Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf

The recent death of that lovely man, Famous Seamus, brought forth a groan from the British and Irish alike. He belonged to us all. For some reason I was channel hopping mid-morning the day of his funeral and the BBC were showing the service in Dublin in real time, no commentary, just background shuffling and coughing and then the address by the priest. I felt like I’d gate-crashed a family affair, found myself at a funeral with a mug of coffee in my hand, and didn’t stay too long, just long enough to listen to the moving eulogy. Royalty had died for sure, and there was a new poet in the great Library above. I love it when those who reach the highest rung of the literary – or any – ladder deserve it. Heaney was a hero.
To mark the passing the BBC made Beowulf the Book of the Week this week (and perhaps last, too, on a different scheduling –  I kept picking up different episodes in apparently random order while I did the ironing or made bread).
Beowulf is something I’ve struggled to connect with over the years. I bought the Heaney translation as a last ditch attempt to get into it, but it has sat in the unread pile ever since. Suddenly I was moved to blow the dust off it, to seek out episode 1 on iPlayer, and to read and listen simultaneously. I only just caught episode 1 – there was  one hour left to listen.  I left episode 2 too long and it had vaporised before I remembered – but since then I’ve been doing accelerated catch-up to make sure I don’t miss any more.
Last night it was so cold that I hung in that Otherworld between waking and sleep, and I dreamt words. During the day I’m reading King of the North by Max Adams, about Oswald of Northumbria, and last night in bed I started on the opening pages of A Game of Thrones. In that bitter cold and a long time on the threshold of sleep, the mind got active trying to remember the genealogy of the Bernician kings, or recap the characters in Thrones, but when I finally did fall asleep, the words began: ‘Heorot’, ‘mere-pools’, ‘bone-lappings’, a king called ‘Hrothgar’, a wonderblade called ‘Hrunting’ – all those guttural sounds in a gentle Irish accent – and I woke up knowing that Beowulf had won the contest and was now in my bloodstream. Suddenly  I’m taking notes and looking up words like ‘Geat’ and ‘Scyldings’. And this of course is the way to read so that a book becomes memorable, marking the pages, taking notes, running over it in the mind, really connecting. Too often my reading is governed by getting to the last page and moving on, moving on. It’s no wonder I forget so much. I think this is called ‘study’ – it’s been a long time…
I must press on and catch up on episodes 6 to 8 today and perhaps also cram in another viewing of Michael Wood’s Beowulf  that never got deleted from the hard drive. Expect more dreams tonight? Hope so! Thanks to Seamus, I’ve got the rhythm and lilt of the earliest English poetry pulsing in my veins. It’s as if I’m an Anglo Saxon in my sleep, haunting great halls decked with golden treasures – clasps and hilts of inlaid garnet wreathed with serpents, sorry, that is to say, ‘worm-wreathed’.

Meanwhile a thane

of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,

a traditional singer deeply schooled

in the lore of the past, linked a new theme

to a strict metre.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I have Mr Heaney reading Beowulf on CD – and of course it is meant to be listened to not read (the same as Shakespeare is meant to be watched on stage, not read from a textbook as schools insist upon – but don’t get me started on the dire way schools ‘teach’ Shakespeare….) I was also fortunate enough to attend a live performance by Mr Heaney several years ago at the National Theatre.
    I don’t know whether to say I am ashamed or delighted to admit that I fell asleep half way through.
    Ashamed because how could I sleep during such a profound event – delighted because the reading was so beautiful and relaxing. I dozed because I literally drifted,100% content, into that peaceful place of sleep.
    Fortunately I didn’t snore back then…

  2. He was a truly great man. He was from rural Co. Derry though, not Belfast. Don’t mean to nitpick, please forgive me! It’s just that sense of place was so important to him, it seems important to get it right.

    1. Eleanor, apologies for delay in replying. I was away when your comment arrived. You are quite right. In my natural state of befuddlement, I confused Bellaghy with Belfast. It’s important to get everything right, so I’m editing the post. Many thanks for your care and concern.

  3. how can I acquire a copy of the cd audio of “Beowulf” please help?

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