Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, Or, Why Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Not Anyone Elses'?

I just recently finished reading Seamus Heaney’s magnificent translation of Beowulf (in case you can’t tell, I highly recommend it), and as I read, I was continually bothered by this question: Why Beowulf? There are plenty of suitable ancient/pre-Medieval poems out there. You may have read some of them. But for some reason, the one which every student EVER has been forced to read at some point is Beowulf. This is not a put down on Beowulf, mind you. It’s just unusual.

Why do English departments around the world have a particular bias towards Anglo-Saxon literature, and this one in particular? Maybe because it’s rare. There is only one copy of it, and it resides at the British Library. All other copies disappeared, and the one we have almost burned in a library fire. So is that it? Is it because it’s so rare and valuable that we keep making children read about the fighting prowess of Beowulf and the War-Geats?

According to Heaney’s introduction, reading Beowulf in school goes back to the tradition at British schools such as Oxford and Cambridge of having students translate the poem from the original Anglo-Saxon into English. This gives the reader a firmer grasp and appreciation for the language of the time and the poetic form of the story. Which leads me back to my original question: Why Beowulf?

I turn to Heaney himself to answer the question: “…the poem,” he says in the Introduction, “possesses a mythic potency. Like Shield Sheafson [the mythic founder of the Danish line of kings]…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again like Shield), it passes once more into the beyond” (ix).

I guess that settles it.

Seamus Heaney, photographed in 1989 by North Irish photographer Bobbie Hanvey. Heaney is apparently one of Hanvey’s most photographed subjects, with more than 1,000 portraits taken.

In this photograph, Heaney is standing in a field of peat turves in Bellaghy, in County Londonderry, where he lived at the time. He is wearing his father’s coat, hat, and using his father’s walking stick.

RIP Seamus Heaney

from The Tollund Man in Springtime

“The soul exceeds its circumstances”. Yes.
History not to be granted the last word
Or the first claim … In the end I gathered
From the display-case peat my staying powers,
Told my webbed wrists to be like silver birches,
My old uncallused hands to be young sward,
The spade-cut skin to heal, and got restored
By telling myself this. Late as it was,
The early bird still sang, the meadow hay
Still buttercupped and daisied, sky was new.
I smelled the air, exhaust fumes, silage reek,
Heard from my heather bed the thickened traffic
Swarm at a roundabout five fields away
And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.