Scroll down for Seamus Heaney Reading From Beowulf
Much has ben written about Seamus Heaney, poet and Nobel Prize winner, since his death on August 30, 2013. This tribute will solely be about his use of the word “So” as the first line, and indeed the first sentence of his translation of the epic poem, “Beowulf,” because in its directness and simplicity, it says genius.
SEAMUS HEANEY’S USE OF THE WORD “SO” IN BEOWULF – POETRY AND GENIUS
“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
The Use of the word “So.” both as the first word and the first sentence of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf commands a sense of immediacy, of things happening now, and you being there. It draws you in immediately, and commands you to forget all that was in your past, and to enter into this poem as your present and, as the story unfolds, your future. As such, it is so much stronger than the beginning word in all other translations. Its choice is not only the work of a poet, but the work of a genius. So. How did Seamus Heaney come to the decision to begin his translation of Beowulf with “So.”?
“It is one thing to find lexical meanings of the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work. Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator’s right-of-way into and through a text.” Seamus Heaney, Introduction to Beowulf (Introduction): pp. xxvi – xvi – xvii.
Heaney says that he found the key to the sound of Beaowulf it in the echo of the voices of his father’s relatives, which he calls “big-voiced” “because “when the men of the family spoke, the words the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness … They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance.I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.”
– Introduction, p. xxvii.
GENIUS AT WORK
We may well want to ask Heaney, “Why didn’t you use the conventional introduction, instead of “So,” what were you trying to accomplish? Here is his answer,
“Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tends toward the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and more colloquially-“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously.” Introduction, p. xxii.
In the introduction, he says,
“‘So’ operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” – Introduction, p. xxii.
SEAMUS HEANEY READS BEOWULF
Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster, named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.
The poem’s existence for its first seven centuries or so made no impression on writers and scholars, and besides a brief mention in a 1705 catalogue by Humfrey Wanley it was not studied until the end of the end of the eighteenth century, and not published in its entirety until the 1815 edition prepared by the Icelandic-Danish scholar Grímur Jónsson.” Wikipedia.