Beowulf

In Michael Alexander’s introduction to passages from Beowulf he writes:

The blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, when he came to St. Andrews asked to be taken to the edge of the North Sea so that he could recite Beowulf at it from memory.

Beowulf is sufficiently intimidating without imagining Borge’s memorising the poem, undoubtedly in original Old English form. How I wish Borges recital was preserved on film.

Searching for references to this event I found Borge’s poem:

Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf”
by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is bewitching. Heaney brings to life this epoch of savagery and heroism. After Beowulf’s battle against Grendel, the Dane king’s joy is dashed after the beast’s mother takes revenge. Bolstering the Dane’s wavering courage Beowulf proclaims his ‘heroic code’:

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
‘Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For 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.
So arise, my lord, and let us immediately
set forth on the trail of this troll-dam.
I guarantee you: she will not get away,
not to dens under ground nor upland groves
nor the ocean floor. She’ll have nowhere to flee to.
Endure your troubles today. Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be.’

To sample another version of Beowulf  I’ve bought Howell. D. Chickering, Jr.’s respected translation and commentary; that is for another time. A quotation from Heaney’s explanation about the urge to translate Beowulf:

Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word ‘whiskey’ is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me.

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