22 March 2007
As a student of Anglo-Saxon literature, I am not about to write a review of Beowulf itself. That one's easy: read it! It's a wonderful piece of our literary heritage. What I would like to do here is review the translation by Seamus Heaney, first printed in 2000 and now considered one of the finest translations in some time. I'm ashamed to admit that it's taken me so long to read it. I've had it at the back of my mind but unfortunately not at the front of my checkbook for a while now. One of the benefits of being in grad school, however, is access to a very substantial library. I recently located the section on Anglo-Saxon literature and happily checked out this book.
This particular version is published by Norton (2002) and contains, in addition to Beowulf, a very helpful introduction by Seamus Heaney himself. It turns out that he is a native of Belfast and as such has the benefit of an Irish heritage. He explains how this helped him to complete the translation: in some places, he chose a Celtic word to indicate the Anglo-Saxon meaning, because we do not have an English word that accomplishes this. As a linguist, I am not sure if this is what may be called "kosher" (given the complete etymological differences between Irish and Anglo-Saxon words), but as a student of literature I was delighted. The result is an amazing sense of authenticity in the translation. Beowulf was written in another language, so it should feel a little foreign. The occasional sprinkling of Celtic words did this. Seeing a word like "thole" or "kesh" gave me the sense that I was reading something from a different world. And truth be told, the dialect of the Ulster region in Northern Ireland is not so far removed from Old English; the inhabitants of that area were originally from northern England and southern Scotland and mingled heavily with the Irish natives when they immigrated to Ulster. The mingling of languages was not unexpected, so Celtic and early English words probably live on in an Ulster tradition.
As for the poem itself, Heaney did a fabulous job of translating it. It moves very comfortably, and at just around seventy pages is a reasonably easy read. Heaney found a nice balance in matching the Anglo-Saxon poetic form, retaining it in some places and ignoring it in others. Obviously, no translation is perfect, and Heaney found that to force the half-line onto modern English actually destroyed the meaning in some places. He also does what he can with alliteration, but not to the point of being ridiculous. Anglo-Saxon poetry thrived on alliteration; English poetry does not always work that well. Here is an example from Beowulf:
Him þa ellenrof andswarode,
wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc,
heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces
beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama..." (340-344)
Notice the use of alliteration. It's quite beautiful in Anglo-Saxon, but making this work in modern English is a bit trickier. Here is Heaney's translation:
The man whose name was known for courage,
the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,
answered in return: "We are retainers
from Hygelac's band. Beowulf is my name..."
There is a hint of alliteration, but not too much. I think it works better this way.
What I like best about the Heaney translation is its sense of familiarity. It feels as though someone is telling this story in my language--and isn't that what this kind of poetry is supposed to convey? Yes, this was undoubtedly "high poetry" meant to tell an exalted story of a hero; but I always get the feeling that Beowulf is the kind of poem that a bard would have recited in a great hall, after a large meal, with a massive fire roaring in the background. It wasn't meant to be stilted, so why should we try to read it that way? Heaney's translation is conversational and friendly. Anyone can pick this up and enjoy it. The meaning isn't difficult; the language isn't a challenge; it's a universal story for everyone to appreciate.
One of the benefits of the version that I read is the addition of Tolkien's great lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." I strongly advise anyone who reads Beowulf to read this as well. It has become one of the defining analyses of the poem and affects how we read it today. What is more, it shows just how well Tolkien understood the material and just how much he loved it. He was not a heavy-handed analyst. He didn't sit around picking poetry apart for the sake of saying something brilliant and profound. Tolkien loved it for its own value as a part of English heritage and encouraged people to simply read it for the same reason. Now that is a literary critic I can appreciate!
Overall, I give a big thumbs-up to the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and the Norton version in particular. It's well worth the effort.
16 March 2007
At the risk of sounding heretical, I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of poetry. Sure, I enjoy poetry for its aesthetic value: I love the beauty of a well-written poem, one that somehow manages to (as my teacher used to say) "make the familiar strange." And, as Pope put it, a good poem can express "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." But I don't usually go out of my way to read poems, and there are maybe four or five poets in total that I enjoy reading. Most poetry, though, just seems like a great deal of work, and I tend to drift off as I drag myself through it.
But then there's John Donne. Donne is one of the few poets I love. His poetry can be quite a challenge to understand at times, but I always feel as though the effort was worth it in the end. And then I have moments of pure bliss when I realize how perfectly he has constructed a turn of phrase. No one could write like John Donne.
One of my teachers commented that Donne is a bit too "flashy" for her taste. I should point out that she means flashy in a 17th-century way. Donne seemed to keep everything pretty highly tuned. He was extremely clever, and you kind of get the feeling that he knew it. I can almost picture him grinning as he wrote--knowing full well that he was creating something brilliant. Donne was probably one of those people who made himself laugh. Normally, such people repell me, but for some reason Donne doesn't. Perhaps it is just the awareness of sheer genius and completely perfect poetry. As I said, there's no one like John Donne.
Since there is no reason to go on and on without providing some kind of example, here's one of my favorites, "Air and Angels" (taken from www.luminarium.org):
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be.
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught;
Thy every hair for love to work upon
Is much too much ; some fitter must be sought;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scattering bright, can love inhere;
Then as an angel face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air's and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be.
[Source: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 21-22.]
Donne was considered one of the Metaphysical poets, in that he explored the concept of human spirituality. One thing that made him so fascinating was his attempt to merger physicality with spirituality. He did not view the body as inferior to the mind and considered sex to be an absolutely beautiful expression of joining body and soul. Donne is famous for creating physical metaphors for spiritual things and vice versa. This has given rise to the accusation that he is sacrilegious at times, but I think this is to misunderstand his purpose. Donne is simply trying to find a new way to express human love or divine love, and he often does so in breathtakingly brilliant ways. Here's another favorite of mine, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
[Source: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 51-52.]
In addition to love poems, Donne wrote some of the most exquisite religious poems in the English language. His Holy Sonnets are written in the voice of a humble sinner who understands only too well the power of God's grace. For instance, Sonnet XIV:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
[Source: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 165.]
I can't help but say it: this is really good stuff. My personal favorite in his collection is one that I've decided not to post. It's an elegy entitled "To His Mistress Going to Bed," and it's quite racy; but it manages to be charming at the same time, and I've always enjoyed it for its grin factor. (So, look it up! It will make you smile.)
So, here's my tribute to John Donne. He's one of the few poets I can bear to read, if only because he manages to human without agonizing about it. My highest recommendation for Donne: if you've never read his poetry, get thee at once to the library (or Luminarium...) and get started.
02 March 2007
Adam Bede surprised me. Having read Tess of the D'Urbervilles recently, I was expecting something reasonably similar and thus reasonably repetitive. In one sense, Adam Bede was just this: a story about a young country girl who is seduced (and consequently ruined) by a member of the local gentry. In another sense, the story was completely different and, to me, far more interesting.
I realize this is a classic and as such, many people will be familiar with it. So, I hesitate to spend too much time summarizing the plot. For the purpose of a useful review, however, I want to run through a few main points. Adam Bede is essentially the story of a love triangle. Adam is the local rising star among the laborers, a very bright young man with an even brighter future as a carpenter. He is in love with Hetty, a very attractive young woman who apparently has the face of an angel (such are the descriptions). Meanwhile, Arthur is the squire of the community, heir of the estate and highly respected among the locals. Hetty has high goals, and Arthur cannot help but fall for the beautiful young girl. They begin meeting secretly, even as Adam continues to court Hetty, with her family's full approval. Arthur, of course, has no real intention of marrying Hetty, but does not realize how dangerous it is to play with her heart. And Hetty allows herself to get caught up in visions of grandeur, imagining herself as the admired wife of the squire, turning up her pretty nose at any thought of marrying a common laborer. So far, pretty predictable.
Everything takes a new turn, though, when Adam discovers that Arthur and Hetty have been meeting. He forces Arthur to accept his folly and insists that he (Arthur) stop seeing Hetty at once. Arthur is a good-natured man at heart and writes Hetty a letter breaking everything off. Hetty gradually accepts the change and consents to an engagement with Adam, only to run away a couple of weeks before they are married. She goes in search of Arthur, cannot find him, and basically falls off the map for a while. Adam goes after her, and the next we hear of Hetty is when she is being tried for the murder of her child. Now, it was at this point in the story that I sat up and said, "What?!!" What promised to be rather predictable had suddenly become very interesting. (It is perhaps unfortunate that scandal does this to us.) What is so brilliant about this twist is not that it happens but that George Eliot does not really prepare the reader for it. We follow Hetty in part of her wanderings for Arthur, having no idea that she is pregnant and soon to have a baby. We only know that she is depressed and very confused. No kidding--I get it now. In retrospect, I could probably figure it out, but there is no clear indication in the story that it will happen until it does. And then we have Hetty denying it for a while, making it even more fascinating. There is a trial and another twist, and then everything begins to wind down a bit.
I realize that I've just given away major spoilers in the story, but Adam Bede is not exactly fresh off the printing press, so I'm guessing that many people are already familiar with it. I hope, however, what I've said doesn't keep people from reading the book, if they haven't already. The shock aside, this is really a good book. The writing is solid, the plot is well developed, and the characterization is excellent. George Eliot had a rural background, so she does an exceptional job of presenting "country" people is an authentic way. The dialogue reads authentically, and the characters themselves are very believable. In particular, the development of the characters Adam Bede and Dinah Morris (who is an integral part of the plot, although not in the love triangle) is some of the best I've seen. With Dinah, Eliot has managed to create a character who is preachy without being sanctimonious. Dinah's dialoge is sprinkled rather generously with quotes from Scripture--something that usually fails to establish that character as being humble--but with Dinah it works. She is genuine and genuinely likable. In fact, she is in many ways the hub around which everything turns, but her gentle modesty keeps her just outside the main focus.
It is difficult to talk about Adam Bede without discussing the religious stance of the story. Dinah is a supremely religious character, but in an odd way: she is a Methodist in a heavily Anglican society. Eliot takes it for granted that most of her readers will be Anglican and her more conventional religious figures are certainly Anglicans. Her story is not an argument for Methodism, although it isn't a strong endorsement of the Anglican church either. It seems to me that Eliot--who was something of a free spirit--is calling for genuine Christianity, regardless of the sectarian source. This isn't to say that genuine Christianity is a radical idea, but that at the time it might have ruffled a few feathers, especially coming from her. After all, this was a woman who embraced some pretty bizarre religious ideas in her time and never married the man with whom she lived. In the 1850s, this would have been something scandalous indeed. Nevertheless, while I don't agree with everything that Eliot says, I find much of her arguments (via the characters) refreshing and worth thought. Her characters ask questions without ever stepping outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and I don't know that there is anything inherently wrong with analyzing one's beliefs.
So...to conclude, I recommend Adam Bede as a classic that can still be appreciated in our modern world. The story is poignant and the themes timeless. Truly a great book.