Damned If I Look Back

Two things struck me while visiting Chicago last week.

Firstly, of course, the architecture, with neo-Gothic, Art Deco, neoclassical and Modernist styles combining harmonically to form an exhilarating urban ensemble. Visiting Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings in Oak Park was a privilege I’ve long anticipated. Geniuses both but differently, with Mies dedicating his life to the search for the ideal style, and Wright developing new styles daily.

Secondly, the noise and visual pollution, inside buildings particularly, multiple television screens showing several channels at once, the din of inane country music blaring out everywhere. By the time I retired to my hotel of an evening I aspired to be Morose from Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or The Silent Woman, with heavily carpeted floors and servants in thick socks to muffle the slightest noise. Morose sacks a servant for his noisy boots, which appeared perfectly reasonable after the multiple stressors available in Chicago’s hotels and restaurants.

To read on my trip I took Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, through which I am making delightfully slow progress, and Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, early Heaney still indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins, vigorous consonantal noise to provide balance to Chicago’s urban bellowing.

Heaney opens Station Island with The Underground, his recounting of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Seamus Heaney and Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal

Seamus Heaney finished this poem 10 days before he died, meditating on the serene beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.


Banks of a Canal

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

The Waste Land for iPad App

The Waste Land for iPad app is the first digital, literary edition that enhances its book equivalent. Before Touch Press’s production, the e-book’s advantages offered little to capture my attention.

Fiona Shaw’s performance of the poem is problematic. Personal, and a touch histrionic, but nevertheless it provides an interpretation of the poem that is revealing. A favourite since I first encountered the poem in my teens, The Waste Land is cryptic and can bear multiple interpretations. Those of Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson are refreshing.

The best bit of this edition are the facsimile copies of Pound’s hand-written edits of the manuscript.


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.

Heaney’s Beowulf Introduction

From Seamus Heaney’s introduction to Beowulf:

This has contributed to the impression that it [Beowulf] was written (as Osip Mandelstam said of The Divine Comedy) ‘on official paper’ which is unfortunate, since what we are dealing with is a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language.

It is an introduction that leads the reader into Beowulfwith great anticipation.