HEY: On Thomas Meyer’s translation of Beowulf

Thomas Meyer, Beowulf: a translation (New York: punctum books, 2012)

By Tom White

The survival of premodern works of literature owes much to chance; those that study such texts at once lament the works we might have lost along the way and, in the face of the numerous potential enemies to their flammable and porous pages and bindings, are thankful that so many have survived at all. The precarious existence of many of the works that now populate the canon of premodern English literature is striking. Those of the “Pearl Poet” – Pearl, Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – survive in a single manuscript, as does The Booke of Margery Kempe. Looking further back, almost all extant Old English (c.550 – c.1150) poetry survives in just four manuscripts (all dating from around the end of the tenth century), a scarcity that serves ultimately to remind us of the impermanent and finally material nature of the premodern text.

The work that modern editors have come to call Beowulf survives in a single copy on folios 129 recto to 198 verso of one of those manuscripts, now known as London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. The manuscript was copied in a monastic centre in the south of England by two scribes, and alongside Beowulf contains a poetic version of the deuterocanonical Biblical narrative of Judith, a prose Life of Saint Christopher, and two works of marvellous geography, The Wonders of the East and Letters of Alexander to Aristotle. It is a collection that includes both prose and verse, narratives of hagiographic and secular heroism, and that bears the imprint of Germanic, oriental and biblical traditions, with all seemingly loosely linked by an interest in the marvellous and monstrous, and the chronologically and geographically distant. The manuscript was nearly destroyed on the evening of the 23rd of October 1731, when a blaze broke out at Ashburnham House, Westminster, the temporary home of Sir Robert Cotton’s manuscript collection. The story goes that librarian Dr. Bentley escaped with the Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest and most complete copies of the Bible, tucked under his arm. Around a quarter of Cotton’s collection was not so fortunate though, destroyed either by the flames or the subsequent water-damage. The Beowulf-manuscript survived but was badly burnt around the edges, and its condition has since further deteriorated.

The question of when Beowulf was composed is in fact two questions: the Vitellius manuscript was likely copied at some time in the first half of the eleventh century, but the original work itself was probably an oral composition with a long history of adaption and embellishment before being committed to writing. Scholars have therefore argued for its origins at various points between the seventh and eleventh centuries, with an earlier critical opinion dating the poem to the late seventh or early eighth century now largely replaced by one that favours a later date sometime in the ninth or tenth. What is clear though is that the pagan age of which the poet writes is one now distant from the Christian society of the second half of the first millennium, a fact underscored by his reference in the first line to the fact that the events to be narrated took place “in geārdagum” [in bygone days]. Beowulf is a work that escapes any kind of definitive generic label, as it looks at once back to the epic tradition, and forwards to the medieval romance, while also invoking elegy, lament, gnomic verse, and exempla, amongst others. It is a poem in some senses comparable to modern works of historical fiction, as fictional heroes traverse a historical landscape rendered at least partly authentic by references to historical kings and (nearly) recognisable locations (while composed in Old English, its narrative takes place in Denmark and in the homeland of Beowulf’s tribe the Geats, who lived in what is now southern Sweden, and the extent to which the Beowulf-poet was familiar with this setting has been one of many areas of disagreement amongst scholars).

The poem is comprised of 3182 lines of alliterative verse in 43 sections of varying length. The language of Beowulf is allusive and its syntax complex. Edwin Morgan provides a decent summary of the poem’s texture in the introduction to his own translation, in which he celebrates both its “rhythmical variety and subtlety,” as well as its “craggy solidity.” [1] In the Beowulf-poet’s hands a relatively comprehendible story is transformed into an increasingly complex plot, within which the focus of the narrative is given to sudden shifts from its focus on Beowulf to long genealogies of tribes and other figures, and a detailing of bitter feuds and broken alliances. These embedded narratives are often referred to as “digressions,” but to do so in many senses belies their structural centrality in a poem that is often as much about providence (divine or otherwise), psychology, and familial and political manoeuvrings, as it is fights with monsters. The Beowulf-poet also frequently employs the mise-en-abîme, the story-within-the-story, with lengthy sections of the poem comprised of Beowulf recounting his battles with Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, first to Danish king Hrothgar and subsequently, after his return home, to his own lord and uncle Hygelac, with one of the rewards of repeated readings the growing realisation that our hero is a somewhat selective story-teller in the finer details of his exploits, depending on his audience.

Beowulf is a poem that struggles to contain a variety of time-frames and temporalities: past, present and future, the historical and mythical, Christian and pagan, are all invoked as the poet weaves an increasingly complex fabric of interlacing narratives. Stories are told and re-told, and themes, images, sounds and objects appear and reappear, or, as in the case of Wiglaf’s sword during the final battle with the dragon, emerge suddenly, freighted with complex histories that erupt into the frame of the poem’s now. Such moments offer, in Gillian R. Overing’s memorable description, “momentary, and visual, prism[s] of past, present and future perspectives, all of which are further imbued with associations and memories, with stories concluded and those about to begin.” [2] Similarly, Grendel’s Mother’s sudden appearance in the narrative in section XIX in order to avenge her son’s death echoes into the past and future of the poem’s narrative as, to quote Roy M. Luizza’s recent verse translation, “It was clearly seen, / obvious to all men, that an avenger still / lived on after that enemy for a long time / after the grim battle – Grendel’s Mother.” [3]

So much of Beowulf that has engaged the popular imagination becomes, on closer inspection, so much more elusive and complex. Grendel, for example, despite many subsequent popular representations, is never described as being green or scaly; he is never, in fact, described fully by the Beowulf-poet at all. Instead, we are offered only fleeting glimpses, first of the “unfæger” [literally un-pretty/beautiful] light of his eyes, and then of his “grape” [grip, i.e. arm] after it is placed on display having been ripped off during the battle with Beowulf. We later learn from Hrothgar that “’he wæs mara Þone ænig man ođer’” [he was larger than any man], and when Beowulf returns from Grendel’s Mother’s lair with his decapitated head it takes four men to carry it. However, while Grendel may be an “eoten” [giant], he is no simple monster, despite his midnight feasting on men. His motive for attacking Hereot at the start of the poem is that he is envious of the music and song he hears emanating from the hall, and, after he has been mortally wounded by Beowulf, his roar of pain is described as “gryreleoð” [a terrible song] and a “wop” [weeping]. Similarly, when Grendel’s arm is displayed after the fight, all marvel not only at its monstrosity, but at its strangely human qualities as well. In translating “grape” Seamus Heaney depicts Grendel’s hand as a “claw,” eliding the uncanniness of his at once monstrous and human limb, complete with a hand with fingers and fingernails (albeit ones that are as hard as steel).[4]

The history of Beowulf-criticism is itself a complex story. As Daniel C. Remein writes in his extensive introduction to Thomas Meyer’s new translation, Beowulf is,

“a poem that many may think we know pretty well, a poem from which we should not expect much new or surprising. However, since the time of the first modern critical attempts to read the poem, critical understanding of Beowulf has undergone a series of radical shifts and transformations whose strange and often deeply embarrassing layers may leave the poem at once closer to hand and more unfamiliar than ever.”

Having lain largely unnoticed for many decades, interest in Beowulf began to increase rapidly from the late eighteenth century. A succession of English, Danish and German scholars laid claim to the poem for different reasons: the English because of its language, the Danish because of its subject-matter, and the Germans because of its setting. In his influential 1936 lecture “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” J.R.R Tolkien argued against the instrumental reading of the poem as a national epic or representation of a Germanic past, instead emphasising a focus on its largely neglected poetics and the central role of the three monsters. The date of Tolkien’s lecture is telling, and while it wasn’t without its own nationalistic allusions, his attempt to reorientate Beowulf criticism towards readings influenced by New Criticism was important in establishing an interest in Old English poetics that would subsequently profoundly influence the work of Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley, Edwin Morgan, W. H. Auden, and many other twentieth-century poets.

The only gap in Remein’s survey is the important work begun by Francis P. Magoun Jr., and developed by Mark C. Amodio, Alan Renoir, and numerous others, in the second half of the twentieth century on the oral poetics of Old English works such as Beowulf that were inscribed to be read aloud rather than silently, glossed over by reference to “a largely historicist and patristic orientation” in order to move rapidly on to the way in which “’theory’ finally hit Beowulf full force in the 1990s” (11). At this time, a strain of readings drawing on feminist, psychoanalytic and gender theory sought to approach the poem anew, in all its enduring strangeness and singularity. The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook (2007), a collection of 23 essays edited by Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey, highlighted the extent to which the poem’s fractured and fragmented narrative of the intersections between memory, history and identity engaged with similar postmodern concerns.

Given the complex history of his source text, it seems appropriate that Meyer’s new translation itself enfolds a certain sense of multitemporality, as well as a serendipitous path to publication: published last year, Meyer originally completed the translation in 1972 while a student at Bard College, New York. As he explains in the preface, David Hadbawnik came across Meyer’s translation in 2011 while working on avant-garde poet Jack Spicer’s own neglected rendering as part of the CUNY “Lost & Found” series (http://centerforthehumanities.org/lost-and-found). Hadbawnik subsequently mentioned Meyer’s version during a conference attended by punctum books co-director Eileen Joy, and the imprint soon became its new home. (My interview with Joy for the GRB can be found here).

Even the most cursory glance at Meyer’s Beowulf will immediately suggest the extent to which it bears little resemblance to either the original text or any of its other subsequent translations. Meyer eschews the conventions of Old English verse as they have been reconstructed by editors, translators and philologists, in favour of an approach that highlights the visual. Gone are the uniform blocks of lines, often dutifully alliterating, that have been the mainstay of Beowulf translations, in their place a radical breaking apart and reassembling into a restless collection of modern forms and styles; its appearance to varying degrees reminiscent of William Carlos William’s Paterson, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Louis Zukofsky’s “A,” as Meyer connects Anglo-Saxon and twentieth-century poetics in a vivid re-imagining.

While the influences of a range of twentieth-century poets are felt at various points, the “Projective Verse” of Charles Olson provides perhaps the most immediate and influential “frame” through which Meyer’s treatment of Beowulf might be viewed, as Remein suggests in his introduction. In particular, the way Meyer uses typography to convey the original’s strong sense of topography, as in the passage describing the journey of Beowulf and his men to Hrothgar’s court, reminiscent of certain sections of Olson’s Maximus poems, where the movement between the two columns of text – the wavily indented sea and solid block of land – mirrors the men’s own journey from Geatland to Denmark:[5]

 Meyer's Beowulf 3000

At a broader structural level, Meyer reconfigures the original’s 43 sections into two distinct halves. The first, “Oversea,” details Beowulf’s time at the court of Hrothgar and his battles with Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, while the second, “Homelands,” his return to Geatland and subsequent “50 winters” rule over his kingdom after his rise to power following the deaths of Hygelac and Hygelac’s son Heardred, and the final battle with the dragon. Meyer also interpolates additional narratives, and, as in the story of Thryth and Offa, expands upon those already in the poem. The additional story of the Bear’s Son during “Homelands” is a loose adaptation of an episode from the Saga of King Hrolf kraki, and is placed immediately after Meyer’s understated translation of one of the more puzzling moments of the poem in regards to the earlier representations of Beowulf: “A noble warrior now / He was once thought a fool” (169). This additional analogue tells the story of “Beewolf,” the bear’s son born to a woman, who is considered a “fool” by his brothers until he kills a beast terrorising a neighbouring king’s “lodge” and returns to the court with its severed head. Such additions may not be to the taste of all, but Meyer is here extending or mirroring the compositional process of the original, rather than simply imposing upon it; just as the Beowulf-poet wove his own text from a number of sources and traditions, so too Meyer threads his own adapted narrative into the poem.

The typography becomes increasingly sparse during “Homelands,” some pages containing only the briefest phrases in an ocean of blank space as Meyer’s translations, like the fading light of the pagan age of which Beowulf speaks, appears to evoke its own entropic quality. After the conclusion of Beowulf’s and Wiglaf’s battle with the dragon, Meyer’s minimal layout captures wonderfully Wiglaf’s re-emergence from the dragon’s lair, in a brief description not present in the original text:

Meyer's Beowulf 3000b

In an interview with Hadbawnik printed as part of the appendices, Meyer discusses his approach to translating Beowulf, acknowledging his debt to Ezra Pound’s translation of the Old English poem The Seafarer. Distancing himself from the role of “real” translator, Meyer in turn places himself in a relationship of contiguity, rather than simple succession, with both the original work, and the many translations that have followed:

“[Pound]’s my model […]. Me, I’m not a “real” translator, someone working hard to be faithful to the original text, at the same time writing good, clear English […]. My excuse for bending and re-shaping the original text, often straying from it radically, are that mine are not the only available translations in English. They weigh heavily on the pan of the scales marked “commentary,” as in “all translation is commentary,” each choice a nudging of the text in a certain direction.”

Elaborating on Pound’s approach to The Seafarer, Meyer’s translation is at once radical and attentive, rooted in a close and sensitive reading of the original. Perhaps most importantly, as Eileen Joy writes in the interview that accompanies this piece, Meyer’s translation at once captures the dark and melancholy heart of the original, while also abandoning the sense of “Serious[ness]” that is attendant on many Beowulf translations weighed down by a desire to do justice to an “epic” poem, and instead “reverse-engineer[s] its verses to really unleash and unhinge the poetry and story, and in a way that — albeit via typographic pyrotechnics — somehow does honor to its likely oral-performative beginnings.” As Morgan wrote in the introduction to his own translation, Beowulf is a work of varied texture and tone;[6] Meyer’s approach captures this sense of restlessness as it shifts between formal registers and typographic experimentations; it is both translation and a “museum of exhibits of modernist experiment” (19).

The very first word of Meyer’s translation, a capitalised “HEY” for the original’s “Hwæt,” is an arresting signal of what is to come. “Hwæt” – which when used as an interjection means something like “lo” or “oh”, but that can also be employed as an adverb meaning “however” or “thus” – has proved notoriously difficult to translate: Luizza goes for an appropriate but slightly pedestrian “Listen!,” Heaney an uninspiring “So.” Meyer’s choice, in the visual and aural equivalence it suggests with “Hwæt,” is both adventurous and urbane, while also oddly appropriate. Similarly, during the battle between Grendel and Beowulf, Meyer’s approach to the original’s knotty syntax – in which it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is doing what to whom – is to run words together, evoking, rather than attempting to reproduce, the breathlessness of the original:

Meyer's Beowulf 3000c

Elsewhere, there is a minimalist elegance to Meyer’s rendering of the description of the fens between Hereot and the site of Grendel’s Mother’s underwater lair – one of the descriptive high-points of the original – into a sequence of short couplets interspersed with single lines, a condensation of the original into a slow accumulation of details that culminates in the alliteration of “firewaters, // flare above / unplumbed fathoms”:

Meyer's Beowulf 3000d

Out with the poem itself, Meyer’s Beowulf contains a number of other inspired touches. There are shades of Pale Fire in the glossary of names in the appendices (“BEOWULF the Geat: (Bee Wolf) noble king of the Geats whose story is worth the telling”), a usual presence in Beowulf editions and translations given its dizzying cast, but one that is rarely handled so imaginatively. The plans of a longboat and a building in Iceland that preface “Oversea” and “Homelands” respectively, and the cover design of a silhouetted figure falling between two longboats in, perhaps, a visual echo of Meyer’s own act of “falling” into the gap between past and present, are similarly beautiful flourishes.

As Hadbawnik suggests in the concluding paragraph of his preface, Meyer’s translation marks an exciting new chapter in the reception of Beowulf in particular, and premodern literature more generally, as open-access imprints like punctum in part enable the confluence of “strains and cliques of poetry, sealed off in advance from certain voices and tendencies” and the academic world of “medieval studies” (3). This is not simply an issue of making works like Beowulf somehow more “relevant” or “accessible” for modern readers though, but rather of tracing potentially transformative lines of interconnection and influence between past and present, of freeing works like Beowulf from the confines of linear literary histories.

[1] Edwin Morgan, Beowulf, 2002, xx.

[2] Gillian Overing, “Beowulf: a poem in our time,” in Clare A. Lees ed. The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, 2012, p.313.

[3] Roy M. Luizza, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, 2000, p.92.

[4] For a reading of the uncanniness of Grendel’s body, and the battle-scene between Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother, interested readers should see chapter two, “The Monstrous Body in Beowulf,” of Dana Oswald’s Monsters, Gender, and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature (2010).

[5] All screen-shots are taken from the PDF version, available for free from punctum books.

[6] Edwin Morgan, Beowulf, 2002, xxix – xxx.