Plus ca change...so they say

A newly constructed
barrow stood waiting, on a wide headland
close to the waves, its entryway secured.

Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried
all the goods and golden ware
worth preserving. His words were few:

"Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first
by honourable men. My own people

have been ruined in war; one by one
they went down to death, looked their last
on sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody

to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,
put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed.

The hard helmet, hasped with gold,
will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner
who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;

the coat of mail that came through all fights,
through shield-collapse and cut of sword,
decays with the warrior. Nor may webbed mail

range far and wide on the warlord's back
beside his mustered troops. No trembling harp,
no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk
swerving through the hall, no swift horse
pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter
have emptied the earth of entire peoples."

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death's flood
brimmed up in his heart.

lines 2242-2270
(trans: Seamus Heaney)


Richard said...

La police, ne t'a pas encore trouvé?

Actually, I love that translation you've posted.

Sally Jane Driscoll said...

Chills! Thanks for that! I haven't read Heaney's translation, but now I will.
Don't you think Grendel and his mother could have been the last of the Neanderthals?
Happy Friday,

Osama Bin Tin Man said...

Breaking news for urban intellectuals who view dragons from a distance.

Marva said...

Amazing. I wonder how much the oral telling changed when written down. This is an excellent translation. I don't mean it's necessarily accurate as I haven't read it in the original old English nor the original Norske, but the language is handled beautifully.

Anonymous said...


Stacy said...

Man, that Beowulf. (Dashes tear from eye.) Once its been said right, there's no more to be said.

Xopher said...

Sally, no, they couldn't. Neanderthals were smaller than Cro-Magnons; they didn't die out any more than the C-Ms did (they interbred; we are the descendents of both), and have you been to an English football match lately?

Marva, and you haven't really experienced it until you read it in the original Klingon.

Anonymous, if you're going to post with just your name, why not put a name in the header?

rkcooke said...

Mark Twain wrote the following around the turn of the century. Although not as beautiful as Beowulf, perhaps, it still carries pain. I think it was rejected for publication and found after his death:

"...O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen...."

Anonymous said...

May your hoard / and your people

survive the shark road / of literary agenthood

many a spring / and be warmed through the winter!

--Danny Adams

Jessica said...

This is the translation we wed in my lit class a few years ago. It was really good.

Bugwit Homilies said...

Wow! How moving. Its ancient and yet timely.

Now I have to read it, damn it all.
Throw it on the pile!

Kate Thornton said...

Not boring, Anon - but certainly depressing.

The language is interesting, the imagery is vivid, but it's loneliness and death.

WV: lbigufzi - one big fuzzy?

Jessica said...

obviously, I meant read. I did not marry the book. If I was going to marry a book, it would be something by Joyce or Cather.

mademoiselle m said...

Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l'esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l'horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits...

- C'est beau! De l'air.

A Reader said...

You'd think in 2006 we could finally bring an end to war.

Unfortunately, this poem sounds as if it was written just today.

Ballpoint Wren said...

I'm getting this in audio book. They sold me on the line, "Beowolf was meant to be heard, not read."

Daphne Major said...

I just watched "Everything is Illuminated" last night, and the juxtaposition with this piece is really powerful...if you've seen the images of those boxes of mementoes left over from an entire, annihilated village...you know what I mean. Foer's book was good...but in this case, the saturated images and odd angles of the film made it moving in a totally different way. Thanks for posting something that resonated...

And BTW, my word verification seems slightly obscene: daacfukb

Ananda said...

this brought back memories of reading the story in my high school ... loe your blog. paz, ananda

Writerious said...

War profiteers, take heed.

Sally Jane Driscoll said...

Go to Promega dot com, choose USA if asked, then type Neanderthal in search box. ;))

overdog said...

Miss Snark, this is a perfect illustration of the point you were making in your post entitled "A Life of the Mind."

daringadventurer1 said...

rkcooke: I don't know about it being only published posthumously, but it's the punchline of a longer story set during the Civil War

Ravenna said...

Why is it that human beings, or at least the male half of the human species, is so determined to do this over and over and over again? We say that animals are dumb but I have yet to see dogs or porcupines or whales go to war.

Moon Goddess said...

I have that translation! Such a nice selection :)

odette said...

Actually, it's

"La plus ca change..."

And a very nice translation indeed.

And Mlle M: tres drole.

Ken Boy said...

From a note on WW I, by WLS Churchill:

Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered often slowly in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strenght of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Aftica became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.

Chumplet said...

Oh, now I want to read it. Is the English version available? It reminds me of the Norse tales, and, I admit, LOTR.

Southern Writer said...

Whoa. Beowulf sure didn't sound like that in high school. Thanks for posting it.

I can't help but be reminded of your post yesterday on intellectual pretension. Reading Beowulf requires a certain amount of thought and memory, as opposed to say, chick lit.

As much as we may dump on classic lit, you have to admit it has endured for thousands of years. Do you think (insert your choice of current book title) will endure that long? How about a hundred years? Ten?

Ver: xbigtin
Could there be a football punt in there, somewhere?

Chumplet said...

Pretention aside, if you can understand it and gain something worthwhile from it, it's worth reading. Whether it be King or Proust.
Sorry, Danielle, you're out of the running. And, probably, so am I...
Eh, we'll see.

Anonymous said...

from 'Futility', Wilfred Owens again:

"Was it for this the clay grew tall?
-- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?"

We just never learn. The title of the poem says it all.
-anon chj

Anonymous said...

"Osama Bin Tin Man" has the best comment on this thread.

Sorry for all of you who wonder why we can't all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," but human nature hasn't changed in millennia, and we still need armies to protect us from those who would do us harm.

I'm sure, though, that this simple fact isn't "sophisticated" or "nuanced" enough for the intellectual crowd.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ravenna,

Madeleine Albright, the highest ranking woman in the United States government (now tied with Condi Rice) recently said: "I'm not a person who thinks the world would be different if it were run by women. If you think that, then you don't remember high school."

My own tweenager's experience supports the same conclusion. You can pretend women as well as men don't have a bloodthirsty instinct, but then there they are, walking home from school, in a pack, licking their chops.


Anonymous said...

Osama Bin Tin Man, and most recent anon:

On behalf of two Sons and a Daughter of the American Revolution, sprung from rural founders of Annapolis, thank you for the conjunction of "intellectual" with "urban" rather than "academic." That hits the nail on the head.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

anonymous who said human nature hasn't changed ... we know that. That doesn't change the fact that widespread destruction that we bring on ourselves is sad. By "we" I mean the human race.

I am reminded of The Battle of Blenheim.

Ernest said...

Regarding Osama Tin Man's comment:

"Breaking news for urban intellectuals who view dragons from a distance."

Well, let's see. I live in a major city, I went to college and read a lot of books, and I have never been to a war zone. So I assume you are referring to folks like me.

Thus you might be interested to know that the point of the passage -- that the consequences of war are often surprising amounts of grief and ruin -- was not news to me.

I was hip to that one. (all that "intellectual" reading turns out to be an absolutely crackerjack way of gathering useful information).

Said news does seem to have come as surprise to the folks who are running this country, however. The guy at the top seems to be about as un-urban and anti-intellectual as they come (not much of a reader, either), so by your logic he should have known better, but for some reason the civil war he started seems to have caught him up short.

Call me crazy, but I think this country could use a dash more intellect right now.

And to Miss Snark -- keep posting the poetry! I came to the site for information on agents and publishing, I come back more and more for the poems.

Remodeling Repartee said...


I read this gorgeous translation last year. But you are right in this context, it's all about men. There is one woman mentioned in Beowulf, his mother, and she is mentioned twice. Once, she's praised for giving birth to Beowulf, in the second description, she's pouring mead and praised as "a balm in bed to the battlescarred Swede." (Her husband). It's all men, mead, gold and war. They're born, they fight, they get drunk, they give golden rings to their loyal friends, they fight again, they die. I suppose as an agent, I'd write, "Gorgeous writing. Not for me."

Miss Snark said...

Well...there's Grendel's ma too. She makes a rather dramatic appearance. I kinda like her. She reminds me of ...me.

Bernita said...

Excuse me?
Wealhtheo(w), Hrothgar's queen, is mentioned at least six times.
Don't believe she's Beowulf's mother.