Friday, April 01, 2011

An excuse to talk about Beowulf!

It's pretty impressive that Anglo-Saxon poetry gets as much attention as it does, considering that only about 30,000 lines of it exist. (That sounds quite respectable until you compare it with ancient Greek poetry: The Iliad and the Odyssey together are about 27,000 lines, and there's a lot more besides.) It also has against it the fact that some of that poetry is really bad religious poetry. Some of it is nice, good, vibrant religious poetry, and some of it is complete drivel, the equivalent of unoriginal poetry about springtime. And last but not least, it is in a form that somehow managed not to evolve at all for like five hundred years, which makes it look like a loser in the literary scheme of things.

Oh, and it's alliterative, which Chaucer thought was lame.

Therefore, when someone who is not an academic shows interest in these poems, I am always surprised. And at first delighted. And then annoyed. Because the people who show interest are always poets, and they always manage to say rude things about the academics who did all the heavy lifting that makes it possible for anyone to translate anything at all. For example, there is a new book coming out called The Word Exchange, in which various current poets translate various Old English poems. I think it looks pretty awesome and someday when I have spare money I will almost certainly buy it. But, I did not appreciate what the editor had to say about the book:

"What's so great about this - all Anglo-Saxon poetry has been translated by scholars and academic people. It has generally been very accurate but not always great poetry. They couldn't get that kind of energy into it."

PARDON ME, SIR. This aggravates me in so many ways I need bullet points to address it.
  • It is not a new thing for poets to translate from the Anglo-Saxon. Ezra Pound did it in 1912. Seamus Heaney did it in 1999. A bunch of other people have done it in between. This has been going on fairly steadily for a hundred years.
  • It is the express duty of scholars to be accurate. Scholars of Old English are necessarily also historians, and they all have their own interpretations of history, which affect their translations of the poem. They translate the poem to communicate a new interpretation. There is plenty of energy in it, but it's a kind that poets aren't built to recognize or particularly care about.
  • It is the express duty of poets to be loosey-goosey, touchy-feely, and artsy-fartsy. If you want extreme violence (referring here to Beowulf) beautifully rendered, you go and read a translation by a poet. If you want extreme violence as expressed by the people who knew about it -- regardless of how they expressed it -- go for the scholar.
  • The difference between the translations of poets and scholars is only in their approach. Poets are trying to create a version of the poem that will evoke the same feelings in their modern audience that the original version evoked in the Anglo-Saxon audience. They're interested in the experience of the poem, whereas scholars are interested in the Anglo-Saxons. They want to get as close to the original version as possible, because that's what moved the Anglo-Saxons. It isn't about how you are feeling, it's about how they were feeling, and what in the text made them feel it. If you can get there, you're closer to knowing who they were.
I think it's necessary to have both scholars and poets working with these poems, and happily for us, we all have the capability to reconcile both of their approaches in our heads. And since we don't need to choose sides, I see no reason for derision and insults. That goes for everyone, not excepting the scholars who refer to Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation as Heaneywulf, with the snide implication that it is more about Seamus Heaney and Ireland than it is about Beowulf. Which may be true, but it's still an exceptionally good version of the poem.

Anyway, because so few people care at all about poetry, much less Anglo-Saxon translations, I really just wanted to point out that academics are probably a reasonably large part of the market for this book and it's probably unwise to give interviews in which you basically refer to them as cultural boors. The end.


Anonymous said...

I have only read versions of Beowulf that have been very much glamorized (slightly more elevated, I hope, than the Classics Illustrated comic book series [ ]from which I learned many things), so I cannot comment on the validity of either side's stand. But it was a great tale for a 10 year old, along with other heroes like Robin Hood, Davey Crockett and Marshall Dillon, and it was long before I learned about Hobbits and others who are now a staple in our mythological diet.

Poets and academics discussing Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry or just about any other topic, is pretty much the same as Biblical Literalists discussing the origins of the universe or of life or the existance of dinosaurs with a cosmologist, biologist or paleantologist. Neither side gets very far convincing the other of their own point of view. Generally, I think that the discussion frustrates the poets and the literalists because they cannot make the others understand, and simply annoys the academics and scientists because they feel that it is so obvious that their own opinions are correct that no discussion is needed.

... Besides any pretense at intellectualism in this comment, I started to wonder how many polysyllabic "ics," "ists" and "isms" I could include...Just enough, I think, to annoy, and insufficient to impress.

Simon said...

I'm going to have to check out this Classics Illustrated series now that I know it is responsible for a significant amount of your literary background. It's actually rather a high-minded project, and I have always believe that many a classic could be improved by pictures. Also, if I could have been spared the miserable slog through The Count of Monte Cristo, I would have been very grateful. Kind of a shame they stopped printing them.

I doubt if the poet/literalist crowd and the academic/scientist crowd will ever win over anyone on the other side. In the end, there's a lot to be said for pluralism . . . except in the case of Biblical Literalists, who are obviously delusional!