Living Roots Awaken

A custodian of race memory,Seamus Heaney was an arch spanning our past and future

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: September 8, 2013 10:51:41 pm

A custodian of race memory,Seamus Heaney was an arch spanning our past and future

Seamus Heaney is gone,one of the last world poets,that dwindling race whose work is known everywhere,who can fill any auditorium anywhere just by being there. Heaney will be remembered largely for his verse. It got him the Nobel and his books account for two-thirds of the poetry market in the British Isles. Amazing,what poetry can get you. And they say it’s an irrelevant,precious art fit only for the internet.

The finest poets are custodians of race memory,mining forgotten veins of language. Archaeologists of the word,they put us back in touch with the forms and rhythms of languages long ago. Speech is a core feature of humanity,so,in a way,poets tell us where we came from. And thereby,they help us to determine where we want to go. They serve as the compass of human progress.

In the mid-Eighties,when he secured a teaching position at Harvard University,Heaney turned word archaeologist for a bit. Perhaps it was fated — Gerard Manley Hopkins,who had forged a powerful idiom out of dying rural accents,was a major influence on his work. But the spur was applied by WW Norton,which commissioned him to translate from the Old English epic Beowulf. “I had a strong desire to get back to the first stratum of the language and to ‘assay the hoard’,” Heaney wrote in the introduction,quoting the epic. He was “opening [his ear to the untethered music of some contemporary American poetry.” Perhaps this was hip-hop,which had already spread out of the Bronx. Heaney saw the translation project as “a kind of aural antidote,a way of ensuring that [his linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor.”

Translating from Old English is daunting,perhaps even more so than translating from Sanskrit in India. The echoes of Sanskrit are clearly audible in modern Indian tongues. Some of the old ways are still part of everyday life. The translator doesn’t have to carry the text across the abyss of time. But the language and the world of Beowulf are remote from modern England. It is a remembered epic,written by a Christian immigrant in Britain but set in pre-Christian Denmark and southern Sweden. Its world of blood feuds and faceless monsters reflects a mix of Christian concerns of morality and human agency and the old Norse world-view,defined by fate or wyrd — “what will be”. And the translator must be painfully conscious of the academic gaze. Though only one copy of Beowulf exists,in the Nowell codex,which was damaged by fire in the 18th century,it is a canonical text which is taught in every English literature department worldwide.

Heaney’s verse translation,daringly presented in parallel text,was published in book form by Farrar,Straus & Giroux in 2000. Perhaps the first major verse translation since Kevin Crossley-Holland’s rendering of 1967,it “was labour-intensive work,scriptorium-slow.” But,as distinct from translations,the epic has been redone again and again. Maybe it’s attractive to reinterpreters because the monster has no face. He only has a name,Grendel. The only other facts known about Grendel are that he is a biped descended from Cain. The rest is left to the imagination.

In The Haw Lantern (1987),Heaney published ‘A Ship of Death’,a translation of lines 26-52 of Beowulf,the first of many fragments which would find a place in the complete translation of 2000. The same year,Larry Niven (of Neutron Star fame),James Pournelle (former president of Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers of America) and Steven Barnes produced a sci-fi retelling,The Legacy of Heorot. In this ecological thriller,“grendels” fight back when humans ravage the environment on the planet Tau Ceti 4. Interestingly,Niven’s work regularly featured the intrepid Beowulf Shaeffer since the Sixties. Did he have the epic hero on his mind for decades?

The next year,in 1988,Golden Age sci-fi writer Poul Anderson retold Beowulf as a modern novel. The most interesting retelling was older — Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (Knopf,1976). His most experimental book,it conflates Beowulf with the 10th century risala of Ibn Fadlan,the Caliph’s ambassador to the Volga Bulgars (the travel diary is notable for the only eyewitness account of a Viking ship burial). The thriller,apparently written in response to an academic friend who found Beowulf boring,is a commentary on the mutability of ancient texts. The 13th Warrior,Disney’s film version with Antonio Banderas playing Fadlan,lost at least $40 million,a superflop. Bafflingly,it also got rave reviews. It’s amazing but a millennium and a half after it was composed,Beowulf still elicits strongly conflicting emotions.

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