In Heaney’s translation he provides us with the original version right next to the translated version. It is impossible, though, to fully appreciate this poem without being fluent in Old English. So much of the alliteration and word choices can not be effectively translated.
The poetry does not move like some poetry moves. I am thinking, for example, of a poem like “Dover Beach”. “Dover Beach” carries you from one word to the next and from one line to the next with very little effort. The delivery in “Beowulf” is forthright and matter-of-fact. This is how Heaney wanted it but, in modern English, “Beowulf” is a better story than it is a poem due to the fact that the poetic elements do not translate well.
The rhythm of the poem changes very little throughout the poem, and so the only variety one can hope for is in the story-line itself, and in this regard we are not let down. And it is the strength of the story line that is the most important aspect of Heaney’s “Beowulf”. Nonetheless, some passages, in their poetic ability to inspire and move, are very good. Lines 710-716, for example.
710 In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold.
The alliteration using the “g” sound in line 711 is very effective in planting an image of Grendel “loping” in the reader’s mind. Part of the movement here is provided by rhyming words such as “came” in line 711 and “bane” in line 712. Rhyming was not a part of Anglo-Saxon poetry and yet we see the power of rhyme in passages like this one; this passage moves and scares, and we can imagine Grendel slowly moving as we read along! I could probably count the number of rhymes in this translation on both hands. They are so rare, in fact, that when they are used they pop off the page and lend a breath of life and vitality into the poem that the strict structured meter alone simply cannot do. I relished passages like the one above that utilized rhyming.
I also enjoyed many of the lofty, “dramatic” lines that are sprinkled throughout the poem. Lines 1059-1061, for example.
for long here in this earthly life
will enjoy and endure more than enough.
It is a pearl of wisdom — high dramatic poetry if you will. It reminds me of the line “Time enough to rest in the grave!” uttered by Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. They make you pause and think for a little bit. More significantly, they have the power to change the way you move through life, the way you act. Whenever I am tired and I don’t feel like doing something, I say to myself, “Time enough to rest in the grave!” Then I do what I have to do! And now, whenever I grow melancholic about my mortality, I can remind myself that whatever I “enjoy and endure” will be “more than enough”!
These dramatic lines also point to the nature of the warrior. He is all or nothing. He lives life large and his decisions are decisive and sweeping. Let’s look at the following lines…
1384 “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
or every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
Every sentence in this passage qualifies for being a pearl of wisdom! And the language is bold: “It is alwaysbetter…”, “…his best and only bulwark.” These are not wishy-washy statements. They are sure and sweeping, leaving no room for error or confusion. We do not read, for example, that “It is sometimes better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.” The poet is making a very definitive statement about the warrior life and code. It is always better.
Weaponry is treated with much respect, and it is even worthy of blame. On two occasions, for example, we read how Beowulf’s weapons let him down. The first occasion concerns his sword as he is fighting Grendel’s mother, and the second occasion concerns his shield as he is fighting the dragon.
1523 …the shining blade
refused to bite. It spared her head and failed
the man in his need.
Both the poet and Beowulf, moreover, recognize God as the one who ensures victory.
1053 …holy God
decided the victory. (poet)
1688 It was hard-fought, a desperate affair
that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me…(Beowulf)
I was surprised, however, by the fleeing of Beowulf’s hand-picked army. I did not expect this. You would think that Beowulf’s hand-picked army would not do what they did. Confusing. Perhaps it is to further illustrate that precious few good warriors exist. Beowulf, after all, is the only one out of two whole kingdoms who can conquer Grendel and Grendel’s mother. In this light, the story takes on a fantastic quality. Beowulf is endowed with superhuman qualities and is regarded as a mighty warrior and hero. But it appears that Beowulf was not always well-regarded. Reading the passage beginning at line 2183, there is this casual mention of Beowulf once being undeserving. It is not clear, however, whether Beowulf was indeed once undeserving, or whether the perception of him was that he was undeserving. What purpose did the Beowulf author intend it to serve? If, in fact, he was once undeserving, then why not commence the story with a passage describing this quality? The notion of a man overcoming the adversity of a bad public image makes for a good story. Perhaps the Beowulf poet recognized this but did not want the story to focus on it. Well enough to drop it in… a secondary theme, perhaps, reminding the reader that all of us are faulted, even the mighty Beowulf. It echoes the Christian theology that the warrior cultures are being exposed to, and it foreshadows such work as the “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and its theme of the danger and illusion of pride and arrogance.