside
nothing is missing. Again it comes to me,
the boat of Beowulf. And the laughter of men,
a speech in the beer-hall, and the warmth of the bond
between a liege lord and his hearth-companions.
I am back in time, again a page in the book
is a page in my head, again the sheet is branded
by a phrase that fastens on the mind, the force
of interlocking words. It is the knuckle
of a monster-slaying hand-grip, it is the flash
of an underwater sword. Now less familiar
the lines still rustle in my blood. In time
a modern minstrel will step out before
a shadowy audience of Swedes and Danes
and their descendants, and of all the tribes
that speak an island language somewhere in
an island world. But first I shall revisit
the far-off sense, and travel in the text
till near enough to start to tell a story.

What a find was this. A single manuscript
that two scribes wrote a thousand years ago.
Scorched by an eighteenth-century fire, some words
crumbled away, two pages charred, a hoard
of ancient wealth no dragon guards.
They fly
through the air, harsh birds, no-one can catch them now,
savage and strangely tinted. Can you ascribe
exact word-value to a handful of sounds
barked out in who knows what mix of tradition?
But this is poetry. A step on the human way.
Three thousand lines of stick-words from the past
can roar with warmth. I close the tattered edition.

When first I opened it and heard a story
singing in Heorot, I drew closer to
the hearth in that great hall. And over time
(for every day of a summer-long vacation)
I set down what I heard in my own tongue.
One faded green and two red exercise-books
have safely stored a patchwork rough transcription.
Now leafing through the three, my heart is weeping
for the boy I was, that he has followed me,
waiting an age for me to see his work
and turn to it again. Foolish doodles
and half-illegible notes, and line by line
a quick meticulous sketch, even to the end,
of a voice that sang, of notes that played, and all
the pictures in the flames a youngster saw
as he sat beside the hearth in the great hall.

I know more now. Especially of death
I have learned the way. The meeting’s exclamation
silenced, as a journeying soul has gone
its other way: and a countenance that’s known
even as one’s own, is snatched off. In a second
an impossible shock, a syllable for a life.
And I have known a kinder going too,
as Wiglaf with his liege lord at the end.
But of my own blind turn I can see nothing.

I have learned a little, it may be, of friendship;
and too much of its foolish younger brother,
the false companionship that blots out silence.
Unferth is in my head – I have heard him,
I have been him. A man of lies and boasting,
at once repudiated, at once forgiven.

I have learned of work. A soldier in the ranks
I have borne arms. Yet all my work was this:
to cleanse the trace of Grendel from our schools.
There is a front line that a teacher serves in.
Still I have known the crash of actual war,
the darker and more furious mother of evil,
as if in the next room. Over and over
the ordinary man or woman is a hero,
scorched by the dragon, coolly carrying on.
Beowulf is for them, a thronging army
of epithets of battle is for them;
and kingship is for them, the courtesies
at court, and all the sharing-out of treasure.
It is the noble in each one of us
that keeps his promises. This I have known,
too little understood by the grown boy.

But something I knew then is still in me.
From early childhood up to my last day
it calls aloud. Especially of life
I have learned the way. It is a tale of action
and when inactive, then to know of action.
And so my first task is to find a form
to mirror movement. It is the poem’s breath
by which it too can call aloud. So art
can catch the beauty in the drift of things,
to mirror feeling.
But this poem is active.
Loud with the clatter of mail, the lust for honour,
the clash with the race of Cain. Deep with the spirit
of risk, blind going, and above all of giving.
It is a song of gladness and of grief.
Like the sad lady with the looped-up hair
who sang a lay of mourning at the pyre
when the wind dropped, and the noise of weeping
mixed with the noise of the flame, so I shall sorrow.
Like the old king who shouted out his thanks
to the warrior lord who saved his land, so I
shall exult; and like the tremor of the swan-road,
so I shall whisper the movement of the wind
in the wide world.
It is a hundred half-years
since a small deed of honour was put by.
I can do little to unlock the word-hoard
of the Magna Carta of English poetry.
But each new trial of words in a ramshackle life
re-starts the inner works, brings it to order.
It is firstly for myself I go to my desk
and clear a space. To say I celebrate
a thousand years of the English written word
with this intent, to lay a hand on the past
and make it present, is too proud a thing.
But let it be my pride. And secondly
to turn the cover of an old exercise-book
to the first page, to open a battered text,
is not for my grey and ageing self at all.
It is for each brave dawn of the new Earth.

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